Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Is it time to get off your laurels?

Solar, by Ian McEwan

As we get older, we get a little lazier.  Most of us just don’t have the drive and stamina we once did, but we have to plod along regardless, hoping we can get away with it, perhaps a little longer.  Even worse, some of us get to high places, not through our determination and drive, but through dumb luck.

Take someone who is born into a wealthy family, sent to choice schools, spoon fed status, and you’ll likely see that person placed nicely on a satin cushion, somewhere.  Michael Beard has enjoyed the satin cushion of being a highly respected physics professor, a Nobel prize winner, largely through the dumb luck handed down to someone born into privilege. This novel presents him in his fifties, at a time when his younger colleagues are juggling theories he can’t even comprehend, when he has to rely on popular science magazines to keep up with physics, and can’t even find the concentration to read proposals that he nevertheless endorses.  

As he looks at himself in the mirror, he wonders  “What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive?  That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear…  Now human blubber draped his efforts.  How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as she was?  Had he honestly thought that status was enough, that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed?”  (She is the fifth beautiful wife who has attached herself to him because of his glory.)  Not only is he losing his touch with the ladies, even worse, when presenting at a conference, he finds that he is no longer capable of playing “…a postmodern crowd with well developed antennae for the unacceptable line,” so he blunders through speeches and makes himself notorious.  Nevertheless, his luck stays largely with him, despite his not deserving it at all.

If this weren’t such a funny book, it would be a harsh read.  Here is a renowned scientist so cynical that he bristles when someone says “...the planet was in peril.”.  He thinks  “...that moronic word again-- but because someone was telling him it was with such enthusiasm.  This was what he disliked about political people--injustice and calamity animated them, it was their milk, their lifeblood, it pleasured them.”  He is overwhelmed by a solar energy idea he flippantly proposed, but underlings grabbed onto, and now it carries him along, having to pretend he cares about saving the environment.  He steadily schemes to protect and promote himself, with appalling disregard for not just the environment, but also his own family members. 

We all get tired eventually.  This hilarious book pokes fun at the lazy, and the tired.  It wouldn’t be funny if the main character was someone who struggled with challenges throughout a lifetime, but this patrician is fair game.  But as literature therapy, it’s a good reminder that it’s too easy to rest on laurels, and that perhaps rather than blustering our way, maybe we need to consider what talents we realistically have left, and bow out wisely, before it’s too late.

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