The contributor notes for this issue tell us that McEwan has a new novel, Solar, due out in the spring. And while once again the editors don’t tell us this, the fiction appears to be not a short story but an excerpt, or perhaps an extraction, from that novel. The “story” deals with a Physics Nobel Laureate whom we first see as an infant, although the events in these pages cover the time when he is an undergraduate at Oxford first becoming interested in the “physics of light.” Through a lot of exposition—there’s very little scene in the story—the reader learns about Michael Beard’s parents (he’s an only child, his parents’ marriage was loveless, his mother, who died of cancer, had a series of affairs), and then his arrival at Oxford. He meets Maisie—the first in a string of wives—and pursues and ultimately seduces her by digesting the work of Milton, the subject of her own studies. Unconventionally, for the time, they marry, but are already drifting apart and by the end of this excerpt she leaves him and the reader is a left with a flash forward to Michael attending her funeral.
So, this is decidedly not a short story, and although the book seems appealing (more than McEwan’s last book, On Chesil Beach), there isn’t much point to this excerpt. Having said that, the quotations from Milton seem far more relevant to the protagonist’s study of the “physics of light” than he seems to realize, and so the piece is interesting for that: “thou Celestial light/Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers/Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence/Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight.”
There isn’t much point in analyzing the story further, since it isn’t a story, but it is fun to see this glimpse into the forthcoming novel.
December 7, 2009: “The Use of Poetry” by Ian McEwan