That which lies beneath our feet does more than support us – it gives us life, it gives us identity. It is sprawling and yet of troubling fragility. It is soil, air, water, concrete, glass, steel, a million different things. We live in it, we live from it, we build houses and erect barriers on it. We mingle, we love and we kill each other. And so on, so forth…
I’m talking, of course, about the Earth, but also about cities and provinces and countries, all collections of boundaries that separate and mark and fashion the earth-bound tribes. Where a writer comes from creates a unique patina through which he or she views the world; still, beneath the sun, we’re all so similar it boggles the mind.
Getting M.J. Vassanji to write Penguin Books’ short biography of Mordecai Richler for their “Extraordinary Canadians” (2009) series was a flash of genius. In those two writers one can find the naysayers’ every reason to nitpick the very notion of Canadian Literature. Richler spent a significant portion of his life outside of Canada; Vassanji, of Indian descent, was born in Africa. Talk about a mixed bag of goodies. Still, both writers have managed to explore and expose telling elements of life in Canada through their writing, most of which focused on what would perhaps best be described as “ghettos”, in the truest sense of the word (a part of a city inhabited almost exclusively by members of a specific cultural or class background).
By focusing for the most part on the Jewish neighborhood of his origin, Richler managed to paint a vivid picture of a time, place and people, which while it may not exactly act as a microcosm of the greater Canadian world, still represents a significant portion of said world. While this bio runs short (226 pages), and in places offers too fleeting a glance, it nonetheless addresses the milestones in the life of one of Canada’s truly great writers. That Vassanji has his own experience dealing with the ghetto in his writing allows him particularly effective insight in assessing and re-telling Richler’s story, creating a decent introduction to the man’s narrative.
One-hundred and eighty degrees down the road from there is Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010). McEwen, author of The Comfort of Strangers and Atonement, among others, is arguably the greatest British writer alive today. In this novel, he turns a satirical eye to the hot-topic debate on global warming. His protagonist, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Laureate on the decline who finds professional revitalization in the wake of personal tragedy and chaos. A chance accident leads him to champion the cause of solar energy as a viable alternative form of renewable energy. The closer his scientific aspirations come to fruition, the more chaotic and dismantled his personal life becomes.
What sets McEwen apart from his peers is the sheer intelligence and curiosity that radiates from his work. Once in a while, McEwen gets bogged down in his own research, and some of the passages detailing the science at work sometimes force the reader to recall Melville’s detailed whale biology lessons in Moby Dick (and in many ways, the protagonist of Solar is locked in a deadly struggle with his own white whale, namely himself), but a few passages aside, the novel is relentless in its exposition of the protagonist’s rottenness, even if it’s done with a modicum of fondness. The tone reminds the reader a bit of Richler, actually. In the end, what McEwen does here is take a look at the small lives of the men and women of this world, perhaps as if from the vantage point of the sun. Here we go, willy-nilly, fretting about the whole house when we can’t even, for the most part, keep the cloakroom orderly.