Ian McEwan is a model of the artist as craftsman, or vice versa. Experience has endowed him with a range of technical skills, and he puts them to inventive use. He also possesses a number of more particular gifts that were already evident in the grisly though often plangent stories he published in the 1970s. Some of these gifts, such as the ability to locate both menace and pathos in a scenario, have grown with the development of his more workaday skills, so the border between architecture and ornamentation, competence and brilliance, becomes in his work a woozy smudge.
Though it would be silly to dispute McEwan's prominent place among English novelists, he has been over-praised in the past 15 years. An unlikely development has brought damaging changes - McEwan's recent, or recently voiced, discipleship of the American writers more obviously associated with, and naturally emulated by, certain of his contemporaries. He has been the author of cruel parables, set in continental Europe and bleak, baking England, and mixing the worldliness of Graham Greene and William Golding with the other-worldliness of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Now he aspires to serve up an American menu of easy rhythms and bounding ideas. It makes for an awkward fit.
McEwan's latest novel, Solar, described as the writer's statement on climate change, is more notable as his first comedy since Amsterdam (1998) and a book that resembles Saturday (2005) in its American approach to inspecting the male individual - as citizen, professional and lover - against the backdrop of the recent past. Yet despite some sharp satire at the expense of the institutional complexities of scientific research, and that of the combatants in the science wars, the novel is a miserable attempt to bring the news, and about as funny as the Dunkirk section of Atonement (2001).
The epigraph to Solar comes from Rabbit Is Rich (1981), but the novel's debts to John Updike really belong elsewhere. McEwan's fat fool, Michael Beard, is intended as an English counterpart to Updike's Henry Bech, the star of three fleet-footed collections of stories. Beard's comic misadventures as a non-practising physicist during the years of the past decade have numerous points of convergence with Bech's comic misadventures as a non-practising novelist in the range of years (1964-97) covered by Updike's jaunty chronicle. Like Bech, Beard is a travelling pontiff, an unrepentant philanderer, a complacent hypocrite and a recipient of the Nobel Prize, though a more deserving one than Bech. Updike's brisk pronouncement on Bech applies equally to Beard: "His reputation had grown while his powers declined."
In the novel's opening section, which takes place in 2000, McEwan drops this Bech-like protagonist into a scenario cobbled together from Saul Bellow's novels Herzog (1964, unworldly academic cuckolded) and The Dean's December (1982, weary academic at a loose end) and from Roger's Version, Updike's 1986 novel about the competitive relationship between a 52-year-old professor of divinity and a spotty young computer scientist. Instead, 53-year-old Beard, in the process of breaking up from his fifth wife, and with his academic career going nowhere, is approached by Tom Aldous, a postgraduate physicist, ponytailed rather than acne-scarred, who attempts to persuade him that artificial photosynthesis could provide a source of renewable energy and prevent global warming.
Bellow's approach to character is analytical, whereas Updike tends to work in scenes. McEwan favours the second approach, and after opening the novel with some paragraphs of Bellovian spiel, he settles into Updike mode, which here means scrupulous examination of Beard in both body and mind.
McEwan is unable to adapt Updike's example to his customary purposes. Updike is prissy, sunny and theological where he is pragmatic, apprehensive and secular. McEwan's narrative strategy depends on a mixture of the essential and the extraneous, with a couple of details assuming an unexpectedly decisive role. But Updike worships detail for its own sake.
Nor can McEwan successfully imitate the American writer. Separate from Updike's "aesthetic of dots", and his belief that God is in the detail, the novel's descriptions - of, say, a fridge door opening - seem like a pose or even a pastiche, McEwan "doing" Updike. And although he scores once or twice, he is essentially ill-equipped for writing of this kind, lacking the resources of vocabulary and stability of perspective that enabled Updike to make almost every sentence exacting, euphonious and uniquely his.
Just as Bellow was summoned for the creaky novel of ideas Saturday, so McEwan has contracted Updike as presiding spirit over this unconfidently written book. Within the space of four sentences, Cricklewood has "a hungover, pacified look", its houses have an "embattled, windswept look", and a feature on a particular house creates "a 16th-century look". In one of many gruesome sonic pile-ups, Beard considers how pleasurable "it might be, in less than an hour, to lift a few of those items on to a plate and contemplate the river while he ate". The novel's topical references and TV dialogue conspire to suggest that McEwan has lost his ear.
As well as fits of clumsiness, the novel contains a great deal of determined perversity. Usually so temperate in his prose habits, McEwan exhibits a fondness for gimmickry of all kinds. There is bogus metaphor, lame allusion (to Larkin, Donne and Greene), mock-heroic diction ("the diminutive ancient kingdom across the ocean"), idiomatic wordplay: "The physicist knew much about light, but about forms of public expression in contemporary culture he was in the dark." Irony generally takes the form of sarcasm. We read about "Ronald Reagan's celebrated insight that ketchup was a vegetable"; Beard's ignorant thoughts on the Bush-Gore election are described as "his informed opinion". So the prose in Solar is destroyed by McEwan's desire to be two things he isn't: John Updike and funny.
As in Amsterdam, McEwan is confident in his handling of plot - a farce works in much the same way as a tragedy or a thriller - but he struggles with comic set pieces and characters. He is a subtle, quick-nibbed writer, but broad comedy works by overstatement. Even so, the reader wonders whether he doesn't go too far in his portrayal of Beard's trailer-trash American mistress - a gum-chewing, overweight, dunderheaded waitress and three-time divorcee given to saying such things as: "No escape, Mister Nobel Lauree-ate. The stagecoach is pulling out and I do believe you're on it!" There is such a thing as an excess of excess.
In the novel's derelict credit column, it ought to be noted that McEwan is unusually flexible in his treatment of rationality. We read that "the rationalist in Michael Beard died hard", but also that he had "an irrational prejudice against physicists who defected to biology"; the protagonist's railing against the "unexamined assumptions" of psychoanalysis is undercut 40 pages later, and 40 years earlier (in a flashback to 1967), with a reference to his “unexamined belief" in rationality. Elsewhere, however, McEwan still struggles to portray the workings of the scientific mind without recourse to literalism or caricature.
With Solar, McEwan has finally committed the folly that we might not have expected from him. Perhaps we expect too much. Failure in some form is, after all, a likely eventuality in the course of any productive novelist's long career. And in this case - the career being so long and well conducted - the lapse, though quite perturbing, is barely begrudged, and easily forgiven.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, £18.99