Friday, January 7, 2011

Planes and Ian McEwan

On my way back from Buffalo, I saw a huge sign painted on the wall of an airport: KEEP YOUR SMILE IN ITS LOCKED AND UPRIGHT POSITION!

Mine was not. My flight from Chicago was canceled due to -- get this -- a lack of pilots. We were all seated on the plane when the flight attendant removed us all, explaining that the pilots could not legally fly because they were one hour over the flight time allowed by the FAA. So United put up an entire Airbus 320-A of people at O'Hare hotels, gave them meal vouchers, and brought them back the next morning to the same plane, which had sat there empty all night. Nobody in scheduling could notice a problem sometime before we were due to take off?

All this put me in a perfect frame of mine to read Ian McEwan's latest novel, SOLAR. Its protagonist, Michael Beard, is one of the most unlikable viewpoint characters in fiction: lying, cheating, gluttonous, and not in the jolly way of a Falstaff. Beard, a physicist and Nobel Laureate, steals the work of a post-doc, sees that an innocent man goes to jail for the post-doc's accidental death, lies to his business partners, cheats on five wives and innumerable mistresses, neglects his daughter, and finally betrays the cause for which he is ostensibly working (climate control).

The novel is extremely well written (this is the brilliant author of ATONEMENT and SATURDAY, after all) and possibly meant as black comedy. In addition, I usually don't mind unsympathetic protags if they are interesting. But whether or not it was my bad plane karma, I didn't like this book. And [SPOILER ALERT] Beard doesn't even get a comeuppance from any of his moral transgressions; at the end of the book he dies of a heart attack just before the cops and lawyers close in.

McEwan's smile is not in locked and upright position. That's usually a good thing. But this time out, neither was mine.


Tim of Angle said...

I'm sure that airline incompetence immediately recommended itself to your attention, and perhaps you are right.

On the other hand, given the notoriously byzantine nature of the regulations to which every useful enterprise in this country is subjected, you might entertain, as an equally plausible hypothesis, that this particular 'rule' only came to someone's attention serendipitously, at a time when appropriate compensatory scheduling was not possible. I incline toward the latter.

Bryan H. Bell said...

You read a 300 page novel overnight? Geez, I'm a slow reader. Well, I guess a professional writer is likely to be a quick reader. Still, feeling kinda dumb...

Michael Retondo said...

I was flying out of Chicago on the same day, and outside the terminal a *bunch* of United workers either on strike, or at the very least protesting. Looked to me like there were some pilots in there too, so maybe that explains things.

Mike said...

A lot of times pilots are scheduled pretty close to max duty times that are allowed. If delays happen downline, or upline, things can get messed up pretty quickly. Sometimes they believe they will make it on time so they board the plane only to be delayed just enough by the FAA, deicing, etc., to make the pilots illegal at the last minute. It sucks when that happens, I know.

Too bad you didn't like the book better. It may have made the delay worth it!