Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Book Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

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"Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering.

"But this time it is different: she is having the affair, and he is still in love with her. When Beard's professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster."


Only a hundred pages into the latest novel from perhaps the greatest living British writer do you begin to grasp the conflict at the core of Solar. As with the vast majority of McEwan's fiction, the narrative turns on a single, earth-shattering event that rips out the rug from under its protagonist. In Solar, the game-changer occurs upon sometime Nobel laureate Michael Beard's return from a week observing first-hand the effects of climate change in the Arctic circle - which is to say, drinking copious quantities of wine and inventing amusing anecdotes to recount at a later date.

Eager for the comforts of hearth and home, Beard returns to London on an early flight only to find one of his research students in his luxurious apartment, naked but for Beard's own dressing gown. The philandering physicist isn't surprised to find his fifth - count 'em - wife with another man, but when Beard confronts the intruder, an already precarious situation develops into a farce of tragic proportions.

Beard is perhaps McEwan's most repellent protagonist to date, and considering the murderers, paedophiles and pimply teenagers who have narrated some of his previous tales, that's saying something. Beard is old, fat and full of himself; he eats, cheats and greets. He is "scalded by public disgrace... corrupted by a whiff of failure [and] consumed by his cranky affair with sunbeams". His inner monologue invariably borders on the unspeakable, by turns racist, lecherous and homophobic.

But Beard's greatest sin is surely his appetite - and I don't merely mean his enduring love for salt and vinegar crisps, though you get the sense that habit alone will see him in an early grave. From the outset, he consumes. He has consumed five wives, the latest of whom outright detests him. He consumes headlines, opinions, science, gossip. In fact, he has made his name in quantum physics by consuming and regurgitating Einstein for his hypothesis, the Beard-Einstein Conflation, earning the Nobel prize that is Beard's only real success by riding on the theoretical coattails of that scientist's breakthroughs. He is a compulsive consumer, and it's a credit to McEwan that Solar remains compelling in spite of its protagonist's unapologetic repugnance.

In large part, that's thanks to the black and brilliantly British sense of humour that pervades the narrative. From the discovery of "an ancient rasher of bacon doubling as a bookmark" between the pages of a valuable first edition to Beard's dreadful scheme to trick his fifth wife into thinking he is entertaining attractive company; and from a packet of salt and vinegar crisps shared (or not quite) on a train ride to an inconvenient call of nature during his weeklong expedition to the Arctic circle, there are frequent moments of dark slapstick more befitting The Mighty Boosh than the latest novel from the great nation's most esteemed author.

The humour is sharp-edged, of course; a fine satirical blade held tightly against the throat of a world procrastinating on its not-quite-fears of climate change. A long and wonderfully cutting lecture Beard gives midway through Solar forms the basis of McEwan's framing of the arguments for and against, but these concerns are not the crux of this novel: Solar doesn't preach in the fashion of Saturday. It is a character study at its heart, a startling triptych of the movements - both literal and metaphorical - of a physically and morally unpleasant man the whims of fate have placed in a position of power. In that, as in its every other purpose, Solar is a tremendous success.

Packed full of observations both sacred and profane and characters who will challenge your understanding of any number of issues, Solar is far from the dry tale of the end-times many feared it might be. Rather, McEwan's novel is an alarming parable of man and movement; the movements man should make, that is, set against those he selfishly does. Shocking, hilarious and unashamedly English, Solar will surely take its place alongside the very best of this breathtaking author's back-catalogue. Let it be said, Ian McEwan is a very clever monkey indeed.


by Ian McEwan
March 2010, Jonathan Cape

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  1. Great review, I will read this one for sure now. I was thinking of proposing Solar for my book club, but we're an SF book club: do you think it would qualify? We're pretty loose about the term "SF" but we usually need at least some sort of speculative idea in the book. Thx.

  2. @ Afront Sure it would! There's some hard science in Solar at the very least: lots of talk about global warming and generating limitless energy out of hydrogen. It's a long way from SF, but not quite so far that I didn't think it would be appropriate to review here, so. I think you could swing it, sure.