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by Ian McEwan

Download Solar epub
ISBN: 0224091077
ISBN13: 978-0224091077
Category: Literature
Subcategory: British & Irish
Author: Ian McEwan
Language: English
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, London, England; First Edition edition (2010)
ePUB size: 1116 kb
FB2 size: 1268 kb
Rating: 4.5
Votes: 320
Other Formats: lrf lit lrf mobi

Let me just preface this review by saying that I am a fan of Mr. McEwan. I consider his novel, Atonement, to be one of the truly great books of recent years. I've also read and enjoyed a number of his other works. That said, I find this novel, Solar, to be a disappointment.

As a strong prose stylist, McEwan's books are always interesting to read and there are well-done features to this story. In it, he shows his facility with modern science and its impact on social problems, something he's done in previous books as well. This time around, the subject is global warming. Wisely, he stays away from taking a specific stance on the issue even as Michael Beard, his Nobel prize-winning physicist lead character, takes a "lucky" opportunity to explore the issue in his work, thereby putting it before the reading in a subtle way.

On the other hand, this book suffers from two features also present in some of his previous novels, but not to the extent that they impact the story as negatively as they do here. The first is a plot point. Like many excellent novelists, McEwan's novels often turn on a strange event or an odd, coincidental encounter. Sometimes this works very well--I am thinking of Briony's lie in Atonement, for example. Sometimes this works less well, as in the break-in that nearly ruins the last quarter of his otherwise excellent book, Saturday. (Spoiler alert-->) Here, we have an accidental death that for reasons I still don't quite understand or believe, Beard disguises as a murder. Unfortunately, this happens rather early in the story, is important for everything that follows, and, therefore, decreases whatever enjoyment can be found in the rest of the book.

The second problem is something that bothers me personally, but may be less important to other readers. I do not like books where there is, essentially, not a single likeable character with hardly even a redeeming quality. Michael Beard, for example, is almost completely pathetic--a Nobel prize-winner living off his laurels, guilty of intellectual theft, a serial divorcer, a serial adulterer, an absent father, obese, slovenly...Just an all-around poor specimen of a human being. As Beard is the overwhelming personality in this novel, it is rough going, but even the minor characters--mean-spirited ex-wives, abusive boyfriend of ex-wife, pathetic girlfriends, abandoned daughter, grasping colleagues--there's barely a thing to like about the bunch. These are not people with whom I want to spend my time.

Which is too bad, because McEwan's talent is immense. Even with my disappointments, I had no trouble making it to the end of the book. I am hoping, however, he reins in some of his impulses next time around for a tighter, more pleasurable experience.
What does a self-pitying, fiftyish, overweight, balding, Nobel Laureate physicist do once he's past his prime? Well, if you're Michael Beard, the protagonist of "Solar", you can lie abed and achieve a kind of solitary rapture by eating loads of ice cream and masturbating while your wife betrays you with another man. You can witness the accidental death of one of your graduate students, steal his ideas about solar energy, and frame another man for the student's demise. After all, he was balling your current wife too -- she's the fifth -- and you owe nobody anything. You can do all this in England but achieve your apotheosis at an experimental solar panel site in a remote corner of New Mexico. I happen to live in that remote corner and Ian McEwan certainly got his geography right. I gather that his physics are sound as well. Anyway, the jubilee comes to a crashing halt at the end and the reader is left somewhere in the neighborhood of the hero, about to be assaulted by two women in a shabby motel room, with everything left hanging.

Other reviews have criticized the nature of the principal character but though he has his faults -- and they're pretty nasty ones -- he's also smart and self confident. And, after all, we must cut him some slack. In physics, when you're fifty or so, you're not only over the hill, you're WAY over the hill. Physicists' careers don't follow the same trajectory as that of Grand Masters who can play tournament-level chess into their 80s.

It sounds rather dismal, I know, but underneath it all, it's actually quite funny in a very understated and British way. It reminded me a little of "The Ginger Man", not in style but in its general deadpan perspective on human nature. (There are few grace notes in the prose.) I'll give just two examples of the comedy, one subtle and the other obvious.

Before boarding his train, Beard buys a package of potato chips ("crisps") and looks forward to some self indulgence as he bundles his luggage into the racks and sits down at a table across from a young man in punk garb. Beard gazes with eager anticipation at the package of potato chips on the table. The man across from him reaches forward and rips open the pack. Shocked, Beard stares at him, extracts a few chips and begins to chew. The other man does the same. This silent contest continues until Beard detrains, at which point he discovers his own bag of chips in his overcoat pocket.

Example two. Beard is on some arctic expedition that requires multiple bulky layers of clothing in a climate where the temperature is 20 degrees below zero. Half way to his destination he has to pull his snowmobile over and relieve himself, removing both pairs of gloves and struggling to open his zippers before his fingers freeze. His fingers don't freeze but his penis sticks to one of the zippers and he must pour brandy over it to free it. However, his penis is not only white but bone white, like a Christmas tree ornament. He tucks himself back into his clothing and mounts his snowmobile. He hears something in his lap crack. As he bounces along, he's able to feel an ice-cold cylindrical object wriggling down the inside of his trousers. He gives this development a good deal of thought before he reaches a point at which he can remove his clothing and find out what it is.

I'll leave it at that. It's not a very long book and I found it to be very amusing at time, with some pathos mixed in. There is an extensive section of acknowledgements, unusual in a novel, that includes physicists and cites some of the professional literature.
This is a semi-sort of allegorical tale with the childlike (the bad parts like self centered, no impulse control, lack of morals etc) Michael Beard wreaking havoc everywhere he goes as well as to himself. The world and Beard are going to hell in a basket, hand in hand.
Nothing wrong with that as a storyline but it just doesn't hold together. There are really good parts (after all McEwan can do set pieces as well as anyone) such as the section on when Beard met his first wife. This bit was excerpted in The New Yorker. About ten or so first rate pages and there are other really good parts but overall not compelling. I just wanted Beard to get run over by a bus after about page 8.
The physics was muddled (I have a PhD and know this stuff) while the descriptions of parts of academic life (I am a prof and know about this as well) are reasonably accurate (see Goldstein's Intuition for the best recent description of life in a modern lab).
I have a very high opinion many of McEwan's prior works (Atonement, Amsterdam, The Innocent, Black Dogs...) but can't recommend this one.