Here comes the sun

March 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Solar. Ian McEwan; Knopf Canada, $32.00 cloth, 300 pp., 978-0-307-39924-3.

There is a sequence in Ian McEwan’s new novel so astounding in its control, so deft in its pacing, so wicked in its ironic inversions, it can effectively stand as a microcosm of all the best elements in the author’s not insubstantial oeuvre. Barely nine pages long, this bravura set-piece involves nothing more exotic or esoteric than a bag of crisps purchased at an airport kiosk. I am not going to describe how this sequence unfolds, because it works best if a reader arrives at it with no prior foreknowledge. Suffice it to say that the scene is a staggering example of why McEwan has been recognized as one of the finest living practitioners of the novelist’s craft. A lesser writer, having created such an impeccable scene, would have felt content to leave it there, but McEwan returns to the bag of crisps story twice more in his narrative, for different reasons and to different effects, each time adding another layer of irony to the telling.

If Solar had nothing else to recommend it, the bag of crisps and its attendant fallout would be more than sufficient to command a reader’s attention. Indeed, most books would not be able to survive such a scene, coming as it does around the narrative’s midpoint: everything afterward would seem like so much anticlimax. But Solar – a galloping and ferocious read more plot-driven than most of McEwan’s recent books – finds the author firing on all cylinders, and should anyone doubt how good he can be when he’s operating at the peak of his powers, this novel should provide the answer: very, very good indeed.

Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight, slovenly physicist who won a Nobel Prize for what has come to be known as The Beard–Einstein Conflation. He has received honorary degrees, held various university posts and sinecures, but his best work is two decades behind him. When the novel opens, in the year 2000, Beard is 53, “a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.” Beard’s anhedonia is the first of the novel’s many reversals: an inveterate womanizer, he is currently attached to wife number five, and has embarked on 11 affairs during his time with her. “Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in?” Beard ponders. But his current quandary is bound up with his “stricken” condition: in an attempt to even the score, his wife, Patrice, has embarked on an affair with the builder who has been working on the couple’s home. She is having this affair “flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse,” leaving Beard to “[discover] in himself, among an array of emotions, intense moments of shame and longing.”

Shame is not an emotion that McEwan’s protagonist wears comfortably or easily: he is selfish, manipulative, and frequently duplicitous. Having nearly bankrupted the research facility he works for (a government think-tank based on the real-life National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado) by proposing a futile and prohibitively expensive energy-reduction scheme involving domestic wind turbines, Beard hopes to revivify his dormant professional reputation by stealing a plan to use photovoltaics – harnessing the sun’s radiation as a sustainable energy resource – to solve the world environmental crisis. An early climate-change skeptic, Beard has a conversion following his return from an expedition to the North Pole, where he is meant to “see global warming for himself,” and he sets in motion a series of events that will have consequences for both his professional and personal lives.

Solar has been described as a “climate change comedy,” and it is a deeply, profoundly funny book. But the climate change aspects of McEwan’s narrative, and the concomitant background research that has so clearly informed this material, are ultimately less interesting than the human comedy surrounding Beard and his unravelling personal relationships. McEwan’s incisive vivisection of a particularly male impulse toward infidelity at times rivals Roth, and he is merciless in his dissection of one member of “that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.” Beard, who is “never a complete cad,” still identifies one lover’s belief “that he could plausibly fit the part of a good husband and father” as “a flaw in her character, like a trapped bubble in a window pane, that warped her view” of him. McEwan has created an unlikable character with whom we nevertheless remain sympathetic, in part because of Beard’s own honest self-awareness: “Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice.” Examining himself in the bathroom mirror, Beard is “disbelieving”:

What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain-swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear. Once, he had been able to improve on his mirror-self by pinning back his shoulders, standing erect, tightening his abs. Now, human blubber draped his efforts. How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as [Patrice] was? Had he honestly thought that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed? Naked, he was a disgrace, an idiot, a weakling.

There are readers who will no doubt find such passages unnecessarily nasty, verging on cruel, but such readers would do well to bear in mind the long tradition of body comedy in English literature, both contemporary (see Amis, Martin) and classical (see Shakespeare, William). Indeed, there is a certain Falstaffian quality in Beard’s gluttonous pursuit of physical pleasure, whether it be women, food, booze, or some combination of all three. Moreover, McEwan’s characterization of Beard – his mental acuity and his physical grotesqueness – are central to the author’s approach in the book, which is dependent on the comedic irony that arises from the gulf between scientific objectivity and emotional muddiness.

McEwan’s ironies cut deep and hard. Beard, who becomes a passionate advocate for sustainable energy and environmental awareness, at one point delivering a speech that would make Al Gore sit up and listen, spends much of the novel on planes or in cars, injecting fossil fuels into the atmosphere by the bucketful. In his vast appetites, he is the very embodiment of our modern drive to consume, to hoard, to ingest. His eventual comeuppance is perhaps meant to indicate that humanity cannot go on raping the planet’s resources without paying a price for it down the line. The fact that this message is contained within a frankly comic novel only serves to underline its essential seriousness.


4 Responses to “Here comes the sun”
  1. Clare says:

    Well you liked it more than I am so far, but I’ll give you the bag of crisps story. That was brilliant. I’d be curious to know whether you liked Atonement and Saturday, my two faves by him. I’ll keep reading.

  2. Kerry Clare says:

    Clare, keep reading. For me, it was far more fascinating to consider once I’d read it than while I was reading. Entirely worth it.

  3. Really looking forward to this read – which i haven’t started yet – but it is a pleasure to discover your blog and to read what others are making of this book. I think that McEwan writes with real power and I usually enjoy him.

    Thanks indeed for sharing


  4. Halli says:

    I am a huge Ian McEwan fan and I found this book compelling, humorous and written with McEwan’s fantastic slight of hand until the end. I felt that he copped out with the ambiguous ending and that there was one major flaw with Beard’s comeuppance, something that would never happen, but needed to happen to make the book have the twist that it did. I won’t give it away by saying what I think the flaw is, but it should be pretty easy to spot.
    I loved the crisps scene, but my favourite scene in the book was the snowmobile ride and the punch line once he was on the ship. I had to immediately read it out loud to my partner. I also thought the various posturing of the artists on the ship and their various projects read like a line up for Nuit Blanche. Interesting to compare McEwan’s Beard with the middle aged men in Hanif Kureshi’s Something to Tell You, one of my favourite recent novels in the middle aged man coming of age genre.
    Worth Reading.