on 28 February 2012
Though Global Warming is the backdrop to this novel, the real theme, it occurs to me, is the largely predetermined nature of Humanity. The sun is, in essence, a literary light to be shone upon the crevices of human behaviour.
McEwen assembles for us a grotesque in the form of Professor Michael Beard, a once-brilliant, now dissolute, shambling hedonist, a man unable to deny (despite every graphic warning) his appetites and seeking ever-more public acclaim. Beard's behaviour is dissected for the reader, his ricocheting thought processes masterfully laid bare and sketchily traced back to his upbringing.
Beard's Nobel Prize in Physics, in recognition for long-ago, insightful work into the interaction between photons and matter, has afforded him his own gravitational field, one that attracts investors and lovers and wives in seemingly equal measures, all with their own agendas.
With a possibly excusable exception made for the infant Catriona, no character emerges without a large dollop of entrenched self-centeredness at their core.
The task of an author is to render characters that hold together in the reader's mind, no matter how ghastly the characters are. In Beard, perhaps - at least in the early part of the book - the comedic touches are a little too much Mr Bean-like for credibility. However, those passages surrounding the trip to the Arctic Circle are nonetheless hilarious and will serve to draw the wary reader into the later more subdued, more `literary' material.
The author's aim ranges broadly, not only at human relationships (McEwan's standard territory) and moral ambivalences, but also touching upon alternate truths, the snobbery of the arts towards the unfathomable sciences, the lack of self-awareness among the high-minded (for example in the locker room of the ship), the inspirational complexity of the natural world (photosynthesis), and the professional dislocations between pure science and engineering.
I thought the scientific aspects of the narrative were handled with a sense of verisimilitude, one I enjoyed but can imagine may be off-putting to the non-scientifically minded.
This was a satirical book that I found to be a page-turner. It is not an uplifting novel, though. Almost as an aside, the author hints finally at the possibility of his protagonist's eventual redemption. How could he do any other? There is only so much illumination that any reader can survive without being burnt to a crisp.
on 18 March 2011
I didn't dislike this book; it's topical and funny. Ian McEwan has been criticised for taking a lot of artistic licence with the scientific theory, but I think that's fine. It's a work of fiction, after all, not a doctoral thesis. Beard is a strong enough central character and although the plot is lacking, the pace is good. But it does read like a series of metaphors in search of a story.
After many marital infidelities Beard is about to divorce his fifth wife. But on discovering that she doesn't appear to care and is, in fact, having an affair of her own, he develops an obsession with her and changes his mind. A Nobel Laureate, he hasn't done any serious science since winning his prize, but his name still spells fund money in the scientific world and he is not short of lucrative offers of one sort or another. He takes a high profile assignment with a government funded initiative committed to enlisting the public in the search for ideas to combat global warming.
He continues to obsess about his wife, but he lacks the emotional depth necessary to win her back. In a final bid to rid himself of his fixation he accepts an offer to join a group of climate change activists on an expedition to the Arctic Circle. He is ill-equipped, being fat, alcoholic, anti-social and completely uninterested in climate-change. He finds himself the only scientist in a group of artists, no climate changing ideas are forthcoming and everyone mislays their arctic outdoor gear, and so steals other people's, on a daily basis. Yes, you've guessed, it's a metaphor for global warming and the way in which we fail to take care of the resources which are most important to us. Very heavy handed on the metaphor front, but still a funny piece of prose.
On Beard's return, a sequence of events leads him to a decision to resurrect his career and he begins work on clean energy research in a cynical attempt to appeal to the zeitgeist. The rest of the book deals with the vain, greedy, self-obsessed, emotionally sterile and opportunistic Beard as he attempts to gain new recognition and corporate investment. On the way he continues to betray his women, gobble his food, drink more, grow fatter and avoid responsibility for all of it. He has enough insight to know he's on a destructive path, but insufficient self-control to put a stop to it. Yes, he's a metaphor too. Eventually, all the individual strands of his greedy, lascivious, self-serving and badly constructed life converge. Is it too late for redemption? Well, I don't want to give the ending away.
The book is readable, but the writing is messy and undisciplined. It needs a much tighter structure to elevate it from merely readable to a good novel.
on 17 January 2011
Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight and aging physicist who won the Nobel prize twenty years ago and hasn't had an interesting idea since. He plays on his fame and drifts between speaking engagements and sinecures, his private life is a disastrous series of failed marriages.
That all changes when a freak accident leaves him in possession of a file full of brilliant ideas from a young post-grad, and claiming the work as his own, Beard sets out to build a new technology that will single-handedly solve the world's energy crisis and stop climate change.
I won't spoil it for you by saying any more about the story - not that there is much of a story. Like the protagonist, Solar sort of bumbles along, following Beard to the Arctic and back, to conferences, lectures, bored nights in motel rooms, until it suddenly picks up at the end as Beard's various mistakes all suddenly begin to catch up with him all at once.
Michael Beard is such a thoroughly unlikeable character that I nearly gave up halfway through, but there are enough flashes of humour or interesting observations about human nature to make it worth persevering. It's not a great book - the reviewers panning it here have a point. Much of the book is mundane, well written but rather empty and moping. Nothing of any real interest happens until a good third of the way in, and the ending is somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, it's a satire and McEwan is attempting something rather bold - exploring climate change through the lens of human nature. Read that way, I think McEwan pulls it off, although I do wonder what his established fans will make of it.
on 12 September 2011
There seemed to be no plot, just a meandering journey through an unpleasant character's promiscuous love life. Occasionally, references to what were touted to be cutting-edge green technologies were clumsily inserted, but this felt very artificial as if the author remembered that there needed to be some element of the book that related to the title.
It appeared that the author had two amusing anecdotes (crisps and peeing) that he was keen to use regardless of the plot. These were indeed carefully crafted, but ultimately they were asides with no relevance to what little plot there was.
The ending was rushed, fairly predictable and ultimately disappointing.
on 4 October 2011
Most of the criticism of Solar is for its "hero", Michael Beard. Many find him inherently unlikeable. He's certainly a flawed individual, repulsive even in some ways, but he's ultimately human. Anyone who claims they can't relate to him in some small way is either a saint or a liar.
Anyway, as a book it's fast paced, interesting and compulsive. Not brilliant, but solid. My only real gripe is actually with authenticity of Beard. Yes, he's a believable individual, but (and maybe I'm being just a smidgen protective of Imperial-trained-Reading-based-physicists-turned-climate-scientists here) I'm not sure he's really that believable a scientist. Sure, I've met my fair share of entirely self-centred, petty, unscrupulous, back-stabbing, unfaithful, lecherous, adulterous, glory-seeking career scientists. Some of them are my best friends. But all of them have a thirst for knowledge, which Nobel-winner Beard entirely lacks. And few of them are motivated by money -- after all, there are far more proven routes to riches.
on 14 December 2012
There's not much to like about the central character in Solar but heck, this is a good, entertaining read. Much as you do not want to like - still less approve - of the self-obsessed, self-justifying, amoral (if not downright immoral) Beard, McEwan's portrait of a narcissistic early achiever on a global scale, since down on his luck, is funny, compelling and, in its well researched way, educative too. The assumed comeuppance of this distasteful anti-hero is something you spot a long way off but, in classic tragic, hubristic fashion, the author keeps building the intensity and sheer awfulness of the situation - things can only get worst, surely? - and finally leaves us guessing at the end.
Craftily written, pacy, at points excruciatingly funny, Solar proved a good holiday read and, despite its daunting bulk, it was darned hard to put down.
on 24 February 2014
While I’m not normally one to revel in another’s misfortune, Michael Beard, the central character in “Solar” is so abhorrent that I found myself eagerly awaiting his come-uppance and getting a certain satisfaction at his every apparent stumbling block. A smug, self-important, womaniser with little regard for others, on whom life largely seems to have undeservingly smiled, we meet Beard at a time when things seem to be taking something of a turn and aren’t all going his way. That said, he still seems to emerge relatively unscathed each time, with his concrete ego mildly blemished at worst, and as such the reader is kept in suspense throughout, waiting for him to be dealt his just deserts.
For the most part I felt that “Solar” was truly an example of Ian McEwan “on form”. It’s the eighth of his that I’ve read and have found them a little “hit and miss” but in this, there was no shortage of the acerbic wit, fluid written style and skilful word choice that I appreciate. Here also, as in many of his other novels McEwan has tackled an entirely new and complex subject area and the depth of his research is clear without being overly laboured. Despite this, I did find that the energy in part one seemed to flag somewhat during the middle sections and the pace slowed before an upsurge in the final fifty or so pages which remained on just the right side of farcical.
“Solar” may lack the opportunity to connect emotionally with the “hero” but it’s amusing, well-written and largely engaging so well worth a read for McEwan fans and those new to his work.
on 12 January 2014
The central character, Michael Beard, is a physicist whose youthful work won him a Nobel prize some twenty years ago but who has done no significant academic work since. If there were a Nobel prize for being an uncivilised human, he would also be a strong contender for that: he displays serial unfaithfulness to his five ex-wives and countless other women, an uncaring attitude towards his unwanted daughter, and persistent drunkenness and gluttony; he steals ideas from a young colleague; and he engages in an appalling conspiracy to incriminate an innocent man.
The stolen ideas lead him into a commercial venture to try to combat climate change, and the latter provides the book's main theme. McEwan has certainly done his research thoroughly here: he is sure-footed both about the underlying science, and about the feebleness of the climate change deniers' case. (Since virtually all serious scientists agree that there is clear evidence that climate change is occuring and that human economic activity is a significant cause, the deniers have to resort to allegations that the near-unanimity of serious scientists is evidence of a conspiracy, though they never explain who is organising the conspiracy or for what purpose).
In principle I applaud McEwan for tackling an issue of fundamental importance to human society. In practice, though, I'm not sure that this novel really adds anything to the issue. If you're already familiar with the science of climate change you won't learn anything new; and if you're a climate change denier you'll presumably think that McEwan has somehow been recruited by the conspiracy organisers, whoever they might be. Apart from the climate change issue there isn't much in this book. The central character is a caricature of selfishness, and he never develops in an interesting way; none of the other characters is prominent enough to be interesting; and although there are some amusing passages, there are also some seemingly pointless ones (e.g. the lengthy description of Beard's trip to the Arctic seemed to serve no purpose).
I like quite a lot of McEwan's work, especially Atonement, but I don't think that this book will add to his reputation. If you want to read a novel that deals in an interesting and original way with the climate change issue, I recommend Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Unlike McEwan's Michael Beard, her central characters know nothing about the science of climate change, but in their daily work as small-holder farmers they are confronted by its consequences. In my view Kingsolver's take on the issue is more interesting than McEwan's.
on 15 September 2011
I could not help but wonder whether the main character in this book was named after the hero of the Anthony Burgess novel Beard's Roman Women or if it is meant to be some kind of tribute.
From what I recall of the Burgess book, it was a funny account of how Beard, a widower, got involved with an Italian woman who was a descendant of a medieval poet who wrote filthy poems in a Roman dialect. Not only did Burgess have the usual fun in humiliating his hero in foreign parts but was also able to show off his linguistic and literary knowledge.
If only this book has one iota of Burgess's energy, it might be worth reading.
Unfortunately, it is flat and lifeless.
Like many of Burgess's main characters, McEwan's hero, Michael Beard, is an out-of-shape, middle-aged social misfit who cannot form any relationship with women.
He is a physicist who has been living off his reputation for decades after winning a Nobel prize for some obscure scientific breakthrough.
There is a lot of gobbledygook scientific background and talk about the photons and neutrons plus a crooked scheme to produce solar energy that is presumably meant to put the story in context. At least Burgess kept his hero in familiar literary territory and the reader had to endure doggerel verse instead of mumbo jumbo about wind power and global warming.
McEwan's hero been married five times and the book centers on the break-up of his latest marriage which has the added complication of a killing in which Beard is involved.
This exaggeration in pursuit of a few laughs is one of the book's weaker points.
We are supposed to believe that a financially successful physicist is living in a shabby flat in student-style squalor surrounded by dirty dishes and moldy walls at the age of 60.
At one point, he heads off to Spitzbergen where not only does his penis freeze to his zip after unwisely urinating in sub-zero temperatures but he is almost eaten by a polar bear.
Later he almost faints in the scorching desert of New Mexico where he is building some kind of James Bond-villain type energy plant. Incidentally, he has a 51-year-old redneck girlfriend called Darlene.
A scene in a train shows him having a crisp-eating contest with another passenger. One of his wives finds a rasher of bacon he had left as a bookmark. Ho! Ho!
In more skilful hands, it could be funny but it is not and I am not even sure if it is meant to be. I was a bit worried when McEwan suggested in the closing pages that his hero might escape to São Paulo. I hope not as I live there.
This was the first time I have read anything by McEwan. I won't be rushing out to buy any of his other books
on 7 August 2011
There are many good things in Solar. The quality of writing is superb throughout and the book is worth reading just as an adventure in use of language. There is a lot of wit laced with black humour and satire. Unlike some critics I thoroughly enjoyed the digressions into physics even though much of it went over my head. However, "saving the planet" is an important issue, even for those who don't actually believe the planet is in peril, and McEwen concisely summarises most of the key issues. The characterisation of Michael Beard - the fat, greedy anti-hero - was excellent. The man was consistently repellant and morally bankrupt, yet not unlovable. It takes real skill to make a sympathetic character out of Michael Beard, but McEwan manages to do it. (The scary thing is that there is a bit of Michael Beard in all of us, if we're honest; at least there is in me. Apologies to anyone to whom this observation does not apply.) Unfortunately the book has flaws, which is unsurprising as it is probably impossible to write a humorous book that is "perfect". Amongst the things I didn't like were the "carry on" moments where wit gave way to slapstick humour, for example the polar expedition where Michael Beard suffers frostbite whilst urinating in sub-zero temperatures. (This might just be a sense of humour failure on my part because I note that other people found that episode really funny.) There were moments of pure self-indulgence, for example where McEwan describes over two pages of tedious detail the descent of an aeroplane over West London before landing. The final quarter of the book was weak regarding the plot line. It is difficult to find a satisfactory ending for a humorous book and even McEwan can't do it. I was left feeling somehow unsatisfied. Having said all this, I found the book very readable and entertaining - I enjoyed it more than any other of McEwan's book apart from On Chesil Beach. For any other writer, I'd give this book 5 stars. But because the author is Ian McEwan and because he's underperformed by his own high standards, I'm afraid I can only give three stars.