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 22 March 2010
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.
If you compare the professional reviews of "Solar" with the more realistic views expressed my many Amazon reviewers here, it's fair to say that this isn't a great book in the opinion of many. And I would have to agree. "Solar" is quite a short novel by today's standards, but it reads like a very long one indeed. McEwan presents us with a detailed and ultimately pointless story of Michael Beard, a Noble Prize-winning scientist who over the duration of the book (2000, 2005, 2009) continues a journey of self-destructive abuse, juggling career and personal disasters in equal measure. Indeed it reads more like 3 linked short stories about the same unlikeable man than as a novel.
It's done with the usual McEwan attention to detail and sharp writing. But apparently this time (according to some) we also get humour. If that's the case then it certainly completely eluded my reading of the book. Sure, there were over-laboured attempts and being funny, but that's not the same as effortless humour. This is something that McEwan doesn't bring to his books, any lightness of touch or self-depracation is lost in the po-faced, technical writing that outlines his characters and the dilemmas they find themselves in.
Usually, McEwan gets his books off to interesting, tantalising starts and then loses interest and ends them with weak conclusions. This time, he seems to start off as he means to continue: with a turgid and uninteresting story about an unlikeable main character that tells us much about greed and avarice and the backbiting, snippy world of science, but it just doesn't go anywhere. Anyone else penning such stuff would find it hard to get published. That McEwan has managed to garner such lavish praise for such mediocre work tells you much about the gulf that exists between what readers really think, and what paid reviewers in the newspapers want you to believe.
A really dreary book that I was relieved to finish.
on 14 July 2011
Politics,physics and environmentalism are unlikely comedy bed partners but it is testimony to McEwan's ability that he has woven all three into an hilarious and dark satire which conveys an equally serious message about the mentality of humankind. Michael Beard is a convincingly real figure uncomfortably familiar to the reader at times,the personification of Humankind,self indulgent,unable to control his self destructive visceral urges,unable to save himself let alone the World.'Solar' is a powerful indictment of modern consumerism in which Beard lives for the moment, a sybarite seeking the short cut to success and hapiness,an amoral shadow of his former self.
Fans of McEwan should be warned that 'Solar' represents a very different read to some of his other work eg 'Amsterdam', Saturday' or 'On Chesil Beach'. The authentic and well researched science might not be to the taste of all readers although non scientists should persevere as they will enjoy the arts v science theme developed hilariously within.What it does contain however are many examples of McEwan's familiar talent in the art of the simile alongside a previously less demonstrated ability to deliver comic one liners with panache- none better than the dead polar bears quip.
Justice is seen to be done in the denouement with Beard's hubris and self delusion unravelling with comic results-will we also have time to experience a similar ephiphany with respect to global warming?Beard's inevitable demise is deliciously ironic coming as it will from his beloved solar photons.In the flawed humanity of Michael Beard 'Solar' asks how can we save the world when we can't even look after ourselves?
on 11 July 2010
I'd like to start by stating I love Ian McEwan's writing. But perhaps I need to modify that to say I *used* to love Ian McEwan's writing as since 'Saturday', he appears to have lost his way. Where his plot used to be dark, intelligent and gripping; his protagonists not always entirely likeable but you felt invested in them: Now his books are peppered with truly repulsive, self-satisfied and smug protagonists, whom I jut don't care enough about within the over-wrought plot.
Whereas I previously couldn't put down McEwan's books, I had to force myself to pick this one up to finish it, constantly hoping it would, somehow, drag itself out of its own smug, self-satisfaction to actually engage me as a reader. But it didn't. McEwan's familiar references to science abound, but I was not excited by this in the way, say, Enduring Love, makes use of pseudo-science (as after all, that's what he writes, not being a scientist).
I was, unfortunately left with the sensation that McEwan wasn't quite removed enough from Michael Beard, and what masqueraded as satire, was actually a pastiche of the writer himself: loathsome, conceited and too intelligent for his own good.
Since this book was a present, I shan't be getting rid of it, but I can, with great certainty, say: if you are a McEwan fan, you must, of course, read it, but don't expect great mastery. In short, I hated it!
on 18 March 2010
Thinking logically from the title and from one of the most talked about topics in the world at the moment you could guess that `Solar' could well be a book about global warming and you would be right. I have to admit I was slightly concerned that this might not make for an interesting read there's always the possibility of it coming across as preaching or you have to set the world far in the future to scare the hell out of everyone. In this case McEwan does neither, he sets the book over three period's in the last ten years and creates a lead character who is a reluctant saver of the planet until he see's the cash signs it could bring.
Michael Beard is the protagonist of McEwan's latest work. He's a Nobel Prize winning physicist (for the `Beard-Einstein Conflation') who as we meet him in 2000 has seen the best days of his career behind him along with the best days of his 5th marriage. In fact Beard isn't a particularly likeable character he is a philanderer of the highest order, lazy and only works now as head of the Government's new National Centre for Renewable Energy for the cash. McEwan does write these sort of leading characters rather well and cleverly the more odious, dislikeable and dark Beard becomes the more you want to read him or for some this could frustrate you so much you want to throw the book down in dismay. Ha!
So where is the global warming story? Well it intertwines with the tale of a man who is a failure at marriage, even the fifth time. As an escape from his wife, who after finding out about all his affairs has decided rather than to get gone to merely get even with their builder which of course makes Beard want her even more, Beard goes to the Arctic as part of his work to see what's happening there and the need for his company to find clean energy. However once there Beard does wonder `how can people who can't sort out a boot room ever save the planet'. Yet back in the UK someone may have found a highly scientific answer, someone who Beard comes back to find is the latest in a string of men to shack up with his wife. From then on through several plot twists and some dark detours the book takes us on to the future where Beard could possibly be the unlikeliest hero of the planet, I don't want to give any more away though, note the could which could go either way.
There is a lot of science in this book, in fact the book came to McEwan from his own trip to the Arctic in 2005, yet its digestible you know McEwan has done his research throughout and yet he doesn't show off and leave you lots after a sentence. I am not a science person and find it all confusing normally yet I got everything that was discussed. The book is also incredibly funny. I laughed and winced at a tale involving a call of nature and the affects of sub zero temperatures on the male apparatus there is also a darkly comical accidental death looming somewhere which will make you snigger even though it shouldn't. If people were worried that this book and its mix of science, some politics (Bush and Blair) and would be preachy or weirdly futuristic you needn't. This is a tale that makes even more of a point in its sudden conclusion because you have been laughing along the way.
Having given it five stars and having said all the above I am aware that McEwan can be an acquired taste (and I might be slightly swayed by having so far liked every book by McEwan I've read - apart from Saturday which I put down after a few pages, one for another day) so not everyone is going to like this book, possibly not even some of the McEwan fans as I have seen some scathing reviews in the press. This book isn't another Atonement by any stretch of the imagination but then it's not another Saturday either. I say judge for yourself. I really, really liked it personally.
on 12 April 2011
Just glancing at the star ratings for this book and I can see why the reception is so mixed. It's no spoiler to say the book ends on a huge cliff hanger and that is massively frustrating for the reader. However I can't agree with people saying that the fundamental problem lies in the dislike-ability of the protagonist. Yes he's an ass, in the style of a Martin Amis character, but this does not make the novel any less readable. A very weird read but certainly one worth persevering with; I personally did not get bored half way through. I rarely have time to finish a book these days but I finished this.
I should add that for those of you who are fans of Atonement, do not expect the same treatment here. This is a very modern novel in the vein of David Lodge or Martin Amis as opposed to the slightly sepia-toned atmosphere of McEwan's other works.
on 22 June 2012
This is the first Ian McEwan novel I've ever read; for years I had him mentally confused with Irvine Welsh and besides that I suspected he might be a bit puffed up reputationally.
I was initially interested in this book because I'm interested in climate change hysteria. I was intrigued to discover how this author would rationalise whatever his stand was; you don't write a book about climate change without having a view on it, surely.
McEwan turns out to be a better writer than I'd anticipated, because I'm about three-quarters of the way through the book and I still have no idea what he personally thinks about it all. His protagonist's view is unstable. He starts out uninterested in the politics, bored of the way political adversaries assign views to each other they do not hold so that they can then attack them. By the middle of the novel, he's doing the same thing himself, carping at and trying to patronise "deniers" without taking the trouble to engage with any of their actual arguments or opinions. Beard is wholly persuaded that people who disagree with him only do so because they are energy industry shills fearful for their profits, a reflection he has as he's about to lecture to a bunch of energy industry investors on how much money his idea will make for everyone.
Beard is an awesomely ghastly character, as indeed is every other climate activist in the book; they are a rogues' gallery of earnest twits with pony tails, of pompous pudding-faced academics who object to being argued with and are so fat they can scarcely move, and of vacuous hippies who think ice sculpture will save the world. It is very instructive that at no stage does anyone enumerate the best arguments for or against belief in the climate change that, as a business opportunity, is the mainspring of the book.
I didn't find it funny, but there is an edge of seat quality to it that I found very engaging. Not since American Psycho have a read a book in which everyone was this ghastly and yet you still couldn't put the book down. Recommended.
I've read a number of Ian McEwan's excellent books and was surprised by how funny I found this one. His central character, Nobel prize winner Michael Beard, is a wonderful caricature who is full of self-importance. He is greedy, chauvinistic, and without scruples but whose exploits, particularly his trip to the Arctic circle, are full of comic scenes that make him seem less obnoxious. Beard's troubles with colleagues, wives, girlfriends, and his wife's lovers all provide rich material for humour in this multi-layered book, under the guise of which the author incorporates serious arguments supporting the truth that global warming is happening and that only through new technology can a catastrophe be averted. Beard has hold of such technology and his pursuit of its implementation provides the finale to the story. Unlike many other authors I thought McEwan pulled off this foray into science. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
on 21 August 2010
Buy it, read it, enjoy it. Just beware that 50-60 pages or so are plot duds.
Michael Beard, combining professional failure with a Nobel Prize (some feat!) has many problems in his life, not least marital. Being a scholar myself (though admittedly a lowly social scientist) I thoroughly enjoyed the parts about academic rivalry and backstabbing, though my seat of learning seems comparatively mellow in this respect. The drama of Beard's home life rings fewer bells, but Beard's dysfunctional social skills make for a good read. There are many, many paragraphs that I re-read to savour Beard's egocentric wit. Line by line, the black comedy is great, and this is why you should fork up that tenner to buy the book. The problem is the plotting. First, there are whole chunks that are set-pieced that can be, and possibly should have been, ripped out. A long section details Beard's trip to the Arctic and the many misfortunes and incidents he suffers in the (very) sub-zero conditions. Brilliant stuff I thought as I followed Beard trying to go for a pee outdoors, and eventually having to pour brandy on his penis to extract it from the zipper where it had frozen in place. The problem is that this mini-story has no function beyond plain comedy. Or has it? I happened upon an interview where McEwan explained that he himself had been on just such an expedition, and that this is what got him going on what would eventually become Solar. To me, then, this is a darling that McEwan wouldn't kill for nostalgic reasons, nor was able to turn into an integral part of the story.
I submit that such set pieces are worrying enough, but what snatched off one or even two stars from my rating is the end. McEwan sweats and heaves to have the by now sprawling sub-plots converge and be resolved at, or very close to, a culminating event where Beard's future life will be determined. Nothing in these pages is remotely credible. Just one example: if you had a massive business project together with a (Nobel laureate) scientist, and was at some point - years down the road - hit by legal action challenging his awarded patents (as based on very flimsy reasoning too), would you immediately crumble and tell your long-term business partner and friend that the collaboration was over and that you hated him? Or... would you believe your friend (the Nobel laureate) who states that this is patent BS, and take comfort from the fact that litigation will take decades? Or let me put this to you (this is not a spoiler in the normal sense): say that you read about a character that, from page one, hated peas. Over and over you learn about how he is mentally wired to detest even things that remind him of peas; how he is happy to hear of misfortunes in industries even vaguely associated with the production of peas. Then, ON THE FINAL PAGE, when the character finds himself in a what amounts to a crisis, a single green pea rolls towards him, glistening with freshness and allure... and he finds that he loves it (and by extension has a chance at redemption). Credible? I think not.
Should you buy it?
Sure. Most of it is a good read, and you are likely to laugh out loud on many occasions. Indeed it is its unfulfilled potential that is so annoying - why did McEwan have to mar it with such an imbecilic end?