There's little doubt in my mind that Ian McEwan is one of the English language's greatest working novelists. If I'm not mistaken, almost every single one of his novels is on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list (perhaps not all deservedly), and Atonement still stands in my memory as a near-perfect book. Maybe that's why I'm willing to forgive the missteps in Solar. No, rather, maybe that's why I expected so much more out of Solar, his latest novel. I enjoyed the last two McEwan novels, especially On Chesil Beach, which I liked maybe even more than Saturday, but I found Solar hard slogging. It's a relatively short novel at just under 300 pages, yet it felt dense, convoluted in places, and even somewhat implausible.
The protagonist, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, bumbles his way through complete and utter moral corruption without any true sense of himself. As a man, he's short, corpulent, and slovenly, but his apparent brilliance means he's led a charmed life. Well, hard work and a sharp mind began a charmed life, and since winning the prize, Beard has essentially coasted off its fumes. From one marriage to the next, from one high-paying job to the next, from one meal to the next, Beard shows no remorse or even any kind of sustained thought over his actions. He's a womanizer who has five failed marriages behind him; yet, at five-foot-three somehow remains ridiculously attractive to smart, accomplished women. Thus begins a number of somewhat implausible characteristics -- that women would fall, nay, fight over such a man remains a little, well, unbelievable. A great mind only takes you so far, success only takes you so far -- mushrooms growing out of your rotting apartment? That's a sign you're not fit for life amidst other humans.
Anyway, when the novel opens, Michael's latest wife, Patrice, has just discovered he's cheated, again. And yet, when she dares to step out on him, Beard can't bear it. He wants his wife back. He loves her, he even goes so far as to confront her boorish lover (their contractor) who smacks him right across the face. It's not as if Beard doesn't have a cause to dislike the man (beyond the whole sleeping with his wife sitch), he did give her a black eye. And to get back at him for ruining his marriage, Beard does something so morally bankrupt it's hard to believe the character could possibly ever redeem himself.
Yet, the novel isn't about redemption. In fact, I'd argue that Michael never considers redemption. Even more so, he never really even considers he's wrong. His mind functions on a level where he can convince himself in any manner that his actions were good and true to himself. He justifies anything if it sits in his mind long enough: lies become truth, outcomes absolve actions, and another woman inevitably lands in his bed. Even if, by the end of the novel, Beard seems to have finally gotten his just desserts, the fact remains that his moral core is unchanged. The man takes absolutely no responsibility for any of his actions and still he's rewarded. The complete and utter collapse of his life, the no less than three times that happens throughout the book, has almost no lasting impact on him. In short, Michael Beard does not change, evolve or become even slightly more informed about himself by the end of this book. He's simply not that kind of person. And maybe that's the point.
Even so, McEwan keeps the narrative tight to his point of view. We learn little about him, snippets of his home life, of his failed relationships, of his childhood, but mainly what we follow is his career, of sorts. As the book opens, Beard is part of a collection of scientists working on climate change, specifically funding wind turbines that will become alternative sources of energy. The solar from the book's title comes from the secondary science-related plot, the ideas of a young post-doc, Tom Aldous, who works with Beard who firmly believes they can harness the sun's power to use as energy. Beard's skeptical at first, and abjectly refuses to listen to the younger man's theories, but as the novel progresses, he comes around to Aldous's science. But what he does with it is despicable and ultimately leads to his downfall, if you can call it that.
The force of the novel felt weak to me, there's not enough plot to drive the narrative along, which is why I felt the book was kind of sluggish to get through. The science is fascinating, relevant and so interesting. And Beard does interesting things, he's invited to amazing parts of the earth, but nothing seems to have any impact on how he lives or what he feels about life. That was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. It's hard to get behind a character that turns your stomach. I know that's the point -- an exploration of someone who gives to society for no reason other than personal gain (it's the Heidegger was a Nazi argument: does someone's personal philosophy, personal beliefs matter given the ultimate overarching contribution they've made to public thought). McEwan takes it further -- is a man's mind enough to redeem him for being utterly repugnant as a human being, and does one great act give you license to coast on said act for the rest of your life? It makes for an interesting moral debate and discussion but not a terrific plot for a novel.
All in all, I kind of feel as though even McEwan's brilliant writing couldn't save Solar from itself. I wanted so much more out of the novel, a different perspective, a reason for any of these women to actually fall in love with him, a realization that using your big old brain for manipulative purposes isn't always the best use of your talents, something, anything that signified change in Beard. But, alas, nothing happens in the end. I suppose, the fact that Beard made any positive change in the world, contributed a measure of science (slipped by as an appendix) that fundamentally altered the way our world is perceived, remains his single best quality. Most people don't even do that. Still, you hope that the people with the power to change the world, the ones who are working hard to protect our dying planet, are doing so from a position of good. What McEwan tirelessly points out with Michael Beard that's just not a realistic view of the world.
However, some of the reviews that I've been reading have been noticing how, for the very first time, parts of this book have the reader in stitches. And there's one scene in particular that involved a bag of crisps that did have me laughing, but the few laughs and light touches, the mocking nature the author has with his main character in the way he describes him, writes about him, suggests a bit of an ironic perspective. In some ways, just feeling that way while I was reading made it even worse.
Also, there's my reader's bias -- I'm tired of reading books by middle-aged men who create middle-aged characters who are nothing more than a mid-life crisis on the page. McEwan hasn't gotten to the stage of say a Rushdie or an Irving, other novelists in his class who have fallen into the same narrative pitfalls, because there's still an acerbic nature to this book that's missing from say Rushdie's last few novels, but I guess I was really looking for a female character to appear as something other than a foil in this book. I was looking for an actual storyline that wasn't tethered to a despicable man who fails every single person around him, except himself. I was tired of hearing about his Nobel Prize and seeing his bumbling ways. I was offended by his politics, his obsession with terrible food, his tepid alcohol abuse -- in short, I just didn't care for him, despite the bloody excellent writing that surrounded him.