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Ian McEwan, Solar

July 30, 2010
Ian McEwan Solar bookcover

Bookcover (Used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd)

I don’t know whether I believe your story, but I’ve enjoyed it.

So says McEwan’s latest creation, Michael Beard, to a character he has “done wrong”. This more or less sums up my feelings about Solar, the novel in which this statement appears. I am a McEwan fan and have greatly liked most of the 5 or 6 of his books that I’ve read but, while I found this one readable, I’m not convinced that it completely comes together into a coherent whole. This may have something to do with the fact that McEwan has tried for something lighter here and hasn’t quite pulled it off.

Do I need to describe the plot? It’s been reviewed so much by now that I presume most readers here already know it. However, to be on the safe side, here goes. It’s all about Nobel Laureate physicist, Michael Beard, who at the start of the book is 53 years old, 15lbs overweight and at the end of his 5th marriage (due to his incurable, it seems, womanising). On top of this he is struggling to keep his career alive: he is surviving, mostly on speaking engagements, while he waits, hopes, for a new inspiration. This is the set up. And, as is typical of McEwan, a little way into the book an event occurs that will be life-changing. In Beard’s case it will kickstart his career. How that occurs – and its eventual fallout – forms the rest of the book.

The novel is divided into three parts, labelled simply 2000, 2005 and 2009. If Beard was 15lbs overweight in 2000, in 2005 he is 35lbs overweight and by 2009 that has increased to 65lbs. This might tell you something about him: he is out of control in every aspect of his life – physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally. He is not, as you might gather from this, a likable man, but it is mainly through his eyes – told third person – that we experience the novel.

As the title suggests, the book’s subject matter is solar energy and climate change. And some of the best parts are those in which McEwan satirises the politics of climate change. In an amusing sequence, Beard is invited to the arctic along with a number of artists (making him the proverbial sore thumb) to experience climate change first hand. While he is there he observes the increasing chaos in the “bootroom” where the outdoor clothing is kept. From day one, the “bootroom” doesn’t work as people take items from pegs that are not their own resulting by the end of the week in no-one wearing a complete outfit that fits them. This works pretty well as a metaphor for the chaos and disorganisation in the climate change community. Add to this scenes like the idealistic climate-changers scooting about the ice in their gas-guzzling skidoos and you get a rather funny, and pointed, episode in the book.

The tone of the book is, in fact, comic-satiric which is a bit of a departure for McEwan who has tended to write books that are more dramatic, many with a “thriller” component. Here, though, there are even moments of slap-stick, such as when Beard early in the book pretends that he has a woman in the house in an attempt to make his wife jealous – all to no effect, but in terms of the novel’s plot it results in a deeply ironic statement:

Clearly he had been in no state to take decisions or to devise schemes and from now on he must take into account his unreliable mental state and act conservatively, passively, honestly, and break no rules, do nothing extreme.

Not long after this episode he does the complete opposite. Some of the members of my reading group found the book very funny but for me it fell a little flat. I saw the satire and thought it was clever at times, but it was sometimes more pathetic than highly comic, and at other times a little heavy-handed. Here, for example, is Beard on the bootroom:

How were they to save the earth – assuming it needed saving, which he doubted – when it was so much larger than the bootroom?

Now, most readers would already have got the point. I’m not sure that we needed to have it hammered home like this.

The focus of the book, as you will have gathered by now, is Beard and we spend a lot of time in his head. This is not a problem in itself, except that he never seems to change. He’s a gluttonous, arrogant, self-centred womaniser at the beginning and is the same at the end. He is also morally bankrupt – something you will discover soon enough if you read the book. Does a character have to change for a book to work? Not necessarily – think Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume – but we do have to stay interested in the character and Beard, for me, became a little boring. There was too much of the same – too much womanising, too much alcohol and fatty, fast food, too much self-aggrandisement – that I started to think “enough already”.

The key question to ask, then, is why has McEwan chosen such a character? The answer seems to be that McEwan wanted to express his fear – cynicism even – about 21st century humankind’s ability to enforce change. Early in the novel is this:

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one of a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action … but he himself had other things to think about …

Himself, basically. Is McEwan saying Beard is us, is Everyman? If so, I can’t help thinking he’s got a point, but I’m not sure he’s written the book – like, say, Animal farm – that sustains the trope well enough to last the distance.

Oh dear, I fear now that I have been more critical than I meant to, because I did find the book readable. I did want to know what happened. I liked a lot of the language. And I did enjoy many of the observations McEwan makes throughout the book – about reason and logic versus idealism, about feminism, and of course about politics. Take for example the following, which is very apposite given that we downunder are in the middle of a Federal election campaign:

He was aggressively apolitical – to the fingertips, he liked to say. He disliked the overheated non-arguments, the efforts each side made to misunderstand and misrepresent the other, the amnesia that spooled behind each ‘issue’ as it arose.

I can relate to that …

Finally, there is a sly bit of self-deprecation running through the book about stories, imagination and the arts. I had to laugh at Beard’s comment that:

People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to have equal value.

I’ll leave you to decide what you think of McEwan’s version here.

Ian McEwan
Solar
London: Jonathan Cape, 2010
283pp.
ISBN: 9780224090506

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2010 9:32 pm

    A nice review WG. Essentially, it’s flawed but McEwan’s talent keeps it enjoyable and readable anyway, yes?

    Given I work in the field I’ll be reading this one eventually anyway, even though I’m definitely not a McEwan fan. It’s nice to know that even though there are problems it’s still fundamentally an enjoyable read.

    Doesn’t sound like great literature, but then not everything needs be.

    • July 30, 2010 10:55 pm

      Yes, you got it — and I think that’s pretty much what Kevin from Canada says too. So, you work in the field? As a scientist? Policy maker? Something else? Interesting area. In my post before this I wrote about a lecture my husband and I went to at the ANU. He showed me the buildings (I’d never been to that “scientific” part of the ANU) where he studied and then worked for a year or so in the Solar Energy Research Lab. That was 1973/74 and we talked about how slowly progress has been made since those those seemingly at the time visionary days! (He then went to the University of Essex and did Telecommunications Engineering instead)

  2. July 30, 2010 11:03 pm

    I’m a lawyer. I mostly work these days in low carbon financings and climate change related infrastructure projects (renewables, carbon capture and storage, that sort of thing).

    It’s an interesting field. It’s also a slightly depressing one, as once you’re immersed in the subject it’s not really possible to have meaningful doubts on the point (the science, despite what Fox News may say, is far too clear cut) but the responses internationally are generally pretty weak.

    New power sources are difficult things. Fossil fuels are so efficient compared to the alternatives, that’s the challenge really. Our whole economy is based on fossil fuel consumption, it’s no easy thing to change that.

    • July 31, 2010 12:14 am

      The voice of reason – but reason with belief and understanding! Unlike Michael Beard’s reason. Sounds like you have a job you can be proud of Max, and that’s a great thing I think.

  3. July 30, 2010 11:21 pm

    Hm, your points on it being too much is a problem I had with the book as well. I did not know that McEwan intended this book to be about “Everyman” so to say. The bit you quoted in that context does ring true to what most people act like though. If it was meant like that, it was a good point. But like you, I’m not entirely sure if it came across in a manner that will make this an important book.

    • July 31, 2010 12:16 am

      I’ll go read your review Iris – I couldn’t remember which of the bloggers I read have done it and which haven’t. The “everyman” is how I (and I think some others) see it – I don’t know what McEwan intended though.

  4. July 30, 2010 11:42 pm

    Actually Gummie, you’ve got me interested in this. I have enjoyed McEwan’s earlier books, and then hit a couple I didn’t like at all. This one seems interesting enough to give it a go. Thanks

    • July 31, 2010 12:18 am

      Well, that is praise for a review that’s mixed! I’ll be interested to see what you think if you do go ahead and read it. There are all sorts of little things I’d love to have teased out.

  5. July 30, 2010 11:56 pm

    Interesting review. As you know I “quarrel” with McEwan at lot. I heard a radio review recently where the reviewer (a London taxi driver who comments on books for National Public Radio) thought it marvelously funny. So I put it on my list. I’m dismayed to hear there’s the same formula–life-changing event–as in his thrillers (a genre I just don’t think McEwan transcends successfully) as well as that the humor doesn’t quite work. I’ll probably read it with lower expectations.

    • July 31, 2010 12:23 am

      Of course, you the first person I always think of when I read/write about McEwan! It does have the same formula but with a bit of a twist – both in what sort of event it is and how long he takes to set it up. Going into it with lower expectations may be just the thing. And, as I said, I think it is eminently readable. A couple of my bookgroup friends thought it was very funny too – one had a huge smile on her face as we discussed it. She didn’t like Saturday at all but said this renewed her interest in McEwan and was glad we scheduled it. Let me know when you review it (in case I miss it….).

  6. July 31, 2010 1:50 am

    WG: I think you hit the nail on the head with your reference to the quality of the satire in the book. Those who like Solar a lot seem to find a consistent satirical theme in it. Whereas I found myself thinking the MacEwan simply structured the book to set up some very clever little pieces which, while amusing in and of themselves, never came together. All of which makes it quite readable but not very satisfying in the final analysis.

    • July 31, 2010 10:04 am

      Thanks for coming by to comment KFC. Clearly we agree on this one – with your last sentence summing it up perfectly. It has however satisfied one readerly thing – something we can all talk about.

  7. July 31, 2010 12:39 pm

    I believe I mentioned to you that my PhD supervisor really enjoyed this, though he admits that i’s had mixed reviews? My housemate found it entertaining, too…. perhaps it strikes close to academic hearts. Which means that I really ought to read it!

    • July 31, 2010 12:52 pm

      It probably does. so you probably should – if only because you can then discuss it with them. Does your housemate have a copy or will you want mine?

      • July 31, 2010 1:10 pm

        I’m not sure if it’s hers and her mother is currently borrowing it, or if she borrowed it from her mother. If I ever get around to finishing Cloudstreet, I’ll start thinking about who to borrow this from! (Ally’s offered me his too)

      • August 6, 2010 7:51 pm

        I read Solar several months ago. I have a PhD but… I found this book -as Whispering (can’t bring myself to call you Gummy!) says- a little too much:

        too much of the same – too much womanising, too much alcohol and fatty, fast food, too much self-aggrandisement – that I started to think “enough already”.

        I started off feeling sorry for Beard, the (deservedly) cuckold husband. By halfway through the book, I was feeling like I couldn’t stand another moment inside this pathetic, grubby little man’s head.

        I am also concerned about McEwen’s creation of a womanizing character who’s 5’5, fat, balding and unpersonable. He just ain’t a convincing chick magnet! Perhaps that’s meant to be part of the humour, but alas! I found NO humour in Solar at all.

        After I’d finished it, I went and took a long, hot shower and scrubbed myself clean.

  8. July 31, 2010 8:06 pm

    What an interesting review – and also all the comments. I have very little to add – not having read the book. I like your reference to Perfume – its certainly a reference point isn’t it.

    I always enjoy McEwan and will doubtless get to this one eventually.

    • July 31, 2010 9:58 pm

      Thanks Tom…yes. I find Perfume quite a reference point. It’s a hard one to forget even when you forget the details of the story, the character is powerful. I’ll be very interested to hear your take on Solar when you get around to it.

  9. bmpermie permalink
    August 2, 2010 3:08 pm

    I am glad you reviewed this book a my bookclub has been put off and not read it. I sort of enjoyed it. He was such a monstrous character, so much so that I had trouble with the idea that these younger women kept wanting him and put up with his appalling behaviour.

    I admired the satire but I did not find it funny at all – I think it says alot about reputation, spin, appearances and self serving behaviour. It certainly gave Ian Mc Ewan a great opportunity for observations on human behaviour and lots of ‘isms’.

    • August 2, 2010 3:30 pm

      That’s a shame because it’s a good discussion book. I had a line in the post about not understanding how women could put up with him but cut it out just to keep the review a bit tight – so I agree with you. The satire was pretty good – he’s pretty cynical about our ability to solve the problem isn’t he? (Am I right that your group is doing Truth next?)

      • bmpermie permalink
        August 4, 2010 8:41 am

        You are quite correct. How did you know? Powers of deduction! and very perceptive.

  10. August 4, 2010 1:41 am

    “Squiffy” in that last quote. Excellent word. I’m not sure if I like McEwan or not. I read Atonement a number of years ago and while I enjoyed it I don’t seem to be as wowed by it as everyone else is. Is there a different McEwan book I should read that will settle the question of whether I become a fan or not?

    • August 4, 2010 9:20 am

      Ah good question. I did love Atonement, but I understand why people don’t. (I’ve had long discussions about it with “Susannah” who commented above here). I believe some of his early works are excellent but I’ve only read the last 6. Of those, the one that I’d probably recommend is Enduring love. It has one of the best opening chapters I’ve read in terms of setting up a novel.

  11. August 4, 2010 9:26 am

    LOL bmpernie. I think the first time you commented here you linked to your group’s blog. I wrote a little post on it for my bookgroup’s blog and noticed that Truth was coming up. Not stalking I promise you!

    • bmpermie permalink
      August 5, 2010 10:18 pm

      I was flattered. I have just read your post on Truth and all the comments most interesting. Keep up the good work.

      • August 5, 2010 10:26 pm

        You too! We Aussie bookgroups and bloggers need to support and encourage each other. I look forward to hearing what you group thinks of Truth.

  12. August 5, 2010 2:25 am

    I very thorough review, I enjoyed it very much. Even though you say it’s not McEwan’s best work, I’m interested to find out more about him. I haven’t read any McEwan yet, what would you recommend as a first-time book?

    Your description of Beard reminded me of David Lurie from JM Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’. Both hopeless womanisers, their respective career’s petering out, and something that happens that changes both their lives.

    • August 5, 2010 5:10 pm

      I hear some of his really early ones are great but I haven’t read them. I started abut 6 novels ago. I think of those I’d recommend Enduring love first, and Atonement (but beware, this one tends to divide people) second.

      Interesting comment about David Lurie and Disgrace. David Lurie is I think are far more complex character because he starts to grow in the novel, starts to reflect on who he is and who he’s been, starts to see the ramifications and implications of his actions. Beard knows who he is and what he’s done but hasn’t the willpower to be different! But, I take your point!

  13. August 5, 2010 5:05 pm

    Great Stefanie – I’ll watch out for your review – but I know not to hold my breath!

  14. August 6, 2010 10:09 pm

    Thanks for your comments Amanda – I didn’t feel quite so strongly as you because I am fascinated by such characterisation but it did go on too long!

  15. August 27, 2011 8:49 am

    I’m late to come to this discussion but have only just finished Solar. I think it is not so much about climate change as about how to engage in a subject that is so politicised and yet will have such a huge impact on the earth and humanity if not addressed. The book satirises the politicisation but also works on an allegorical level to show what will be lost by not facing up to the fact there is a problem. I wonder if climate change sceptics might be engaging only with the satire but not the allegory on first reading. Believers might find it didn’t go far enough, not liking its dependency on a technological solution that serves the greed of investors. I thought it achieved a fine balance, providing food for thought in both directions.

    • August 27, 2011 10:26 am

      It’s never too late to join in a discussion, Judith, so thanks for leaping in. You make some great points. I fear in the end though that books like these only preach to the converted. I think my problem was more with the vehicle, the somewhat heavy-handedness, than with the message. I agree that it shows the complexity in managing the issue as well as of the issue itself. Have you read other McEwans?

      • August 27, 2011 11:47 am

        Yes, most of his titles over the years. I must reread them! I’m not sure about the heavy-handedness in Solar. For me, the sentence about the boot room is a way of establishing Beard’s current position, which will change significantly as the novel progresses.

        • August 27, 2011 2:14 pm

          So you are a fan too? I do like his work overall. People seem to like him or hate him, I’ve found. I’m in the former camp, but Solar is not among my favourites. As I recollect, I felt the bootroom was a case of “telling” not “showing” but perhaps if I read it again I might see it differently.

  16. April 12, 2014 5:23 am

    I am one of the few people (it seems) who enjoyed the humour in this book. Of course, the first part was the best of the three as it sort of lost its way. I giggled a lot. For me, it was a great example of a book I enjoyed with a terribly unlikable main character.
    I remember enjoying reading how the main character kept agreeing to professional engagements that were not what he was expecting – interpretive dance to highlight the peril in the arctic icecaps, a conference where the other guest speaker was a lecturer in ‘Science Studies’ – so where’s the other scientist?
    I held on to the book for a while and then realised I wouldn’t read it again and passed it on.

    I am enjoying reading your reviews of books I read before I started blogging. Trips down memory lane…

    • April 12, 2014 9:21 am

      Oh thanks Orange Pekoe … I’m a big McEwan fan but this was not my favourite. As I recollect I felt it was a bit too OTT in places, but I liked it more than many and I thought it was very funny, particularly at that conference in the Arctic (if I’m remembering correctly)

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