I have read quite a few of McEwan’s previous novels – Atonement and Amsterdam amongst my favourites – and I was thrilled to see that he had a new one. I was dismayed when a few of the reviews that I read were far from glorifying and so I hesitated to plunge into McEwan’s latest work, Solar. Andrew Riemer has some good things to say about Solar, but he is disappointed and so I expected to feel equally so.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Solar an exceptionally well written book with wonderful asides and intriguing characters. The New York Times calls this book McEwan’s funniest novel yet and while there were moments which were indeed funny, overall this book is actually quite sad. In fact, the comic elements are at the root of The Guardian’s criticism of this text:
The protagonist “emerges as a figure of some comic dynamism, but the pages on his childhood and youth, though brilliantly done, articulate poorly with the knockabout parts of the plot. Once it became clear that the book’s world is comic, I also found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have benefited from being more loosely assembled, with shorter, discontinuous episodes and Beard functioning along the lines of Updike’s Bech, Nabokov’s Pnin or the consciousness in Calvino’s Cosmicomics.”
For me, the balance between McEwan’s comic depiction of his protagonist, Michael Beard, and Beard’s own satirical musing about the dilapidated state of his own existence, worked and I found myself constantly surprised by the manner in which McEwan managed to blend these two contrary states together.
In short, the book is about a physicist who wins a Nobel Prize for a piece of research that he published on the back of some theory of Einstein’s. Ultimately, said physicist produces no other work of consequences and he himself knows that his Nobel Prize win was more of a coincidence than anything related to the value of his academic contribution. The book opens with him on the brink of his fifth divorce, accepting his fate, the figurative head of a government organisation concerned with the development of wind turbines as a new fuel source, about to be thrust into environmental issues with which he really has no concern. Beard is a character who is as gluttonous in his personality as he is in his eating habits. He is, on all levels, grotesque and readers will struggle to feel any empathy for his situation. Where the novel becomes an interesting reading experience is in the manner that McEwan wins over readers who grow to feel for Beard as his unfortunate life unfolds. There is no doubt that this protagonist is somewhat of a metaphor for the state that man might find himself as he approaches middle age (the Guardian claims that Beard is a metaphor for humanity but for me, this book is so clearly masculine in its perspective that it is difficult to make such a sweeping statement). In essence, it is a sad metaphor, encapsulated best by Beard’s need to hold to on to his mould-ridden, decrepit apartment which he actually can’t stand but at the same time is too pathetic to have repaired. At this level, it is ironic that Beard becomes concerned with the harnessing of solar power as an energy source – clearly Beard himself is far from a source of light or inspiration! And perhaps this is McEwan’s message … that light can come from the most unlikely places …
Revealing anything more would involve spoiling this book. So, I will leave you with this: Solar is a spectacularly written book, something to be savoured and enjoyed. It is filled with so many diverse elements that it is difficult to capture in such a short space. Readers will find themselves laughing on one page and cringing with discomfort on the next.
I can highly recommend this one to any discerning reader. Hats off to McEwan. Again!