Ian McEwan is one of the leading British novelists of our times. He has been active for well over three decades, since he published a collection of short stories (First Love, Last Rites) in 1978.
McEwan is A-list novelist, who is popular with hoi polloi—a new McEwan novel invariably lands at the top of the bestsellers’ list—and also enjoys critical acclaim. Over the decades McEwan has pocketed a number of prestigious awards. His 1987 novel, Child in Time, won the Whitbread (now Costa) award and Amsterdam, which came out in 1998, bagged that year’s Booker. On either side of Amsterdam McEwan published two hugely popular novels: Enduring Love and Atonement (both made into films). Atonement was widely tipped by the Bookies to win the Booker but lost out to Yan Martel’s hugely entertaining Life of Pie.
I do not count myself as an Ian McEwan fan, but that is not for want of trying. Starting with Enduring Love, I have read all of his novels, and have been less than thrilled. Enduring Love and Amsterdam were clever novels, the literary equivalents of set-pieces. They promised spectacular denouements, which somehow were not as spectacular (or in case of Amsterdam) convincing as you hoped, and left you with the feeling of being cheated. Atonement is considered by many to be McEwan’s finest. It was an ambitious novel, too ambitious for its own good; the different sections of the novel, some of them riveting, did not quite coalesce into a substantive whole. Reading Atonement was like dining out in an obnoxiously hoity-toity restaurant that delivered elaborately orchestrated food on elaborately decorated plates but failed to live up to the expectations because—there isn’t a kinder way of saying this—it was not very tasty. Saturday was a disaster from the beginning to end. All of McEwan’s erudition and wonderful gift for pithy observations failed to conceal the fact that the raw material of Saturday—which described an eventful day in the life of a neurosurgeon—wasn’t quite enough to be stretched into a full length fiction. McEwan’s last novel—perhaps better described as a novella—On the Chesil Beach was, like Enduring Love and Amsterdam, a prolonged set-piece that, despite some passages of acute and subtle observations on the nature of human relationship, lacked the wow factor.
It was therefore with a feeling of inevitability—that I was going to be ultimately disappointed—that I began reading Solar, McEwan’s most recent novel. And I was not disappointed; because I was disappointed.
In three sections, placed linearly in time, Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a physicist of international repute. The reader is invited to believe that Beard in his younger days, when his creative powers were at peak, developed something called Einstein-Beard conflation for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
When the reader first meets Beard, in 2000, the glory days are a thing of past. He is a fifty something, bald, corpulent has-been, who has been dining out on his early triumphs for years, but has not produced, for decades, work that would make the world sit up and take notice. His personal life is in shambles. He is on to his fifth marriage, childless like the previous four, and his much younger wife, upon finding out about Beard’s numerous affairs in their five-year marriage, has, in retaliation, been sleeping with a thuggish builder by the name Rodney Tarpin, who worked for them in the past. Professionally things are looking scarcely better. Beard is appointed as head of the new National Centre for Renewable Energy. The job is a sinecure and Beard has no real passion for the global warming. At the centre Beard meets Tom Aldous, a pony-tailed graduate student from Norfolk whose head is full of innovative ideas about solar energy with which he sees fit to deluge Beard. Then Beard is invited to an expedition to Arctic with a bunch of worried tree-huggers. When he returns home from the expedition (which is an adventure in more than one sense, not least because his penis freezes when he unwisely tries to pee in sub-zero temperature) Beard finds Aldous in the sitting room wearing his dressing gown and an expression that suggest that he has emerged from an invigorating session of bedroom calisthenics with Beard’s wife, to whom Beard had unwisely introduced him a few weeks earlier. Then Aldous gets killed in one of those freak unexpected accidents you have come to expect in a McEwan novel. Beard successfully manages to implicate Tarpin in Aldous’s death.
Fast forward five years, to 2005, and we meet Beard again, now nearing sixty. His fifth marriage has ended. He is living in a squalid bachelor’s flat in Dorset Square and is seeing Melissa who runs a string (if three can be called a string) of shops in London, which barely make profit and which sell dresses for young girls whose parents think they are talented ballet dancers. Melissa thinks, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Beard is a good husband and father material. Professionally, Beard has jumped on the bandwagon of global warming and has come up with some original ideas he hopes would get the attention of institutional investors and hedge fund managers who would agree to invest in his project. Except that they are not his ideas; Beard has, without acknowledgement, lifted the material Tom Aldous had prepared for Beard to have a look at when he (Aldous) met his unexpected end. The second section ends as Beard is informed by the ‘generously buttocked’ Melissa, over a lovingly prepared meal, that she is expecting his child.
The last section of the novel is set in 2009. Beard is under the scorching sun of New Mexico, hoping to give a spectacular demonstration of solar energy to a gaggle of media journalist, investment bankers and venture capitalists. Beard has formed a partnership with a charlatan named Toby Hammer and has every reason to hope that he will be, in the fullness of time, a very rich man. What can possibly go wrong? As it turns out, everything possible. As the novel hurtles towards it apocalyptic (for the protagonist) and surprisingly moving end, the ghosts from the past, which Beard thinks he has buried successfully, resurface and claim their victim.
Solar has all the elements that one has come to associate with McEwan. Like many of the protagonists of his earlier novels, Beard is not a character to whom one can warm up easily. (Balding and overweight, he is also an unlikely seducer of women). There is the usual splattering of the grotesque and macabre—McEwan’s speciality. The sudden appearance of Aldous as Beard’s wife’s most recent lover followed by his (equally sudden) death propels the novel into another gear, adding, into the bargain, a degree of suspense. At times, though, McEwan overdoes it. A large part of the first section, devoted to Beard’s Arctic expedition with artists and scientists, seems like an unnecessary add on. It is too long, laborious, does not really add anything to the novel’s theme and, despite, McEwan’s attempts at the slapstick, not very funny.
The trouble with Solar is its protagonist: for the most part Beard, despite reams of pages devoted to his activities and thinking and despite the story being told—in all three sections—entirely from his point of view, remains a disappointingly wooden, two-dimensional character. The reader does not really know what makes Beard tick. It may be that we have stereotypes of professions and award winners in our minds; but I for one would have found Beard’s opportunistic shenanigans in the second and third section of the novel more believable—perhaps palatable is the correct word—if he were not a Nobel Laureate. McEwan is adept at—in the novels I have read—describing moral ambiguity behind many of our actions, without falling into the trap of offering a neat explanation. Here, though, it does not work. Michael Beard, McEwan’s greedy, post-modern uber-consumer, whose policy towards the cake is pro having it and pro eating it, lacks credibility.
McEwan has a certain style of writing. I must say that I don’t like it much. It has the outward appearance of being exact and deliberate, but it is in fact long-winded and ponderous; at times tedious. The circumlocution weighs you down.
Solar attempts, like some of its predecessors, at attaining a shimmering, illusory quality, but the narrative is not particularly gripping and the thematic focus is not sharp. Four out of ten.