Ian McEwan let me down in his latest novel, Solar. After reading Saturday a few years ago, a novel that still percolates in my mind and that I have written about several times here, I thought he could do no wrong. But I found Solar a bit of ordeal and at times thought about giving up on it.
McEwan’s depiction of Michael Beard, the central character in the novel, was the source of my problem. Beard is overweight, five-times married, a womanizer par excellence, heavy drinking, “monster.” I found him utterly repulsive and, in spite of the fact that he was a Nobel-Prize winning physicist with a sharp and crafty mind, I could not overcome my distaste for his excesses.
Why McEwan endowed him with so many vices mystifies me. Nor could I fathom his depiction of the steady stream of Beard’s clumsy, selfish, idiocies. Beard forgets to go to the bathroom before putting on protective gear on polar visit and risks a horrible fate by trying to relieve himself in the icy open air. This is followed by a mindless act of gluttony before delivering a talk on climate change and, as a result, he is barely able to fend off the rumblings of his digestive system.
McEwan continues in this vein when Beard, after returning home from a conference, fails to call 911 when one of his student-colleagues is fatally impaled as he falls and cracks his head on the edge of a glass table. Beard has just learned that the young man had been sleeping with his wife. In response, he runs off to fetch a hammer that belonged to a workman, also sleeping with his wife, and smears it with blood in order to incriminate the unfortunate fellow.
In this way, the novel takes the reader through one preposterous event after another. It has been said that Solar is a comic novel. I confess the humor completely escaped me as I failed to find anything the least bit humorous or terribly ironic in any of these incidents. Implausible, yes. Ridiculous, yes. Totally absurd, yes. Humorous, no.
And this includes novel’s conclusion, when the falsely accused workman, after completing his prison term, arrives on the scene as Beard is about to launch his grand solar project in the New Mexico desert. He beseeches Beard for a job, it is denied, whereupon he proceeds to shatter all the project’s solar panels.
As the project collapses, all Beard’s previous flings, lies, failures, heedlessness, gluttonies, and a long threatening melanoma also come crashing down upon him. We get what we deserve, don’t we? As James Baldwin noted “…people pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”
The life McEwan created for Beard made it impossible for me to appreciate his effort to approach the topic of climate change. McEwan has said, “I couldn’t quite see how a novel would work without falling flat with a moral intent.” In my view it fell flat even without such intent. Others have felt the same way.
Walter Kirn in the Times said, “…it’s actually quite bad.” Also in the Times Michiko Kakutani wrote, “…its plot machinery soon starts to run out of gas, sputtering and stalling as it makes its way from one comic set piece to another.” and Solar “…is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.”
On the other hand, Michael Wood writing in the New York Review of Books thought that even its “…slowness works in the novel’s favor” while Stehan Rahmstorf in the Guardian judged Solar to be “…McEwan at his best.” So it goes among the critics.
In order to enjoy a novel, does its central character need to be lovable or likeable or deserve our sympathy? As I think back upon the novels I have most enjoyed they are always peopled with individuals I admire and respect. While Henry Perowne in McEwan’s Saturday is certainly among them, Michael Beard in Solar is definitely not. I don’t know who admires or respects Michael Beard.
I am not entirely sure why McEwan wrote Solar or why he tackled climate change in such an oblique way. But if he hoped to increase public awareness or change many views on this issue without lecturing , I doubt he succeeded in Solar.