For me, McEwan is a man who writes tight dramas with a single motif: a moment when something happens and the implications of that moment ripple across the lives of the participants. Thus, Saturday, his Ulysses, which celebrates London as Joyce did Dublin, is set within the framework of a single day. Atonement traces the consequences of a single misunderstanding on an evening. Chesil Beach deals exhaustively with the effects of a premature ejaculation.
But Solar rambles. It is a sort of picaresque, a Don Quijote, except that its hero, Michael Beard, is a man who can't restrain his appetite for either sex or food and whose life is in essence messy.
Which is strange because he is a physicist whose moment of Nobelian glory came with a few sparse equations; who celebrates the economy and beauty of the succinct form of the Dirac equation. In terms of thought here is a man who has trained his mind to be amongst the sharpest in the world. But he is a fat glutton and a lecher.
He reminds me of the hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps he was created to encompass every single one of the seven deadly sins. As a result he is a mesmerising though comic creation. He is also fat: in a cosmological joke his belly is described as The Expanding Universe. But more properly he represents fallen mankind whose weaknesses are propelling us, headlong and blind, into the disaster of global warming.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the trip that Beard makes to Spitzbergen. On a ship frozen into the ice he confronts those obsessed with global warming. But in the Boot Room they cannot even organise their own clothes; when they lose a glove they steal someone else's. How can such flawed humans prevent ecological catastrophe?
Not to mention the fact that Beard, who becomes a prophet of the greenhouse disaster, travels everywhere by plane and reaches Spitzbergen on a petrol guzzling skimobile. His very fatness is a metaphor for the Earth: greed leading to destruction.
Other funny scenes include the irony of the climate scientist who dies after slipping on a polar bear rug; the true traveller's tale which Beard recounts only to be told he has stolen the anecdote from an urban myth; and the denunciation of Beard by feminists and relativists who claim that genes are "in the strongest sense, socially constructed" and who condemn science as 'hegemonic' (how a dominant power seeks to preserve its dominance) and 'reductionist' (something that tries to explain a system in terms of its simpler parts, which is of course the essence of science).
McEwan pokes fun at a lot of arty types and social scientists. Beard as an undergraduate at Oxford notes that arts graduates are lazier than scientists (this anti-laziness doesn't seem to last him into later life) and that, for example, English literature is not difficult (compared to Physics): he spends a week learning about Milton to impress a girlfriend and carries off the deception so well she later marries him (as the first of his five wives).
I read it quickly, though not avidly. A fun book but I think I prefer McEwan in his control freak mode.
The Guardian reviews it here.
The Telegraph reviews it here.
May 2010; 283 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57