Entrancing readers through characters who exhibit poor morals should be the experienced author’s plateau.  The narcissist, the delusional, even the pathological, while repulsing and horrifying us, nonetheless offer slightly warped mirrors in which we can see ourselves, and naturally, all of human nature.

And who better to provide us with the ultimate protagonist we love to hate, or hate to love, whichever way you may want to put it, than one of the world’s best, English writer Ian McEwan?  In his latest work, McEwan provides us with Michael Beard: abominable husband and unlikely womanizer, egocentric glutton and, surprisingly, a Nobel Prize winning physicist.  His days of scientific brilliance are long behind him, he’s addicted to sex and salt and vinegar chips, he lazily and apathetically maintains a living by riding on the coattails of his younger self, but somehow, miraculously, he’s going to save the world from the detrimental effects of climate change.

Within the opening pages of “Solar”, McEwan draws the reader into the bizarre, oftentimes painfully pathetic and incomprehensible character and lifestyle of Michael Beard.  Having successfully sabotaged four previous marriages with his insensitivity and philandering, Beard is currently in the throes of the destruction of his fifth marriage, in which his current gorgeous wife has turned the tables upon him: she’s the cheater and he’s the “cuckold”.  What’s more, he’s still painfully erotically obsessed with her.  The first night we spend in Beard’s company, he engages in a pseudo-affair in an attempt to make his wife jealous, lying alone in his room, delicately keeping his own vocalizations in balance with the speech of a woman on his television set; knowing the particulars of the speech will be muffled in his wife’s adjacent room.  His career is in a similar state of absurdity: he’s been appointed “chief” of a company concerned with renewable energy, currently invested in its first futile project: the production of wind turbines that are neither overly useful or cost-efficient, the result of the chief’s own poorly thought out suggestion.

And so the stage is set.  From here, events only get increasingly tumultuous, darkly humourous, and sometimes, farcical.  McEwan’s ability as an adept humourist shines in this novel, and shines the whole way through.  Beard’s one redeeming feature is his intelligence (which, naturally, is essentially McEwan’s intelligence) and his observations and perspective, particularly in various ludicrous situations, is quite amusing.  Whether it’s an attempt to pee outside gone awry during a trip to the Arctic, or a ruthless lambasting he’s receiving from social scientists due to quasi-sexist speculations on differences in the male and female mind, Beard just makes you laugh.

What exactly McEwan wished to accomplish with “Solar” is a little unclear, however.  If it was to produce simply a satirical tale on climate change, it’s hit the mark.  As a cohesive or emotionally-in-depth work, however, it fails.  Episodic novels rarely work, unless you’re Mark Twain writing Huck Finn.  And Beard’s character is tiring.  The lack of character development is obviously intentional and fitting; we are a lazy, consumptive species unwilling to change our habits (hence global warming); so is Beard.  He continues to drift from woman to woman, and to eat excessive junk food, not heeding the consequences until the conclusion, in which the consequences of his lifestyle finally catch up to him, as does the significance of previous seemingly unrelated epsidoes, producing a climax that’s too over the top to get invested in.

To summarize, “Solar” is not a gripping, emotionally intense exploration of human consciousness and regret, unlike McEwan’s other recent works.  In “Atonement”, readers are left to ponder the necessary but potentially harmful role of story-telling  to cleanse humanity of its foibles; “Saturday” allows us to share in Henry Perowne’s struggle to grapple with mortality, morality and to reach  elevations of consciousness in empathizing with the man who threatens to kill his family.  “On Chesil Beach”  sets readers (particularly young ones) into modes of panic about mortality and the impact that choices today, especially in terms of love and commitment, can have on tomorrow.

Having said all that, I’m sure McEwan’s intentions for his lastest literary contribution were quite different from that of his other novels, and that’s his business.  “Solar” is well-worth the read, it just doesn’t take readers to the same heights that classic McEwan does.

Advertisements