SOLAR Ian McEwan
London: Jonathan Cape
pp285, £18.99 (hardback).
Review by Lynda Woodroffe
Beautifully crafted, Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is a page-turner and a farce. The main character is a cringe-worthy, repulsive, but fascinating, clumsy man – Michael Beard – who lacks any sign of conscience. The story is one of hypocrisy, greed and deception and all their repercussions, and McEwan’s excellent descriptions of his character’s life history and the predicaments he lands himself in hold both tension and comedy. McEwan leads the reader through Fawlty-Towers-esque nail-biting anxiety, mouth-watering desires and stomach-churning disgust, each sentence carefully and succinctly constructed for best effect. His paragraphs, containing delightful detailed descriptions, are, in my view, not over-researched (a common criticism of this author) but written in very accessible and superb language.
Professor Michael Beard is a physicist working on the urgent problem of energy resources to replace the toxic, carbon dioxide-emitting fuels of the 19th and 20th centuries. First wind power, then solar energy and finally a stolen idea about artificial photosynthesis win him fame, notoriety, a Nobel prize for work carried out some years before and, most importantly, women. This last temptation devastates his personal life since he cannot resist it. But that is not all. His first experiences in life lead to unhealthy choices affecting his lifestyle, relationships and problem solving. He indulges every whim; he takes what he can by way of romance and cunning, and is creative in his avoidance of responsibility, with a razor-sharp mind to support his cowardly retreats from complex professional and personal pickles. He is also a commitment-phobe; greed and hedonism are dominant themes in his life and he strives to maintain these at a level where unpleasant confrontations are evaded through numberless escape routes which he retrieves with a conjuror’s sleight-of-hand.
In the first chapter, we see a tortured person. This one-time inspired physicist and serial adulterer (with four wives behind him) has to bear the retaliation of his fifth wife who will no longer tolerate his sexual infidelity. In this painful condition he does not stop to consider his own faults and weaknesses as being at all relevant and when the tables are turned, he plunges into a desperate yearning. The new circumstances in his life do not turn out well and, after an unfortunate turn of events, his professional life is also affected. Beard goes through a rapid deterioration both personally and professionally, blind to the meaninglessness and destruction of his actions to the extent that, by the end of the novel, he is in a state of constant denial and avoidance. Deviously, he takes all the short cuts he can muster to accrue success or escape, be they for notoriety in his work or for sexual gratification. He appears as a likeable sociopath (if such a concept can exist) and perhaps it is not so much that he dislikes people, but that his drive to use and abuse them is out of control.
Beard’s expedition to the Arctic, resulting in a frozen penis, invokes not only agonising personal identification with him, even if one does not have a penis, but also disbelief. In the strong hope that his frozen penis does not actually drop off, I am left squirming, half believing it could actually happen, while at the same time realising that its amputation would mean the end of the story. And throughout there is the question: ‘How is he going to get himself out of this one?’ By the end of the novel he appears as a bumbling idiot and one has to wonder how, with his gross personal habits and failings, he still manages to attract and seduce women. What is attractive about this particular bumbling idiot?
Another of the book’s themes is that of the mother. Was Beard gliding seamlessly and carelessly through life in pursuit of his lost mother, a mother who was taken by breast cancer and who left him with a disengaged, absent father? … a mother, who was beautiful, who cooked like a kitchen goddess, and who, after an empty marriage, took 17 lovers in eleven years before she died? Was Beard searching to replace her and thereby failing with every encounter that could not possibly compare? Did Beard sink to levels which matched his own self-estimation, self-hatred? And is McEwan suggesting that Beard’s high intellect was actually overwhelmed by unconscious drives?
And what of the theme of intellectual theft? Is it possible to announce to the world that ideas in scientific innovations are owned exclusively by one or two single beings? Beard was accused of stealing the ideas of one of his deceased research slaves but this particular slave had based a lot of his ideas upon Beard’s original thinking. In reality, scientific research is universal, trials are pursued by numerous groups of researchers and collaboration often occurs across nations. Moreover, scientific development is not a linear process and serendipity sometimes plays a big part. The example given in McEwan’s novel is well known, that of Watson and Crick who deliberately omitted Rosalind Franklin’s name from their work on the structure of DNA. Ownership of patents, experimental evidence and the taking of credit for scientific proofs is not a simple matter.
While in pursuit of Beard’s hedonistic desires, McEwan also considers the stresses on his body, his abuse through overindulgence in rich foods as well as his experience of regular conflict. Beard ignores the signs. The clock ticks out of sync with the heart and by the end of the story one wonders not only when the buttons on his shirt will burst, but also when the fibres of his cardiac muscles will blow. In relation to this, the ending is ambiguous.
While feeling gut-wrenching revulsion for this man, simultaneously I pitied him: I felt tense over his wrong turns and sorry that he never found solace in his trials. McEwan’s message of pathos and revulsion for a man set on a path of destruction succeeded in moving me. The farce that this story turned into became horribly dark. A novel so wonderfully executed must surely be McEwan’s best yet.