Darkly humourous but less than the sum of its parts

2010-05-26 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Solar

Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape

IAN McEwan, a former Booker Prize winner, is regularly punted as one of the best writers of his generation, ­engaging with issues of life and society in the 20th and 21st century in a way that is accessible, profound and often funny. He has a dark humour that can make the most serious subject palatable.

Here he turns his attention to climate change. His central character is Nobel prizewinning physicist Michael Beard, an unattractive (to the reader, at least, though according to his creator he is irresistible to women) slob who had a moment of genius in his youth and has rested on his laurels ever since. He is a serial adulterer; when the novel opens he is horrified to find that his fifth wife’s revenge is to take a lover of her own — the builder who has been working on their home. His expanding waistline and multiplying chins are a monument to his passion for junk food, and he is profoundly lazy, even when it comes to his own subject.

The novel is in three parts, set in 2000, 2005 and 2009. We follow Beard’s rake’s progress from a visit to the Arctic, not much bothered about climate change, to an event on his return where he proves himself to be remarkably amoral but which also gives him a chance to give his scientific reputation a much needed boost. Here McEwan’s skill as a novelist comes to the fore as he makes quantum mechanics and other such esoteric matters digestible and even enjoyable for the non-scientific among us. And finally, he takes Beard to his richly deserved comeuppance in the desert of New Mexico.

I know this is an excellent novel: it deals intelligently and humourously with important issues. The trouble is, at times I didn’t manage to feel that it was. Particularly in the first two parts, McEwan has Beard lurching from one comic setpiece to the next: Beard’s penis freezing to his zip in the Arctic; trying to pretend to his wife that he has a lover in the house; encountering his wife’s lover in his living room; inadvertently stealing a stranger’s chips on a train. Each is funny; taken together they begin to diminish each other. And unlike someone like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Michael Beard is not a character to engage sympathy. But Solar is still an important book.

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