285 p. 2010
Ian McEwan is one of those prolific writers who is able to produce a string of books with each quite unlike the one that preceded it. Thriller, historical fiction, small polished novella… he can turn his hand to them all, but I must admit that I wasn’t expecting comedy from him. ‘Solar’ is one long satire centred on the pompous and repellent Michael Beard, an overweight, lazy, adulterous physicist who has done virtually nothing after early research coupled his name with Einstein in the barely-explained, Nobel-Prize winning theoretical construct of the Beard-Einstein Conflation. The book romps along as he pushes his way to the front with not a shred of moral compunction- indeed his actions regarding a young postgraduate student are appalling on first reading and even more reprehensible if you really think about it. He is so truly repulsive that you really relish his downfall.
It’s a 21st century morality play, but rather heavy-handed and buffoonish. McEwan pricks at many forms of pretension in this book beyond Michael Beard himself: the carpet-baggery of climate change politics, the confected outrage over plagiarism and academic purity, and academic fakery. His Michael Beard swots up on literature in order to woo his first wife, and I suspect that McEwan himself has swotted up on physics here and is laughing up his sleeve at his less-scientifically-inclined readers who wouldn’t know whether the plot is risible or not. The book ends with a rather destabilizing extract from Michael Beard’s citation by the Nobel Prize committee which just seems to hang there at the end of the book- and you know damned well that McEwan has just put it there deliberately.
The book is in three parts- 2000, 2004 and 2009 but there are no chapters at all within these three sections. McEwan relies on his own control of the narrative to sweep between backgrounding, foreshadowing and present-time dialogue, and he does it with the confidence of a master story-teller. Like Michael Beard himself, it’s all rather too much, and you just strap yourself in and go along for the ride. Just don’t take any of it too seriously.