Alex's Reviews > Solar

Solar by Ian McEwan
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's review
Jan 09, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: bastard-protagonists
Read from January 09 to 11, 2012

An interesting and strange beast, this, Solar is at its best in the early passages, where McEwan describes a physicist obsessing over being cuckolded, discovering that he loves his wife in the process and there is no way to claim her back. The distinct three act structure shows where the novel doesn't strictly lose its way but changes its tone dramatically; it loses the human element in an extreme moment of escalation, raising its protagonist to the ur-human, both greater and more terrible than anyone should ever be.

Before I'd finished the book I read part of a review where the writer said that McEwan had written an Amis novel. I wish I hadn't seen that claim, because forever after I was chasing John Self in Michael Beard.

I'll be honest and say this isn't what I had expected of McEwan, but I've only read Atonement (beautiful) and On Chesil Beach (so detailed and yet so minute and above all internal that one wonders how it's going to become a movie). This is an acidic novel about self-destruction, with Professor Michael Beard's mind and body standing in for the separation of humanity from the planet we inhabit.

He literally embodies our excesses, exiting the novel approximately fifty pounds heavier than when he entered. He appeals to human greed to encourage greener technology, and embraces the contradictory twins of self-loathing and narcissism present in the worst of us. He is eminently identifiable and we're expected to hate him for that. 

Though Beard is truly loathsome, I never quite wanted to see him fail. McEwan walks a delicate line in managing the expectations of the reader, ending the novel at the most merciful point imaginable. There's no denying that this is an unpleasant novel, but McEwan does make the landing softer with some impressive set pieces, such as the time that Beard becomes convinced that his penis has snapped off in sub-zero temperatures. Later parts of Beard's arctic excursion are directly plundered from McEwan's life and the character seems more pleasant for it; it's only after his return from the arctic that the possibility of alternate paths is suggested, a tacit acknowledgement that Beard ends up making the far less rational choice and consequently enacts a major shift in the novel's trajectory.

Solar's most impressive moment comes after that tonal shift, wherein the role of the Unwitting Thief is played out by Beard, creating a sense of unease for those familiar with the story, and then is paid off pages later by the revelation of its place in the collective unconscious. 
I had seen the story elsewhere, and was gratified that McEwan had a larger point to make to justify moments that seemed all too familiar. Beard's grasp on reality, even as related by third person narration, is tenuous, so that we're never entirely sure what has actually happened to him and what he's internalised as fact. Almost none of it makes him look good, regardless of accuracy.

McEwan remains McEwan, and there is a degree of mastery to Solar, but I can't imagine ever delving into its pages again. There are many men in literature who can't control their appetites, and Beard isn't the worst of them, but he’s certainly not one that you’d really want to spend any more time with than you strictly had to.
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Reading Progress

7.0% "What is it about ageing British lotharios that works so well for me? I have literally nothing in common with them yet they frequently manage so well to capture the human condition. Unless they're Hanif Kureishi's latter day creations, in which case they just make you want to stab yourself. Not very far into this, but have yet to calm my stabbing hand."
44.0% "Just read an entire set up and punchline identical to a scenario in So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, albeit described with more malice here. Strange beast, this."
56.0% "Dear lord, McEwan has actually deconstructed that story and specifically name-checked Douglas Adams. This book is deeply unpleasant but in many ways impressive."

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message 1: by Lewis (new)

Lewis Weinstein I enjoyed your review more than I ever enjoyed one of McEwan's novels. I don't think I'll read this one that I'm sure you accurately describe as "unpleasant," and its main character as "not one that you’d really want to spend any more time with than you strictly had to."

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