Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review - Solar by Ian McEwan (Vintage 2011)

In one of these bizarre decisions that International Award Ceremonies occassionally throw up, Ian McEwan, who must be the consistently feted British author of recent times, has only won the Booker Prize for fiction once, for Amsterdam - at the time McEwan's only stab at comedy, and to my mind a singularly unsuccessful one as it lacked the lacked the nuanced control which typically characterise McEwan's best novels. It was therefore with a certain amount of concern that I read that McEwan's latest novel would be another comedic venture. However I needn't have worried - this is the master back at his very best.

Michael Beard is a nobel laureate for physics, his Einstein-Beard Conflation setting out the theoretical basis for extracting energy from sunlight and water. This honour, conferred in Beard's early career, has ensured his fame, a series of comfortable sinecures, and his continuing attractiveness to women despite his small stature, expanding girth and generally unappealing nature.

As in many McEwan novels, the main character of the book, usually an urban professional, is threatened by an encounter with someone of lower professional or social status. So, as Joe Rose is threatened by Jed Parry in Enduring Love, and Henry Perowne by Baxter in Saturday, Beard is threatened by his earnest subordinate Tom Aldous in Solar. Aldous is committed to the possibilities of photovoltaics which utilise Beard's theories, and can see commercial possibilities. Unfortunately Beard is distracted by the fact that his fifth wife is having an open affair with her builder, notwithstanding the fact that in the short time since they were married Beard has managed at least eleven affairs himself, so he pays little attention to Aldous' theories, or to Aldous himself except when he returns home early from a short stay in the Arctic to find Aldous in his living room wearing his dressing gown...

Beard is a superb comic creation - a vain, arrogant, complacent, devious old lecher whilst still remarkably retaining the reader's sympathy as a generally hapless victim of the circumstances surrounding him, which are generally of his own making. He stumbles from one crisis to another, but always seems to survive, even while the forces are stacking up around him. McEwan has chosen a broad range of easy satirical targets, but does spear them quite effectively. From academic life (the social scientist who believes genes are socially constructed is superb) to the environmental movement, from the nature of celebrity to the way in which the press attacks its victims, there is nothing new in what McEwan is saying, but he does say it very elegantly and effectively. However, what humour there is revolves around Michael Beard. It is not the Press per se which is funny, but how it behaves in raising up and then tearing down Beard.

As always, McEwan's sentences are beautifully balanced, adjectives and subordinate clauses neatly packed in triplets, utilising volcabulary just too obscure to be comfortable : "But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame." Equally typical are the bravura descriptions of a complex technical subject: in Saturday it was neurosurgery, in Solar it is quantum physics, which provide a basis for complex extended metaphors throughout the book.

But don't let the prospect of difficult science deter you. This is McEwan at the top on his form, so perhaps it is understandable that this clever, funny, compassionate book never even made the Booker long list.

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