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Monday, April 19, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Title: Solar
Author: Ian McEwan
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: March 30, 2010
Pages: 304

There’s a lot of physics in this book--physics and a deep preoccupation with global warming or, as it’s more recently been called, climate change. I suppose it wasn’t in Pete’s best interest that I asked if I could quote him some passages from Solar, a few days before he took the EIT, to see if Ian McEwan’s grasp of certain theories was correct. The poetics of certain musings relied on the science being described; I wanted to understand everything as clearly as I could. I forgot the cardinal rule of dating an engineer: never ask for an explanation unless you have plenty of time to hear the answer. I didn’t and so, the conversation had to be cut short. In the crazy rush of last minute test prep and the long 8 hour exam, I didn’t ask again, but really, I feel, the book gets the point across, if a little haltingly.

The physics, Pete said, were OK, but McEwan tended to jump around a lot. Really, I have no other way of explaining this other than to say: you need to read this book. The underlying fiction of the physics (the expository extrapolation), the connections drawn between the literature and science, the magic that comes of Ian McEwan’s transformative diction and phrasing makes quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s principle transcend science and reach an entirely new literary understanding. The jumpiness fits well with the character of Michael Beard, a theoretical physicist who wins a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in physics. Beard is an egotistical man riding the success of his award well past the point where he’s stopped researching and begun impatiently lecturing wayward postulations on the theorems and science he knows best.

He’s not an entirely likable character. In fact, I found him incredibly disagreeable. He’s pedantic and petty, selfish and self-centered. At one point I was overwhelmingly in league with Pete, thinking here is McEwan, making a mockery of modern engineers and physicists, painting a caricature of an egomaniac obsessed with nothing other than science, cleverly hidden away beneath shrouds of complexity. He rationalizes every character flaw and bad habit, even going so far as to admitting talking previous spouses into abortions to escape any potential responsibility on his part. I wanted to strangle him.

Quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever liked a character less. I also don’t think I’ve read a more successful example of a character created that may not be intended to gain our sympathies. Ian McEwan has convinced me, yet again, how marvelous an author he really is. I am no longer of the opinion that he’s making a mockery of any one thing, but rather, using Solar and the conflicts within to present a satirical novel of human ambition, self-deception, and failure.

Michael Beard’s personal life is in shambles. He’s on his 5th marriage, working toward a divorce, unable to pursue the scientific endeavors most important to him and so half-heartedly puts his academic weight behind a center to promote research on energy-saving technologies. He’s a perpetual daydreamer; McEwan’s narrative luxuriates in these long inner dialogues and imagined scenarios where Beard takes the initiative and acts on his impulses rather than merely thinking of being strong, brave, or caring. He can, at times, be pathetic and comes off a bit deranged. There’s one particularly bizarre scene that sees Beard desperately executing a bluff of epic proportions to make his wife think a television set and his improvised thumping on the stairs to be his mistress, laughing at his cleverness, boldly leaving the home while his wife is still there. The first part of the novel, 2001, has Beard obsessed with his wife and her affairs. At least he recognizes his jealousy for what it is: coveting that which another man desires. This also failed to ingratiate him to my good side.

His other relationships aren’t any more endearing. In flashbacks we come to understand how he treated his first wife like an exercise in ego. She, an English major and he, a burgeoning physicist eager to prove how brilliant he is above all others, even those in the arts. One of my favorite scenes was Beard relating to an English professor later on how he, a man of science, came to understand Milton just as, if not better than, his contemporaries studying Literature after only having read four of the best essays on the author, and several books. The professor, naturally, was quick to point out the error of his ego. He put Beard in his place and I, for one, clapped in relief.

The character of Michael Beard aside, there is more to appreciate in this novel than I think anything I say in a review could do proper justice. The writing is polished, poetic, and stunning. Like any of his other novels, Solar has a few horrifying scenes that shatter any sense of complacency and completely turn the narrative around. There is also something absurd in these tragedies, a ridiculous gravitas that puts Beard’s experiences into perspective for him, if not for us. These moments corralled his wandering mind to the present arena and displayed his priorities and preoccupations for all to see--all reading the book, that is. The amount of evidence against a case for Beard’s deep affection for humanity may not be necessary for observant readers. Rather, it helps set up the question of whether he can successfully save the world from global warming, change the habits of humanity--change our relationship with the world, if he cannot save his relationships with other people.

I thought some of his portrayals of Americans and American culture were a bit over-exaggerated, but wasn’t bothered enough to be put off entirely. Most of the book is concerned with his personal and professional life. The two frequently mix together, never with good results. At first, I felt something was off with this book. I took longer than I usually do getting into the rhythm of his prose because I kept sensing a cynical bitterness lingering around the character of Michael Beard. Once I decided to stop being bothered by this, the rest came quite beautifully.

I encourage anyone who reads this book to read the Appendix. There’s one line in particular that stood out to me. It wasn’t until I read this line that I finally felt the novel come together in an intelligent assembly of theorems and thematic concerns. And please, don’t be discouraged by the science. McEwan only gives what’s needed for the science to transcend its objectivity and elucidate his literary concerns. Solar is a marriage of science and literature. Both are needed to understand the themes and titular dynamics propelling readers deep into the narrative. I highly recommend it to Ian McEwan fans, or even readers that are new to his writing.

How many Jawas recommend this book?


Anonymous said...

A lot of jawas recommending this one indeed! I'm not overly familiar with McEwan. In fact, I can only vaguely recall that he may or may not be the guy who wrote Atonement?

Also, I'm a little curious for more specifics with: "I thought some of his portrayals of Americans and American culture were a bit over-exaggerated."

I probably won't end up reading it myself, but I love the cover.

Erika said...

@TJ: He did indeed write Atonement. That was the first McEwan book I read. I absolutely loved it and fell in love with his writing. One of his inspirations is Virgina Woolf and there are similarities - you can definitely see the influence of her writing in his. I wish I could write like him! Oh, how I wish I could write even a little bit like McEwan...

Regarding the comment about Americans... I've already tossed out my notes, but I think I might have been a bit too sensitive. Michael Beard travels to New Mexico (I believe he arrives in Texas first and drives to NM with another British scientist). Part of the charm of the Southwest, I imagine, is the exaggerated persona and adopted culture of that area. There was something along those lines that bothered me, although without my notes, I can't remember! I do remember a small roadside restaurant that served a stack of 20 pancakes per serving. Talk about large American portions. Sadly, I'm more ready to believe there's some truth to that one.

The more significant ones involve two characters. One is the woman he's having an affair with. She's constantly chewing gum (even popping a stick into her mouth after they have sex). I couldn't figure out if this quirk was designed around the idea that she's American and therefore, Americans do annoying things like constantly (CONSTANTLY) chew gum. Or if her being American is coincidental and negligible to her personal habits.

The other character was a minor one, but approached Beard and began talking in questions:

"Excuse me, Mr. Beard, sit? I thought it was you. Welcome to the Camino Real? There was a gentleman looking for you?


No. It was about a week ago? From England? But he didn't leave a message?


I guess, kind of large? And said his name was something like turnip?" (p. 212)

Again, couldn't figure out if his being American was just a coincidence. I pick out these two because it seems these were the characters that interacted the most with Beard.

Another thing I noticed was the welcome NM gives to Beard. It's a small gathering with some press involved with the event he's there to celebrate. But the songs the coordinators choose to play are selected Beatles titles. It's a little insulting to have Americans appear so thick they associate one British scientist in the 21st century with a British rock band that came to American in the 1960s. It's been over 40 years. I'm sure the British wouldn't be so small minded as to play Michael Jackson or Madonna for important visitors who have nothing to do with music. I mean, this point is kind of silly since the only thing Beard and his associate have to relate to Texas and the Southwest are songs like "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (which they sing in New Mexico) - the cultural anemia goes both ways.

And, he does also celebrate some of the liberties that make America so inviting, so - long story short: bothered, but thought about it and made my peace. ;)

I also just realized how long this reply is!

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