SOLAR by Ian McEwan

Book Quote:

“This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed triumphs virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAR 30, 2010)

Reading Solar, Ian McEwan’s entertaining and clever new novel, reminded me of an appearance by Al Gore on the Daily Show. Jon Stewart, it seemed, had grown increasingly tired of all the talk and dire warnings about global warming. He asked Gore if the former vice president was at all concerned that the urgency with which the warnings were declared, took some of the attention away from the solutions. In other words, was there a disconnect between the message and the solutions, which seemed so abstract? Stewart wanted tangible solutions—something we could all sink our teeth into.

Professor Michael Beard, the protagonist of McEwan’s novel, is well equipped to understand both sides of that argument. As the novel opens, we find him to be in his early 50s, a man who is resting on past laurels (Beard won the Nobel Prize in his youth for some essential work on quantum physics) and “lent his title, Professor Beard, Nobel Laureate, to letterheads and institutes.” He now serves as titular head of a new government environmental policy agency and weekly makes the train commute from his home in Paddington in England to the agency’s headquarters in Reading.

Even if publicly the center is working on an important project—the Wind Turbine for Urban Domestic Use—Beard doesn’t appreciate the dire tone in which much of the warnings about global warming is relayed. “There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world and therefore made sense, or was just a little less irrelevant,” Beard believes. Still he plods along on the project because it affords him a steady paycheck and lets him pay attention to his real love—womanizing.

Back home, Beard’s fifth wife, Patrice, is having an affair with a construction worker, using Beard’s various infidelities against him. Trying hard to get a grip around this fact and to the thought that he is headed for divorce yet again, Beard jumps at an invitation to attend a conference on global warming way in Spitsbergen in the Arctic. This particular segment of the book really captures the freezing cold very effectively particularly through one over-the-top segment where Beard desperately tries to pee after tackling layers and layers of clothing.

Once he returns home, a sudden unforeseen event has Beard acting in his established selfish and self-serving mode and this act totally changes the direction of the novel. In the second part of the book, Beard is now working on a project involving artificial photosynthesis and is getting ready to throw the switch on a big project way across the world in the deserts of New Mexico. But, as they say, what goes around comes around and it remains to be seen whether the past will eventually catch up with the obnoxious Beard.

There are segments in the book that are funny but overall Solar is no comedy. It has ample doses of cynicism for sure—for example, Beard’s project at the Reading institute, the wind turbine, is labeled as a “single eye-catching project that would be comprehensible to the taxpayer and the media.” McEwan can be snide when he wants to be. This is the case when the conference attendees in the Arctic offset “the guilty discharge of carbon dioxide from twenty return flights and snowmobile rides and sixty hot meals a day served in polar conditions” by “planting three thousand trees in Venezuela as soon as a site could be identified and local officials bribed.”

You can tell that McEwan has done a lot of research for the novel. And even the arguments he makes in science are convincing. In the Arctic expedition, there is a mudroom that gets more and more disorganized as the days go by and towards the end there is a mad scramble for the few warm clothes that are left. The novel makes an extremely fluent analogy between the chaos of this room and our larger lives in general. McEwan shows us that rules and more important, enforcement, are necessary for things to work. “Science of course was fine, and who knew, art was too, but perhaps self-knowledge was beside the point,” he writes, “Boot rooms needed good systems so that flawed creatures could use them properly. Leave nothing, Beard decided, to science or art, or to idealism. Only good laws would save the boot room. And citizens who respected the law.”

Beard is a despicable character and readers will find little to appreciate in him. This is a problem for the book—it is hard to root for a character you despise. Yet Solar succeeds in part because of McEwan’s absolutely spectacular writing. Every sentence is worth cherishing and reading slowly. When McEwan describes even an airplane trolley in the most precise terms—Beard had “an overdeveloped awareness of the precise location in the aisle of the drinks trolley, of that muffled clinking sound and its asymptomatic approach,”—you know exactly what he means.

As the book progresses to its spirited ending, you realize that under the guise of a comedy, Solar is a much more insightful book. One begins to wonder if Beard, in his excesses, is supposed to signify us—all of humanity. If that were indeed the case, we need those “tangible solutions” to global warming sooner rather than later. What irony it is then, to realize that these solutions will likely be served to us by someone like Beard.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 184 readers
PUBLISHER: Nan A. Talese (March 30, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:Saturday


Another climate change novel:

State of Fear by Michael Crichton


Children’s Books:


Movies from books:

March 30, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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