Friday, March 23, 2012

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan created a tough act to follow with his magnum opus, Atonement, in 2001, so one can easily forgive him any lackluster piece that turns up short of such excellence. Although meticulously well researched in its portrayal of science, Solar lacks direction, as well as the flowing narrative, psychological complexity and humanistic quality of McEwan’s previous works.

A character study of an utterly unlikeable character, Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who runs the gamut of the Seven Deadly Sins, particularly Lust, Sloth and Gluttony, and whose personal life has fared from dismal to catastrophic. An overweight sex addict and heavy drinker, Beard has four failed marriages under his belt due to his compulsive womanizing; however, he’s met his match with his fifth wife, who begins an affair of her own in retaliation. Due to grave errors in judgment on both sides, a tragicomic accident climactically sets a fresh start in motion for Beard, in which he takes on the issue of global warming and travels the world in pursuit of new heights to his career.

Although it’s been categorized as a satire, I found the novel to be so episodic and uneven in tone that it seemed it couldn’t decide its purpose, or what it was meant to satirize. While it takes on various issues such as global warming, metaphysics, gender politics, misanthropy, addiction and subjective morality, by the time it reaches its anticlimactic and inconclusive end, it becomes little more than a circus sideshow that puts the most pathetic aspects of human nature on display. Freud would have a field day with Beard and the foolish, juvenile swarm of women who inexplicably flock to him. Ultimately Solar falls flat because it tries to do too many things at once, and it becomes mere guilty pleasure to stick with it until the end.

Although it fails to hold together as a story, Solar could be ripe for book club discussions on a variety of topics beyond the chief issues of the science and politics of climate change. Moral and philosophical debates could arise from Beard’s amorality, his views on women, the philosophy of solipsism and other metaphysical ways of thinking that are explored throughout the novel.

Needless to say this is not McEwan’s best work. Any potential it has falls flat due to lack of direction and an unclear purpose to the story, as well as the absence of any reason for readers to bother themselves with the exploits of the characters. Even so, I remain a committed fan and eagerly await his upcoming works, provided they do not involve the jinxed sexual exploits of another tiresome cad.

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