Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard is fast approaching 60, a mere shell of the academic titan he once was. While his fifth marriage falls apart, Michael suddenly finds himself with an unexpected opportunity to reinvigorate his career and possibly save humankind from the growing threat of global warming.
Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, has been sitting on his laurels for years, working half-heartedly for a British energy center that sees wind energy as the future, spending more time mocking the "ponytails" (the young post-grad physicists who work under him) than developing new theories or resources. In his spare time, Beard has lumbered his way through five marriages and numerous affairs, and his penchant for alcohol, beef, pancakes, and crisps have added more weight to his physical profile than his professional one.
But then things start to happen--call them accidents or fate or coincidences, or just plain old opportunities. And Michael Beard is there to pick up the pieces and use them to his best advantage.
A few of the reviews already posted tell, I think, way too much and spoil the surprises to come for future readers. I'll only say that I knew how dark McEwan could be, but I had no idea that he could be quite so funny. Several of the scenes, including the one on the Paddington train alluded to by others, had me actually laughing out loud.
I listened to the audiobook and was delighted to find an interview of McEwan by his editor at the end. In it, he discussed his research process (which included not only reading about global warming and renewable energy but an extended stay in New Mexico and an arctic trip with a group of artists and scientists) and the fact that he has already been approached by a number of physicists who claim they know upon whom he based the character of Beard (he claims it was his own creation, but that it's probably a "good thing" there are so many likely Beards out there rather than just one).
Overall, Solar is a smart, funny, and perceptive novel about our times, and I highly recommend it. Don't expect it to be another Atonement or On Chesil Beach; McEwan is attempting something entirely different here, and you will have to be willing to take it on its own terms.
Michael peaked early in his career as a physicist, winning the Nobel Prize in his twenties. Nearly three decades later, he has five failed marriages, a lackluster career and a growing waistline. As his fifth wife began to end their marriage, it was a wake-up call that Michael was squandering his talents.Through less-than-ethical means, he became inspired to save the world from its energy crisis, creating an artificial photosynthesis process that would forever put his name in the annals of great physicists.
What happens when such deeply flawed characters try to do great things? Many rise to the occasion, learn how to be a better person and cherish all that life has to offer. Others, like Michael, drown in their flaws. Michael was always one step away from total destruction, and it was taking its toll on his health, love life and intellect. By the novel’s end, Michael’s world was imploding, leaving the reader shaking her head and contemplating why Michael did not rise above his vices.
Solar, at its heart, was a satirical novel, full of deeply humorous scenes. For certain, Michael was all human, bumbling through life and entrenched in situations that will make most readers laugh out loud. However, his deep flaws (adultery, framing someone for murder, stealing from another scientist, lying, overeating, drinking too much) make it hard to like Michael. In the end, he got what was coming to him.
Fans of Ian McEwan may be surprised with his latest book. Solar resembles Amsterdam more than Atonement. Like all of McEwan’s books, the writing was superb and the characterization was spot on. The plot did bog down with the scientific tangents (especially if you have a hard time following science), but through Michael’s antics, McEwan lifts you back into the plot – and into the life of the energy crisis’s greatest anti-hero, Michael Beard.
Solar was a great read, possibly one of the funniest of McEwan's that I've read so far. The protagonist is scientist Professor Beard, Nobel Prize Winner, womaniser, egotist and general all round self-indulgent pig. He's a great character - super smart and super dumb in equal measures, a loathsome sloth of a man who rides his professional and personal life largely on the back of his Nobel win. Oftentimes he reminded me of an academic version of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, another brilliantly flawed character who is one of my all-time favourites.
I always find it very difficult to review a McEwan book as I never want to give too much of the plot away. It's suffice to say that in Solar Beard's professional and personal lives collide in some very unexpected ways which are in turn toe-curlingly embarrassing, laugh out loud funny and page turningly brilliant. A great mix of comedy and tension, and thoroughly enjoyable read.
The plotline is disconcerting…beginning with the introduction of the main character, Michael Beard. He is an incredibly unlikable character…but not SO much so that the reader could love to hate him. He doesn’t have a strong enough personality for that. He’s a gluttonous, unfaithful, shallow slob of a man that somehow won a Nobel Prize once upon a time. (And the longer this book goes on, the harder that is to believe.) He is a man that usually cares very little for other people, (“He was suffused with the pleasant illusion of liking people,”) but he finds himself realizing that he’s obsessed with his fifth wife, who, upon finding out about Michael’s rampant infidelity, announces that she is having an affair as well. The shoe being on the other foot for once…Michael can’t stop thinking about her and how much her affair bothers him.
AND THEN…on page 62 – this book completely jumped the shark for me. I won’t go into details (because there are more than enough of them in the book) – but an incident happens that had me rolling my eyes in irritation and disbelief. Michael Beard gives a new definition to the word cuckold, let’s just go with that.
Beard is a character that is all too believable but who just doesn’t seem to have a point.
The strongest feelings he seems to have are about food and his slightly nauseating relationship with it.
“He was not at that moment truly hungry, but he was, in his own term, pre-hungry. That is, he could appreciate how pleasurable it might be, in less than an hour, to lift a few of those items onto a plate and contemplate the river while he ate. And just as easily, he could anticipate the regret he would feel if the dishes were removed too soon, when the afternoon tea break came to an end, which it must do when his talk began. Safer to eat a few now.”
The reader is given no way to reconcile the storyline about his personal life before the story switched gears to start focusing on the global problem of climate change. Nothing in Beard’s life ever gets reconciled…he just drifts along until something happens to either cause a different problem or the problem is not longer relevant. “Beard was generally adept at avoiding inconvenient or troubling thoughts…”
I kept trying to decide if Beard is supposed to represent the deniers of climate change, or those who refused to take action on the problem or think about the future. Maybe? But then his work trying to solve that problem doesn’t seem to fit. (True, his work on the subject doesn’t come from any concern of his own, and true to form, he sort of stumbles into the research…)
I just can’t figure out what the message of this book is supposed to be. There’s just nothing strong enough in this book to latch on to. (Unless you count Michael’s passion for salt and vinegar crisps.)
Again, I know that this review will be met with angry protest from Ian McEwan fans…but as one myself, I was just very disappointed by this offering from such a talented writer.
I believe the answer to the question above is, "Yes." Others will disagree. For this reason, I expect Ian McEwan's latest, Solar, to be a polarizing novel. On the one hand, you've got Mr. McEwan's considerable literary talent. On the other hand, you've got an unlikable protagonist, a whole lot of physics, and a comic novel. And if there's anything more subjective than humor, I don't know what it is.
Solar is a satirical look at the life of Nobel Laureate in Physics, Michael Beard. As the novel opens, 50-something Michael is married to 30-something Patrice. This, his fifth marriage, is on the rocks and his brightest, most promising days are long behind him. While the reader will want to find redeeming qualities in Michael, his character follows a trajectory from ridiculous to reprehensible to repugnant. "He was sufficient, self-absorbed, his mind a cluster of appetites and dreamy thoughts. Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice..."
McEwan is smart in the way he relays the story. It's told episodically, opening in 2000, then jumping ahead to 2005, and finally to 2009. This draws the reader in. What has happened since we've seen Michael last? What are the repercussions of his behavior? Has he learned any lessons? Is he a better person? I would begin each section full of these questions and eager for answers.
So, can you write a likeable book about an unlikeable character? I found myself reflecting on John Kenney Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces and its unlikely hero, Ignatius J. Reilly. Michael Beard, while less of a complete buffoon, is not cut from entirely different cloth. Readers who can laugh at his foibles and maintain at least some empathy will enjoy this novel the most.
The other thing I mentioned above is physics. It's Michael's career, and McEwan doesn't shy away from what will be challenging territory for some readers. Think of it as a foreign language. When I read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, I found myself wondering how readers with no grasp of Yiddish would handle the book. As it turns out, they handled it just fine. I am fortunate to have a reasonable working vocabulary in both Yiddish and physics; consequently my enjoyment of these novels was merely enhanced. Like Chabon, McEwan isn't talking down to his readers. There is no unnecessary exposition. McEwan has given his unlikeable character some very admirable skills and placed him in a position to do good on a grand scale. Can that redeem him?
Solar is social commentary. And it is a novel of ideas. It's the type of comedy that feels slightly mean and not always that funny. Throughout the novel, Michael Beard has set a lot in motion. The ending of the novel was what it HAD to be. Some readers won't appreciate this work. Others will hate how it ends. Ultimately, for me, the joy of reading McEwan's prose, of following his flawed character, and of seeing where the story would take me made this odyssey a pleasure.
This is my only criticism of Solar. I thought that Ian McEwan would never write anything to challenge the intensity, complexity, ease of expression and irony of Saturday. But Solar achieves all of this and much more.
In his professional life, Michael Beard is a scientist, a physicist with an interest in light. Energy becomes his focus and, via his photovoltaic conflation, he begins to address energy production for a warming planet. Or does he? Does he receive rather than initiate? And does he acknowledge?
Both meticulous and precise in his professional guise, Michael Beard is a sybaritic, lecherous slob in the private domain. We meet him first upon his fifth wife, Patrice. With her he has at last found happiness – at least when they are together. Periods apart find him pursuing anything available before or after a half a bottle of Scotch. Unknown to him, Patrice is doing precisely the same, but remaining sober. From Michael Beard’s conventionally misogynist standpoint, this seems unfair and he calls foul.
Aldous is just the sort of bloke that – all things being equal (which of course they are not!) – Michael Beard would both ignore and avoid. He’s big, hefty, wears sandals and a pony tail. His apparently laid back approach to life is surely anathema to Michael Beard’s internally perceived order. After all, didn’t a youthful Beard sport a jacket and tie with pens in the top pocket right through the 1960s? How times change, he might reflect, on pushing aside a pile of unwashed dishes mixed with general detritus in his London flat. But besides threatening, Aldous is also brilliant. He is a young post-doc recruited to assist Michael’s research. And then there’s Tarpin, a builder decidedly not of the same social class as the venerable academic. Things come together at the end of the book’s first part. Suffice it to say that Michael Beard’s involuntary circumcision at the hands of frost while taking a leak somewhere near Spitzbergen might just have been Mother Nature getting her own back, her feminist equaliser before the stronger opposition has even scored.
Unfortunately for Michael Beard, however, his tendency to spread himself too thinly provokes the termination of his Government-sponsored energy research. The director, Braby, sacks him, an act that injures pride. Michael internalises the rejection not as a failure but as an opportunity, given his multiple avenues of interest. How can it offend him? He’s won a Nobel Prize. Can’t he do precisely what he wants, even beyond criticism?
Beard is confronted with alternative views of both life and the universe. Everything follows. Later he is apparently committed to just one woman, Melissa, but without marriage, mutually-agreed. But he is constantly pulled elsewhere. His logical-positivist assumptions are questioned, both at home and abroad. People can lie, deconstruct, reconstruct. So can he. The only consistency in his personal life is its inconsistency, constantly inconsistent. But his professional assumptions are questioned by social constructivism, by phenomenological attack on the universality he assumes. The consequence is an irrational but wholly real reconstruction of a reality he thought he had both defined and described. His method of coping is enigmatic and inventive, but its public expression is totally uncontrolled, misconceived.
Michael’s research points to a breakthrough in energy production. He can split water using sunlight and catalysts that promote artificial photosynthesis. He can truly harness the sun. Perhaps it vies for the centre of his universe. The results can burn carbon-free to power the world. His new daughter calls him a saviour. But his business brain shares his scientific nodes. He has patents. He hires Hammer to deal with detail, a task he accomplishes supremely until just before the scheduled switch on of the prototype in the New Mexico desert. The rest is history.
Solar presents a multiplicity of themes. But I think its main plank is an age-old conundrum. In an address presenting the Nobel Prize to Beard, a professor refers to Feynman’s illustration of the elegance of Beard’s Conflation. Tangled, knotted strings that dancers further complicate can, under the right conditions, with the right foresight, fall to a simple untangled simplicity with a single tug. Thus Beard had taken a knotted intellectual theory and let it fall free of its complications.
In his private life, however, Beard truly found complication. What was simple he knotted by quirk, by over-indulgence, by ill-discipline and by visceral opportunity. If the beautiful but independently-minded Melissa was temporarily unavailable across an ocean that provided the vacuum, then the fiftyish, flabby Darlene, a waitress in a New Mexico diner, provided the pressure. But she took her temporary role seriously, an attitude that Michael Beard never expected.
No matter how complicated our lives become, no matter how intertwined, no matter how independently we present identity, career, research or discovery, ultimately they all reduce to a simple cocktail of body fluids, desires – usually only partly fulfilled - and ultimately a resort to self-preservation, a fundamental state that can be obscured by our relentless pursuit of receding detail. Thus Ian McEwan presents a contrast between potentially enduring rationality that seeks out permanence and base, immediate desire driven by instincts we cannot even recognise, let alone control. At the last, it is illusory permanence that presents the true delusion. And what about constancy and the enduringly rational? Ask me tomorrow.
Solar is a character study, and the character is an unlikeable one. Yet, as unpleasant as Beard is, he somehow manages to make the reader feel for him. Duplicitous, self-obsessed, arrogant and greedy, he is one messed up fellow who sits comfortably on the laurels of his discovery many, many years previous. Why, then, are we so interested in his life? McEwan's skill is the only answer. The novel follows Beard as he untangles himself from his messy fifth marriage, engineers a new career path (while saving the world and winning praise and money), both pursues and avoids relationships, and ends up the sole witness to a bizarre death.
McEwan can do serious, tragic, obsessive, morbid and poignant better than most writers, but it is a delightful surprise to discover that he can do humor as well. Michael Beard is one of the funnies characters I've ever come across, and the laughs are mostly at his expense, which somehow doesn't make you despise him.
I can only thank Ian McEwan for this wonderful, surprising, delightful book that somehow is exceedingly deeper than it appears on it surface.
McEwan portrays a Nobel Prize genius past his prime, Michael Beard, who struggles to hold his marriage together. He has just come to realize that his fifth wife is the love of his life as she is gearing up to leave him. And although he has coasted his entire life on his youthful brilliance, he is also beginning to worry he is becoming irrelevant in the ever advancing world of Physics. Nothing short of saving the world from apocalyptic climate change can possibly revitalize his existence, and the key to that may have fallen at his feet.
Of course, I found the first part of this book, Beard's domestic drama far more engrossing then the subsequent parts where I felt the novel began to lose steam and the reader just short of waited for the inevitable. Still I can't think of anyone but McEwan who could inspire me to pick up a book detailing high level physics and global climate politics. While not my favorite McEwan, it won't disappoint his clamoring fans, and is likely to become, well, the literary event of the summer.
McEwan is, without a doubt, a master of the English language. And this is a technically impressive novel. But it is, ultimately, dull as dishwater. Beard, as a character is pompous, marginally unpleasant, and slightly ludicrous. Above and beyond being unlikable, which makes it hard for the reader to sympathize with him, he is also not entirely believable. It would be one thing to root for his downfall but it is quite another to think with a resigned sigh, "Just get on with it then, will you?" And I know that McEwan is capable of writing characters that stir much stronger emotions but this one just misses the mark. All of the secondary characters are flat and many of them are simply cardboard stereotypes and so the novel rises and falls with the lackluster Michael Beard.
The massive time frame jumps in the story are problematic too. Obviously filling in the gaps would have made for a bloated novel of immense proportion but this pared down version takes away the chance to show Beard as a proactive character. The form asks the reader to believe that an indolent, dismissive character who quails in the face of his wife's lover and whose solution to a major turn up is to furtively frame someone else, has actually rousted up the gumption to set in motion a major scientific undertaking, complete with private equity funding and the like. Credulity only stretches so far. Others have thoroughly thrilled to this latest of McEwan's offerings but I can't help thinking that even the mighty stumble sometimes and this is an instance for him.
I think it helps a great deal that Beard, in all his faults, feels very much like a real person. There was a danger here that he might have come across as a simplistic stereotype: the cold, detached, egotistical scientist with no capacity for human feeling. But even if that description fits him well enough, he doesn't feel like a stereotype. He's far too three-dimensional a character for that. And McEwan, far from displaying the hostility or ignorance towards science that usually goes with that particular stereotype, appears to have an amazingly good grasp of the philosophy of science and of how real physicists think. He also displays an excellent understanding of human psychology, and of the ways in which even those who value and strive for objectivity are subject to denial, irrationality, and the ability to remember only what we want to remember and believe what we wish to believe. (The relevance of this to global warming, pleasingly, is left as an exercise for the reader.)
by Ian McEwan
narrated by Roger Allam
(P) 2010, Recorded Books
11 hours, 50 minutes
(includes interview between the author and his editor)
This isn’t so much a review as it is a witness testimony, not like on a court stand, but more like what you might see and hear at a religious revival! I admit that, in the past , I have committed the literary sin of not “getting” Ian McEwan. I read On Chesil Beach and Saturday with due diligence and lit-fic sobriety. In doing so, I was underwhelmed by the prose and declared McEwan “overrated” in rendering the psychological thriller to nothing more than a Tale of Anxiety (and at that, of a white older male anxiety!)
Then, I saw the light. Someone here on LT (and I'm sorry I cannot remember who!) mentioned that they had heard Ian McEwan read an excerpt from On Chesil Beach out loud with comic flair! And that the audience was not only enthralled, but laughing along with him! Hmmm, perhaps if I hadn’t dismissed my own sense of humour and replaced it with self-righteous literary pretensions, I might have enjoyed On Chesil Beach, and come to think of it, Saturday more than I had. With that in mind, I picked up Solar which I had heard was supposed to be pretty funny. Admittedly, I had also heard that this was not McEwan’s best and, as a validation of that opinion, it was not nominated for a ManBooker award. So it kind of figures, considering the high rate of ironic incidences in my life, that the McEwan that no one seems to like is the one that I absolutely adore!
The story features Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate who, when we meet him in his early fifties, is wallowing around in the collapse of his fifth marriage, a deteriorating body, and work in physics that is neither intellectually stimulating nor rewarding. The whole of Solar takes place over the course of about ten years (1999-2009) in which we watch Michael Beard muck his way around and through relationships, work and his health, always holding onto the promise of the next chapter in his life. It would be very easy to attach a lot of symbolic import to various artifices in the novel; but after listening to the interview of the author with his editor, you realize that, in doing so, you would be projecting too much into the novel. It is what it is and; what it is is a very honest portrayal of a man with all the absurdist elements that that may imply. Perhaps those who don’t like this novel don’t want to acknowledge that Michael Beard is very much an Everyman and, by default themselves; but I found common cause with the character for being flawed. Rather than finding Michael Beard an unlikable character, I was morbidly fascinated with his ability to have gotten as far as he had. I often found myself cheering for Michael even while admitting that he brought on most of his problems himself.
Roger Allam is a British narrator who delivered Ian McEwan’s novel flawlessly. The production uses British pronunciations, which may sound awkward to American ears, but it does not interfere with the understanding or enjoyment of the story. Allam reads the book “straight,” without comic intonations and also without dropping into the deadly neutral zone :-)
I loved Solar and I can’t wait to read McEwan’s next novel!
You could at a pinch read the first section as a stand-alone story, and not bother with the rest - anyone finding the physics bits heavy going might be well advised to do that. The second and third sections are denser, heavier on the physics, and less funny. If you are Ian McEwan you can get away with things other people can't - like including long speeches word for word, and including plot events which appear to have been lifted wholesale from Jeffrey Archer (Jeffrey Archer!!) and which weren't even original when Jeffrey used them. Then, after letting your public think the less of you for several pages, admitting via a character that you did lift them from Archer and they weren't original when he used them etc etc. Either brave, daft, or meaningful in ways I can't discern. Either way, I'm glad I ploughed through to the end. You always come out of his novels with more knowledge than you started, and this one had a playfulness about it that made it probably my favourite by him so far.
Before I read Solar I read the review in The New York Times Book Review which described the book as so good that it is bad but in it's description of the tale, it dwelt almost lovingly on the nature of the writing and I found myself shivering with delightful anticipation. I almost tossed the book I was reading to dive right in to Solar.
By way of disclosure I should add that I am a dedicated fan of McEwan and have read everything that he has ever written.
Beard's character is very unsympathetic and definitely anti-heroic. He does "not believe in profound inner change," makes the same mistakes over and over again with women, and is balding, fat, and generally prone to letting himself go. From the very beginning you get the sense that nothing good could ever happen to this guy.
I enjoyed discovering McEwan's satirical & comic side -- especially as he was describing the various groups with whom Beard interacted throughout the novel. For example, in speaking about how "climate change was consuming Tom Aldous," the author explained that what Beard "disliked about political people" was that "injustice and calamity animated them, it was their milk, their lifeblood, it pleasured them." Everyone knows someone like this. And there were also the trendy artists who get together to figure out what they can do to help save the world, while all of the time they're doing absolutely nothing. Then there's Beard's interactions with the academic community, the scientific community, governments, the world of finance -- nothing and no one is sacred here. It's almost like everyone talks a good game about stopping global warming and finding new and renewable sources of energy, but actually doing is a different matter.
This book may not be representative of the work with which McEwan's readers are familiar, but it's still good. It's definitely satirical, sometimes very funny, but yet at the same time, serious when it needs to be. It isn't as tightly woven as his other work, and I thought the ending was a bit on the farcical side, but overall, I would highly recommend it. You should know ahead of time that you're not getting something along the lines of say, Atonement, but you're getting an entirely different side of this author that you haven't seen before. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Oh, and I'd like to add that I was surprised to learn that "Solar" is considered a "comic" novel. While there are some funny moments, it really is not a comic book in my view.