Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

There’s hardly anything surprising one could say about this lightweight, clockwork-plotted black comedy, except that it’s among the most bitter and emotionless of Ian McEwan’s many bitter, emotionless novels. All McEwan’s usual virtues are in evidence here — the intricately threaded plot, the gorgeously crafted sentences and paragraphs, the dark wit, the (albeit ostentatiously and sometimes badly researched) contemporary background — and yet one could hardly care less about the whole affair, from start to finish, as there’s nothing human about any of its characters.

Michael Beard, the novel’s protagonist, is a Nobel physicist whose days of study are far behind him, and who at the novel’s beginning serves only as a grant-and-lecture-circuit stuffed shirt of ever-increasing girth. As we follow him into the next ten years’ bouts of womanizing, intellectual fraud, and worse crimes, the novel spends much of its time in Beard’s head, but never does he develop much of a psychology, beyond an extraordinarily broad narcissism and a capacity for attractive self-delusion. There are other problems with the characterization, too: aimless, bumbling, and distractible, Beard is hard to credit even as a washed-up genius. And if the book’s scientific background is credibly sketched — the passages on physics, climate change, and alternative energy are quite economical and convincing — it often, weirdly, gives very short shrift to the other of the Two Cultures, with some truly stale satires of “postmodern” relativism of the kind that last drew laughs in David Lodge’s novels of the 1970s. And conversely, though the physicist Beard is meant to consider the humanities bunkum, his thoughts often sound implausibly novelistic, full of subtle observations and depths of psychological insight and verbal-metaphorical nuance that ought to be well outside the character’s ken.

But the core problem here is simply that awaiting the delayed arrival of just deserts to the monstrous Beard, finally delivered with McEwan’s customary narratorial art of smug superiority, is not enough to keep a reader’s interest for very long. Fifty pages in we may be willing to laugh at an extended comic scene featuring Beard’s mock-castration, but as Beard’s self-deluding evils deepen (and are compensated by more serious impending punishments), no other character emerges to hold our interest, nor does any psychological depth or complication in Beard himself. (The constantly rotating cast of Beard’s wives and mistresses is a particularly unfortunate choice, as none of them has time to develop an alternate perspective that might counterbalance Beard’s self-regard.)

When his far more interesting novella On Chesil Beach emerged a year and a half ago, for the first time since Black Dogs it was possible to hope that McEwan had finally matured as a psychologist, becoming a creator of rounded, complex, human characters rather than the one-dimensional monsters that populated earlier books like Amsterdam. But here, it seems, he has instead reverted to type, elaborately and wittily punishing one more horrible but only thinly human creature. While the novel’s prose is often lovely and its metaphorical and thematic craftsmanship often excellent, there is nothing beyond these formal achievements for which to praise it.