Ian McEwan: Solar
It’s like a John Waters film without the camp. Which is another way of saying that Solar is boring. Amazingly boring.
The antihero of Ian McEwan’s Solar is Michael Beard: a cuckold, a lazy bum, and a Nobel prizewinning physicist who has been out of ideas for twenty years. Beard is a snob who harps on the rural accents and mismanners of his peers, dislikes cheerfulness, and pities himself while eating cookies. He sucks, in a word. And although fiction is full of characters who suck, it’s hard to recall a character whose lameness is as artfully wrought as Michael Beard’s. Over the course of the novel Beard accidentally kills his wife’s lover, frames another man for the crime, steals the dead man’s ideas and leverages those plans into a fine career. He is every professional’s worst-case scenario: successful by a fluke and doomed to a life of fakery. Oy!
McEwan lays it on thick for Michael Beard, to good and bad effect. The physicist’s talent is a “children’s tricycle” that has “hitched a ride behind the juggernaut of a world-historical genius.” Nice. But his past is “a mess, resembling a ripe, odorous cheese oozing into or over his present,” sometimes congealing “into the appearances of something manageably firm, more Parmesan than Époisses.” Gross. McEwan is great at describing borderline states like insomnia and nausea, and he’s great at describing professional anxiety. He’s even good at writing about sex, which is impossible. But Solar isn’t a judicious arrangement of these talents.
Beard roams the globe, funded by various stipends and getting into scrapes. On a luxury voyage to the Arctic he stops to pee on a stretch of icy terrain and finds his penis frozen to the zipper of his snowmobile suit. Too proud to request help, he performs some amateur corrective measures and gets back on his motorbike, groin stinging. Disaster strikes: Beard’s penis falls off and lodges itself above the kneecap of his snowsuit. (“The hideous object, less than two inches long, was stiff like a bone. It did not feel, or it no longer felt, like a part of himself.”) In a panic, still aboard the motorbike, he contemplates the possibility of microsurgery for reattachment. Back at base camp, the detached penis turns out to be a tube of frozen lip salve that came loose and slid down his pants. Beard remains intact. The whole episode is neither funny nor bathetic, just squeamish. It is a pretty characteristic anecdote.
Things get worse for the physicist. He descends into squalor and unwillingly fathers a child. The man whom he has framed for murder is released from prison and comes a-hunting for revenge. He develops a cancerous mole which promises to metastasize, and he continues to grow fatter. McEwan’s descriptions of the man’s billowing girth are exhaustive:
Only ten years ago, when he had still thought he could rescue himself with exercise, he would have been shocked by his own pneumatic form, by his concertina of chins, and by the ribbed contours of the woman he was stroking, and by the sweaty scent of newly cut grass that arose from armpits, groins, and crooks of knees, heavily enfolded regions that rarely saw air or light.
Food gets graphic treatment, too:
His starters arrived: lozenges of orange-colored cheese dipped in batter, rolled in bread crumbs and salt, and deep-fried, with a creamy dip of pale green. Perfection, and in such quantity.
It’s like a John Waters film without the camp. Which is another way of saying that Solar is boring. Amazingly boring. Michael Beard is a weakling, and not a compelling one. A reader’s urge to skim grows by the page. There are few bad sentences—on the contrary, McEwan’s sentences are seamless. But seamless to what end? The painstaking quality of the prose is annoying; it’s like performing sums on an abacus when a calculator would be the obvious choice. Reviewing Solar in the New York Times Book Review, Walter Kirn found the novel “impeccable yet numbing” and “impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read.” This sounds about right. Beard is a walking bad vibe, and Solar a well-written bummer.