Solar, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape 2010
The blurb calls this book satirical. I did not read it that way at all, darkly humorous, certainly, which is not the same thing, but above all about wrongdoing and redemption. Or sin, if you like. Oh and about climate change too. If anything the book is rather solemn, though it is also hilariously funny in places, of which more later. The hero, Michael Beard, is a scientist who has won the Nobel Prize, and who is a bad man. There is no other way to put it. He is lecherous, slobbish, gluttonous, vainglorious, slothful, duplicitous, more, in fact he seems to embody the seven deadly sins without realising it. Inexplicably, (he is short, fat and not good-looking) he attracts beautiful and often good women, some of whom marry him, and as the book begins he is coming to the end of his fifth marriage - this is the first one which ends with her affair not his, and with her the victor, if it can be said that a woman who is beaten up by the man with whom she is having a clandestine affair is in any way victorious.
The humour is there from the beginning - there should be nothing funny about a middle-aged man fantasising about his own wife while she is just across the landing from him - but Michael Beard keeps getting distracted from his fantasy by images of Rodney Tarpin, his wife's lover, who, "like some ignorant stagehand with ladder and bucket, kept wandering on to the set" (p. 7).
There is nothing in this book for the Guardian-reading dinner parties of north London. This is probably why the UK critics hated it so much. The book is about science, quantum theory and whether the world is warming - early on it is set in Spitsbergen, where our hero genuinely thinks his dick has been frozen off. Obviously.
I wonder if this is really the King Lear story, without the daughters, and also why I kept thinking so. it is very very funny in places - even the death of his wife's lover is hilarious. But there is such a lot of Stuff in here, such a lot of Character, most of which is excellent - the courtly, bearded Mallorquin ice-sculptor for example, who may or may not also play classical guitar. Perhaps too much of the book is used on description of things which are, unlike the glaciers of Spitsbergen or the family restaurants of New Mexico, not very interesting, such as what you see when your aircraft makes half a dozen circles as it comes in to land at Heathrow.
McEwan keeps Doing Things in this book, in hugely entertaining fashion. He invents, or relates, an urban myth, the one in which you are eating crisps on a train and the person opposite you starts eating them too, from your packet, to your increasing indignation - except that when you get off you discover that you still have your own packet and you have been eating theirs.
Random characters come and go, like the misogynist professor from Northern Ireland who is hounded out of his job for being, er, misogynist, and yet he hasn't actually done what he has been accused of. This book argues, through its characters, that not all differences between people are "cultural constructs", to explosions of loathing from the Guardian, and at the same time makes us wonder why we are even thinking about "differences between people".
Another random character explains his presence (he is a professor of folklore) at a scientific gathering by saying (p. 147) "I'm interested in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated. It's an epic story, of course, with a million authors...". Our hero's inward response, as he prepares to take his place at the podium, is "People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value". No wonder the critics hated it. This is hugely admirable stuff. This book of course is a story that relates to climate change science, but also to integrity, to retribution, to faith, and to sin. The main character is remarkably unattractive, does many bad things and almost no good ones, and yet we actually care what happens to him.
The narrative moves to New Mexico and there is a terrifying professional and financial disaster - this is retribution - in parallel with a child's innocent and unconditional love. The retribution has two layers, one of which contains within itself the opportunity to get it right again, or to get away with it, and, Oscar Wilde-like, our hero makes a decision that snatches away another chance of salvation. To save your life you must lose it. And yet who is saved, and what is lost?
This is an Essential book. Possibly the first novel of the twenty-first century. Read it. Solar