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Solar


tagesmann
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Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. A compulsive womaniser, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. But this time it is different: she is having the affair, and he is still in love with her. When Beard's professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and save the world from environmental disaster. Ranging from the Arctic Circle to the deserts of New Mexico, "Solar" is a serious and darkly satirical novel, showing human frailty struggling with the most pressing and complex problem of our time. A story of one man's greed and self-deception, it is a profound and stylish new work from one of the world's great writers.

 

This was very enjoyable. I heard that the book is a satire and in places it is very funny but I am not sure whether the global warming lobby are the targets or not. If they are, they are not lambasted enough. If they are not the target, I am not sure who is.

 

Beard is a brilliant character who has no redeeming features at all. His life is ruled by inertia. Apart from his womanising he doesn't make an effort to direct or control his life and he drifts... fantastically.

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I really enjoyed this book too. The worst criticism I have read of it is that it isn't McEwan's best and while I kind of agree with that, I also don't think it's a substantial criticism at all - McEwan is a brilliant writer who rarely has a word or a thought out of place and one of my few auto-buys.

 

Solar is terrifically funny and it's a big satire. Tagesmann, I think the subject of that satire is just about everything, from the global warming industry to us, as readers. The human condition perhaps?

 

It's the sort of book you want to use to bang over the head of naive readers who think a book is flawed if they can't 'identify' with the major character. Beard, from whose perspective we see almost everything, is fat, pretentious, libidinous, disloyal, dishonest and above all, greedy. He sees global warming - and the the concealed manslaughter of his wife's lover, whose work he cheerfully steals - as his big chance to make a lot of money, and he goes about making it whilst drinking, eating and ****ing his way into ever more serious trouble. He's so utterly appalling that the distance you feel from him has a compulsion of its own.

 

Not McEwan's best - but he wrote Atonement, for god's sake. From almost any other writer this would be a masterpiece.

 

ETA those coy asterisks are _not_ mine ;)

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Beard, from whose perspective we see almost everything, is fat, pretentious, libidinous, disloyal, dishonest and above all, greedy.
But he does have some flaws.

 

Not McEwan's best - but he wrote Atonement, for god's sake. From almost any other writer this would be a masterpiece.
Very true.
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  • 1 month later...

A new Ian McEwan is always an event. Like William Boyd, Martin Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro, McEwan is one of the relatively few literary writers who has crossed over into massive mainstream popularity. Solar was always going to be big news, particularly since his last novel, On Chesil Beach, was perfectly formed but small in size. A full-length, meaty McEwan was long overdue.

 

That he has chosen global warming as the subject of his fourteenth book is testament to McEwan's thirst for new and topical ground. The real surprise about Solar is how funny it is. McEwan has long ranked in my list of ten or so favourite authors ever, and impeccable writing is thus a given, but Solar had so many scream with mirth moments that he has now joined the likes of Boyd and Geoff Dyer in my estimation - writers who combine stunning prose with a rare comic talent.

 

Solar is split into three sections: 2000, 2005 and 2009. The hapless protagonist of the story is Michael Beard, fifty three at the start of the novel in 2000, Nobel Prize winning physicist, an overweight, mildly pompous, waddling womaniser whose fifth marriage is on the rocks. For the past twenty years Beard has coasted along in the world of academia, reaping the benefits of his past glories. He has had no eureka moments for two decades but chairs various committees and lends his name to several worthy causes tenuously linked to his field.

 

His appeal to women may possibly be put down to the naive belief many women have that unattractive or fat men will never be unfaithful, or to their instinctive sense that such an eminent man must also be interesting, decent and kind. This is sadly not the case; Beard views his infidelity as almost an inevitability; even when he imagines himself devastated with heartbreak, his promises of fidelity are not free of doubt: '...made grand promises he sincerely believed he might keep.' Note the 'might'. He is, however, put out when his fifth wife Patrice reacts to the discovery of his affairs with an affair of her own. This gives rise to some richly humorous moments, such as Beard talking out loud to himself in his room and descending the stairs backwards in order to pat out 'footsteps' with his hands indicating a companion, to fool his wife into thinking he too is having wanton fun.

 

Beard is nominal head of a centre investigating renewable energy sources just outside Reading. It is from contact with one of the physicists here that the central events unfold. McEwan's biting satire starts here, where the Centre's funds are being consumed as a result of the braggadacio of an MP who has guaranteed a personal reply to every individual who sends in their half-baked idea for sources of renewable energy and by a fence that took up 17% of the first year's budget. One gets the impression McEwan has really done his homework, because these risible costs are typical of those that dog most public institutions, especially when he slyly adds that '...so many were taken on by the Department of Human Resources, which had just been taken on itself...'

 

McEwan's scythe- sharp perception and wicked humour is equally evident in the description of the postgraduate physicists:

 

'...Beard, who had always had facial recognition problems, especially with men, could not, or chose not to, tell them apart. They ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight...Two had ponytails,four had identical rimless glasses, two were called Mike,two had Scots accents, three wore coloured string round their wrists, all wore faded jeans and trainers and tracksuit tops. Far better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person. Best not to insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique or was not called Mike...Much of the time he did not know what they were saying. The ponytails spoke at speed, on a constant rising interrogative note which caused an obscure muscle to tighten in the back of Beard's throat as he listened. They failed to enunciate their words, going only so far with a thought, until one of the others muttered 'Right!', after which they would jump to the next unit of utterance - one could hardly call it a sentence.'

 

After a trip to the North Pole on which Beard is invited as part of a group of artists and scientists interested in climate change, a momentous event occurs which changes Beard's professional direction. As with many of McEwan's novels, the event itself is verging on the implausible, but as he explained to an audience in Edinburgh after the publication of On Chesil Beach, he writes not about the most likely outcome but the one in a million where something dramatic occurs. With this proviso in mind, it's far easier to accept this freak accident and its consequences.

 

In Michael Beard, McEwan has created a risible villain easily as masterfully evoked and compelling in his ghastliness as Martin Amis's John Self in Money. Beard lacks self insight, any ability to blame himself and all sensitivity, reflecting on his marriage with a 'warm, self-forgiving sense of failure', seeing himself as a victim, feeling no embarrassment at his urge to make a pass at any attractive woman he sees. ('He asked many women, total strangers, to dinner, and not everyone said no.') He is a shameless plagiarist and a social buffoon. It is a stroke of genius for McEwan to render this unpalatable character so funny. Whether it's an account of Beard's first wife Maisie mistaking his tears of relief when she announces she's leaving him for tears of upset and remorse, Beard shouting out 'Yes!' when a mistress demands he marry her as he climaxes, or the slapstick of Beard fumbling with his protective clothing in the arctic, there are belly laughs on almost every page of this book. And McEwan's descriptions of Beard are not only dancing with wit but are also understatedly perspicacious, as here:

 

'Post-coitally, it troubled him, that women could not instantly discard their intimate pre-coital personalities, but lingered instead in an oppressive continuity of feeling. He, on the other hand, was luxuriating in the rediscovery of his unshareable core...'

 

Or here:

 

'He had always assumed that a time would come in adulthood, a kind of plateau, when he would have learned all the tricks of managing, of simply being. All mail and e mails answered, all papers in order, books alphabetically on the shelves, clothing and shoes in good repair in the wardrobes and all his stuff where he could find it, with the past, including its letters and photographs, sorted into boxes and files, the private life settled and serene, accommodation and finances likewise. In all these years this settlement, the calm plateau, never appeared, and yet he had continued to assume, without reflecting on the matter, that it was just around the next turn, when he would exert himself and reach it, that moment when his life became clear and his mind free, when his grown-up existence could properly begin.'

 

Those familiar with McEwan need no reminder that his writing is breathtakingly accomplished: precise, punchy and perspicuous; always lucid, often stunning, whether he is describing the innermost thoughts of a character or casually throwing in a potent visual metaphor - 'Holland and its Mondrian fields', for example, or 'Beard's past was often a mess, resembling a ripe, odorous cheese oozing into or over his present.'

 

Solar has just crashed in as my favourite read of 2010 so far, so negatives are scanty. Perhaps McEwan's narration sometimes flits from Beard's point of view - his mistaken certainty that he had used a particular peg, for example - to a more critical and omniscient narrator who tells the reader facts they have already surmised, such as when he points out the irony of the climate change expedition members driving 'stinking snowmobiles across the pristine land', or when McEwan refers to Beard as 'heartless scourge of the frail' when Beard reacts belligerently to an old man trying to get ahead in the airport queue.

 

The science is astonishingly well researched, suggesting that, as he did when he trailed a neurosurgeon for a year for Saturday, McEwan liaised closely with professional scientists, here physicists. There are one or two tiny mistakes - for example, a skin lesion being described as 'a benign skin cancer' is a contradiction in terms since the word 'cancer' is always indicative of malignancy (it should be 'a benign skin tumour'.) But this is nit-picking of such a level that it's scraping the scalp/barrel.

 

I loved Solar more than I've enjoyed any McEwan since Enduring Love. It's possibly his most exquisite and definitely his funniest novel to date. The king is back.

 

 

* I have three medium sized Solar t shirts to give away to UK readers of my blog. These will go to the three most perceptive comments on my blog about Solar or McEwan's previous work. Just post comments on the blog at the link

http://www.rocksbackpagesblogs.com/?author=20

and I'll pick winners who will need to send a large padded and adequately stamped SAE.*

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The real surprise about Solar is how funny it is.
The real surprise for me was how funny it wasn't. After all the hype I had expected something more. Unless by funny you mean "black".

 

His appeal to women may possibly be put down to the naive belief many women have that unattractive or fat men will never be unfaithful, or to their instinctive sense that such an eminent man must also be interesting, decent and kind.
I must eat more...
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I enjoyed Solar but as others have commented, it wasn't one of McEwan's best. It felt like his campus novel of sorts - a Lucky Jim for the 21st Century. He still manages to get in his unexpected shocks, but with humour attached they seem cartoon and not horrific, eg. the frozen penis..

The global warming junket was a great piece of situation comedy. My interest did begin to tail off towards the end, however, with my main reason for sticking with it wanting to know how he would escape all the problems he had created.

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I enjoyed Solar but as others have commented, it wasn't one of McEwan's best. It felt like his campus novel of sorts - a Lucky Jim for the 21st Century. He still manages to get in his unexpected shocks, but with humour attached they seem cartoon and not horrific, eg. the frozen penis..

The global warming junket was a great piece of situation comedy. My interest did begin to tail off towards the end, however, with my main reason for sticking with it wanting to know how he would escape all the problems he had created.

 

I agree that some of the comedy was slapstick in nature but I thought the writing was also impeccable and the whole so intelligent and so impressive, that for me it could easily be one of his best.

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The real surprise for e was how funny it wasn't. After all the hype I had expected something more. Unless by funny you mean "black".
I thought the convention of climate change specialists who couldn't even keep their boot room in order was pretty funny. Everyone grabbing what they needed for themselves.

 

Not to mention the scene on the train with the bag of crisps.

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I loved the bag of crisps scene!

 

It was one of those books where I was discomforted by the constant threat of doom that never really showed up. I'm not sure if that was purposeful or not but first there was the matter with the lover - I kept thinking that was going to go seriously tits up for him. And then the North Pole expedition - I thought that was going to go bad because of the whole equipment situation. And surely for a man in his situation - more things actually do go wrong?

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  • 1 month later...

i finished it today. good book. it's only the 3rd one of Ian McEwen's i've read (and atonement was not one of them)

 

maybe it's ironic that the day i read part 1 involved me being on a plane travelling from amsterdam to dublin [neither is amsterdam one of the ian mcewen novels i read ;)]

 

on the weight issue in him, from my reading and i could be wrong. he was slightly overweight in part 1, more over weight in part 2 and in part 3, he walked with a waddle. this i believe to be a metaphor. i think the metaphor is to do with funding for climate change scientists. in 2001, there was not a whole lot of money, some but not alot. in 2005, there be more and it became more lucrative and in 2009, it's a trough where being overfed [i should put it that i don't share this view on the climate change scientists but that's my own political bias. I'm a Green party supporter] but i do think that this is a argument put forward by the sceptics in climate change about how it's a money pit for scientists to enrich them.

 

Mr. McEwen put forward a characther without a redeeming quality. Indeed, in his narrative in the book, he uses "Beard" and thus refers to him by his surname.

 

for more on my thoughts on professor, here's a spoiler

 

 

beard is deceitful person. only in it for his own satisfaction. he does not look at consequences of his actions. he also tries to get out of his responsibilities for his actions [the 2 abortions of his previous wives and trying to encourage Mellissa to abort Catriona. I know Mellissa shouldn't have gone off the pill but hey Beard, if you don't want to be a father. use a condom or abstain]. He went to have his fun and no consequence of it. He's influenced by self satisfaction and greed. I think his main reason for "combating" climate change is not with the moral obligation "to save the world" but in order to enrich himself.

 

indeed the problem of his plagiarising someone else's work would have to take responsibility for his actions instead of trying to ignore it. each part comes down to beard trying to avoid his responsibilities.

 

it's good to seem him get a comeupeence at the end :D

 

 

overall i liked the book and Beard will be added to the list on the general forum of good books with unlikeable main characthers

 

i also think this is the longest post i've done on a book

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I just finished this book last night and I very much enjoyed it. The only other McEwan I have read is Saturday, which I liked a lot right up until the very end, when I hated it. But I liked this the whole way through.

 

I do think he was skewering the global warming people and especially how the solutions they inevitably support involve self-denial and discomfort. And that, I think, was the purpose of the set piece in the Artic. The group used unbelievable amounts of energy to get everyone to the Artic, but made themselves feel better by planting some trees someplace. While I am generally supportive of the arts, it did seem like the purpose of the gathering was to express how they felt about global warming, not do anything about it. And then almost immediately, the equipment room showed that their feelings were rather superficial. Each person used as much of the equipment as possible while doing nothing to keep it orderly or clean. How are we supposed to take their concerns seriously when they can't even manage to cooperate enough in an equipment room?

 

As amusing as I found that to be, I thought Beard and his life were even more amusing. One thing I noticed was the disconnect in his life between actions and consequences, at least until the very end. Despite being physically unattractive, he has women falling all over him. Despite trying his best to have her never be born, his daughter loves him and his feelings for her are the closest to love he will ever feel. And finally, the most horrible thing he does has the best consequences for him and the most benign bad thing he does has some of the worst consequences.

He framed Tarpin for Aldous's murder and not only gets away with it, but gets to take Aldous's research as his own, making himself rich and successful in the process. Then he casually tosses a tomato back at a woman who had thrown it at him and splats it in her face, at which point she over-reacts (I pictured one of the World Cup Soccer "dives"), falling to her knees and acting as if she has been shot. I laughed out loud at that scene.

 

 

But at the very end, it's as if all the furies are arriving at once. I actually like that it ends there. It leaves the various forms of comeuppance to your imagination. But you can't blame Beard for thinking that there will be no consequences, since that has been the story of his life so far.

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  • 1 month later...

Some great comic scenes in this novel at which I did laugh out loud. With the hilarious crisp scene in the train, was McEwan also satirising us as readers for not realising it was one of a genre (as the character at the Savoy Hotel pontificates on?).

 

And was I the only one who skip read some of the science?

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  • 1 month later...
  • 3 years later...

Have just started reading this book so I thought that I would revive the old thread. I have not read previous comments yet as I have no wish to spoil the book so will come back to it later. I did get a bit of a shock seeing that the last post was by David. I guess this is going to happen a lot.

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I finished Solar yesterday evening due to the awful weather here yesterday. I am still trying to come to some sort of conclusion about the novel as I have found it very different to other books by Ian McEwan. As has been stated above the main character is pretty ghastly - while reading the book I described him to RG as a buffoon. When reading other Posts I have noticed that this is a description given by someone else.

 

The book does rather ask the question of whether a novel can be enjoyed if the main character is not likeable, again a point raised in a previous post. Most books I read I do tend to prefer to have at least some understanding of the main character or characters and the books I have enjoyed the most tend to be those where I care what happens. This book was a bit of an exception as the main character is thoroughly unlikeable but I did enjoy the novel.

 

Many people seem to have found this book really funny with the odd exception being a little disappointed. I laughed out loud in a few places but was not rolling around the floor throughout the book. The book is told in three parts the middle one of which I liked the least. Again as has been mentioned by others the science in places (especially in the middle section) becomes a little difficult to decipher. I found myself tuning out in parts not really knowing quite what the writer was talking about. I have experienced this with other writers and even with other novels by McEwan. The second part of Solar was probably one of the most confusing in this way.

 

Overall I really enjoyed this book and am still mulling over my thoughts which seems to be a good sign. I may well come back and re-read previous posts at a later date as I am sure that there is more to be said.

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One thing I did feel while reading this book was that the way in which Beard lived almost had overtones of Bridget Jones (odd thought I know). She was always talking about her fear of dying alone and being eaten by her pet alsatian. Although Beard had no dog the descriptions of the state of his flat and health due to his over eating, heavy drinking and lack of exercise made it quite believable that he could die and not be found for months. By the end of the book I think it also quite likely that no one would miss him and so enquire into his disappearance for months. What a horrible thought!

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  • 8 months later...

I think I may be in the minority here, I absolutely hated it.  Tried and tried to like it, and gave it a good week or so of picking it up and putting it down but, as I posted today in Just Abandoned, I came to a point where nothing about the book made me want to pick it up one more time.

 

"Savagely" funny (as described on the cover) translated for me into "not" funny, a bit like all this so-called cutting edge comedy that we're all supposed to fall about and be impressed with these days.  Previous posters have stated that readers may be naive in thinking the book is flawed because they cannot "identify" with the main character.  Personally I don't consider the book to be flawed or otherwise, I just didn't like it.  

 

Found it all a bit pretentious, self-analyzing, overly scientific for the casual reader and, in not finding a single aspect of the book that engaged me, there was no reason to finish it.

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I am rather glad that RG has given up on this book as he has moaned about it all the way through so far! I advised him to give up on the book after about 50 pages or so if he was not enjoying it but like me he is always reluctant to abandon a book without having first given it a really good try! Some of the things he has said about the book are true, the over complication of the science for instance annoyed me too and I am sure must put off many other readers. However, unlike RG, I did find the book funny in places and although I had no liking for the main character I found him strangely fascintating. I did not feel it necessary to look for any meaning within this book, I just went along with the flow of it and marvelled at the total selfishness of the main character! This was an unusual read for me but I felt a strangely compelling one.

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  • 4 years later...

Elder Son brought this in for me to read in hospital. I managed the first thirty pages that evening, but had surgery the following morning and only picked it up again a couple of days ago. I have just finished part I.

i was hooked by the first 12 lines, as they brought to mind a particular person - I tried it out on Mr meg yesterday, who immediately thought of the same person, his oldest friend. I never knew he was acquainted with Ian MeEwan ;)

 

It's years since I last read any of McEwans novels, but do feel that this has a definite flavour if his previous work, and I am enjoying it - mostly - although I fear that much of my enjoyment seems to indicate a combination  of schadenfreude and misandry that do not reflect well on my own character.

The physics bits are, I'm afraid, quite beyond me, but I am hoping that is the intention of the author! 

 

 

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