Upon hearing that he rejected an invitation to appear at this year’s Durham Book Festival, any student might be forgiven for taking a dim view of Solar, the latest offering from the English literary heavyweight Ian McEwan. His own act is a tough one to follow – eleven novels of diverse focus and subject matter, but unvarying success. The question with McEwan isn’t really “Is it good?”, but rather “Is it as good?” as the Booker-winning Amsterdam (1998), the haunting The Child In Time (1987), or the eloquently brilliant Atonement (2001), to list the finest examples of his work. In Solar’s case, the answer is unfortunately (and completely objectively) a simple but emphatic “No”.
The one word which best describes this literary attempt to tackle the hot topic of climate change is ‘admirable’. McEwan has for some time shown a strong interest in science as a subject for his fiction – for his ninth novel Saturday (2005) he spent the best part of two years’ research looking into the finer points of neurobiology. Yet there is a sense with Solar that perhaps this great author has spent altogether too much time in the company of scientists. Faced with the problem of writing about climate change without seeming simply to preach a cautionary tale, he has done his calculations, thrown in the appropriate variables, and come out with an answer that is, regrettably, a bit too formulaic.
McEwan’s main character, Nobel laureate Professor Michael Beard, is shown at three different points in his life – in 2000, 2005, and 2009, in the novel’s three Parts. Yet throughout he is a greedy, well-off, inconsiderate, lazy, solipsistic womaniser. One scientist/reviewer, who helped McEwan with his research for the novel, views Beard as: ‘Actually quite unlike any scientist I know, but certainly less boring than the most of us.’ This in itself isn’t the problem with the novel – it is generically a satire, and many of the best satirical works see thoroughly unlikeable characters receiving their ‘comeuppance’. But the mechanics behind Beard’s route through the novel are just a little too evident – from an unfortunate Arctic incident involving a male appendage and an iceberg (and they say Freud is clichéd), to a rival (both scientific and romantic!) being killed by a collision with a coffee table after tripping on a polar-bear rug (seriously?). The main symbolism of the novel – Beard’s constant physical ‘sickness’ mirroring the condition of the planet, and his own greed and amorality representing that of a public unwilling to change – aren’t exactly buried deep within the narrative. As readers we might appreciate the literary flair of such an eminent artist – if only he didn’t make it quite so obvious.
By the time Professor Beard’s fall is complete – a swift shift from potential global saviour to a man bankrupt, despised, and chased by his angry lovers – the emotion wrought, at least in this reader, is one of mere indifference. The novel simply does not engage the reader on an emotional level – we are impressed by how it is put together, but are not made to care about its protagonists.
Solar is never going to make it as a literary classic. Yet it really is admirable for the attention it draws to the very real issue of climate change. It could be argued that McEwan has gone soft since the shocks of his early work, but for his fans there is still much here to recommend. If you’re new to McEwan, however, I would suggest starting elsewhere.