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March 28, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

I have a feeling that some understanding of quantum physics could open up Ian McEwan’s latest novel Solar tenfold. That this story is operating on all kinds of levels I’m not even perceiving, but then maybe that’s just part of the joke. That I’m the type of person who imagines layers of meaning rather than a single thing (a novel) being what it is.

This is what it this: Michael Beard is a Nobel Laureate, though he ceased to practice actual science years ago. He gets by, as a Nobel Laureate might, nominally serving on various boards and letterheads, and when the novel begins in 2000, he’s Director of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, developing a wind turbine he’s since realized will be useless. His fifth marriage has just collapsed, he’s overweight and balding, he doesn’t mean much to anyone, and not much means much to him. Except potato chips.

The shape of Solar is in direct opposition to McEwan’s Saturday (which was novel through which Ian McEwan and I fell deep in love). Though both books are dense with detail, Saturday‘s momentum was furious, whereas Solar moves at a much more Micheal Beard-ish pace. It plods, it does, though what redeems this pace could be accounted for by the number of times whilst reading this novel I gasped out loud with surprise, shock or horror.

The fact is, I really can’t tell you what happens, because you need to experience the surprise, the shock and the horror for yourselves. What I can say is that physicist Michael Beard experiences the world in physical terms, as an object moving through that world and bumping into things. And it’s these bumps that determines his trajectory more than any kind of established direction: “The past had shown him many times that the future is its own solution.”

His journey takes him from the mess of his marriage to an excursion to the North Pole for an interdisciplinary summit on climate change, to a new relationship and a new career selling solar technology to savvy investors, via a train journey that is rather fraught, and then to America where he’s using science to replicate photosynthesis in order to harvest the energy of the sun and ultimately save the world. Throughout all this, he spends a lot of time in traffic, and the “bumps” that determine where he goes from one step to another are also profoundly physical in their nature– how a head hits a table edge, the trajectory of a thrown tomato, and one vital intersection between a sperm and an egg.

As unattractive as he is, Beard (McEwan writes), “belonged to that class of men… who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.” And unattractiveness aside, it’s clear how this could be the case– Beard spins a certain version of his experiences that so thoroughly convince him that readers are nearly convinced alongside by such a singular point of view. The thing about a character who bumps through life without thought towards others or any consequences is that he’s sort of vile, but we really can’t quite hate him. The bumbling fool, we start to believe, is just a victim of circumstance; he’s innocent and misunderstood.

It soon becomes clear, however, that not only is Beard a character completely blind to consequence, but consequence is also quite blind to him. On one hand, he’s had us thinking that he’s hardly an agent in his own life, but we see he’s not an object in it either– after the series of events his bumblings set in motion, the pieces fall without any hint that he’d even been there. And this is where I start wishing I understood quantum physics (in addition to marvelling at the fact that Ian McEwan really seems to) because I’m sure there is some scientific theory analogous to this narrative structure which would bring the whole thing together. And mine is the kind of thinking Michael Beard finds himself up against, by relativists who see science as just another way (among many) of looking at the world, instead of understanding that the world is one thing only whether we’re looking at it or not.

I’ve not yet conveyed that this is a funny book, slapstick in some parts, deeper so in others, and darkly too. That McEwan satirizes academia, media culture, and modern life, but in such a way that it’s never clear what way is up and who is meant to be skewered. That even if Michael Beard thought I was a fool for saying so, that this a book with so much going on on so many levels that it just opens up wider and wider the more I think about it, so that one note in the margin just leads to another until the end-pages are covered in scribbles. And that clearly this is a book that I’m not nearly finished with yet.

One thought on “Solar by Ian McEwan”

  1. Mr. B says:

    My first introduction to McEwan was through the beautiful but disturbing film Cement Garden. Then I read Black Dogs, then I was hooked.
    You’ve sold me on Solar . . . now I know how to use some of my increasing pile of gift cards from an unmentioned book chain.

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