Book #20 (June 9, 2010): Solar by Ian McEwan
Is Ian McEwan capable of writing a bad (or even an uninteresting) sentence? If he is, I haven’t caught him at it yet, but then there’s a lot by him that I haven’t read. As to whether he can write a bad (or even uninteresting) novel, that’s another question, but I’ll leave that one to those of you who have a more complete knowledge of his work. Maybe by the end of this year I’ll be able to answer it myself.
Solar certainly isn’t a bad novel and for much of its length it’s a fascinating one. It’s about a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, Michael Beard, who isn’t a particularly admirable human being and in many ways not even a particularly admirable scientist, his reputation being based almost entirely on one blindingly brilliant insight that managed to enter the 20th century canon of profound scientific discoveries alongside Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In practice, however, his more extraordinary achievement seems to be that, for a short, fat, aging, bald, ordinary-looking, grumpy and not particularly wealthy fellow, he manages to sleep with an extraordinary number of beautiful women and somehow makes more than a few of them fall in love with him. This leads to a series of failed marriages and relationships, about which he really doesn’t seem to give a damn, being more concerned about where his next meal is coming from and how he’s going to get revenge on the oafish fellow that his fifth wife is having an affair with in order to get even with him for all the women he’s had affairs with while married to her.
McEwan’s major achievement here, other than some of the most elegant, witty and readable prose I’ve ever seen, is that for at least a third of this book he manages to make this fellow interesting and very nearly (but not quite) sympathetic. It doesn’t hurt that McEwan also pulls off a few nifty plot twists that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling (except to say that one of the minor ones has to do with the effect of extreme frostbite on a penis). Unfortunately, as the story proceeds into its second third (the novel is divided into three parts), Beard’s sheer self obsession begins to become annoying, even off-putting, and by the last third of the book I was really starting to hope that he was going to come to a bad end and that he would come to it sooner rather than later. Let’s just say that McEwan didn’t disappoint me.