We see him at three moments of his increasingly disordered life—in 2000, 2005, and 2009—and we might, given Beard’s addiction to booze, food, sex, cheating, and intricate malevolence, think of the whole novel as a shaggy hog story, an adventure that can’t end because it never began … Of course it’s fun to think of this rascal as engaged in trying to save the earth—a man who hates the very word ‘planet’ gets caught up in doing good because he thinks it will do him good—but the irony is rather broad, and tends to soften our view of Beard … Generally, even the slowness works in the novel’s favor. There is a patient precision in the language … There is an aphorism lurking here: we ourselves can only be punished too much, others can never be punished enough.
On settling down to read Solar, two striking features of the novel are immediately apparent. First, that it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet; and second, that the book does contain a truly shocking surprise – not that it deals with climate change, but that it is a comedy. This amounts to a revolutionary shift in tone, in his 11th novel, for a writer famed for his seriousness … The task he has set himself in Solar appears to be the most ambitious one yet. The state-of-the-nation novel is a familiar genre; in taking on the topic of global warming, McEwan appears to have set out to write about the state of the planet.
Solar, spanning the years 2000–2009, is divided into three sections, each with its own catalogue of humiliations … In Solar—just as in 2006’s plodding, oddly lifeless Saturday—the historical markers are all in place (Bush v. Gore, Iraq, Obama’s election), and the science and technology are up to the minute and sufficiently digested for a lay reader to feel edified. And the plot brings the fatuous Beard to a reckoning foreseeable enough to seem inevitable and just preposterous enough to remind us that McEwan, acting as his story’s controlling, mortal God, has been behind it from the start. It has begun to look like Briony Tallis’s meditation on the novelist’s “absolute power of deciding outcomes” from Atonement is McEwan’s credo; he is the God who spends six days making the world and the seventh reminding us he did.
...a book so good — so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off — that it’s actually quite bad … This may be Beard’s story, but it’s McEwan’s vehicle, constructed to let him pull all the showy turns of the major contemporary novelist and ambitious public intellectual: personalizing the political, politicizing the personal and poeticizing everything else. The tip-off is Beard, who’s endowed by his creator with precisely the vices — apathy, slothfulness, gluttony and hypocrisy — that afflict the society the book condemns, threatening to cook the human race in the heat-trapping gases released by its own arrogance. Because a fictional character can exhibit only so much awareness of his own thematic utility, Beard doesn’t notice any of this, merely regarding himself as a colorful eccentric. But readers will see him for what he is: a figure so stuffed with philosophical straw that he can barely simulate lifelike movement.
Solar, unlike any of his previous work, is avowedly comic. And much of it is extremely funny, most of the time on purpose, as it plots its antihero’s cynical and self-serving efforts to tackle climate change over the course of the first decade of the 21st century … The Spitsbergen episode dramatises, grippingly if not especially subtly, the insurmountable obstacles to anything ever actually being done to solve the problems of climate change. It would make a great short story. But McEwan can’t leave it there … McEwan’s condescendingness here would be easier to bear if he weren’t so inclined to misuse jargon himself, coming up with such vacuities as a plane leaving the stack over Heathrow for its descent ‘on a banking hairpin tangent’ or a road in the desert in New Mexico running ahead ‘straight as a Euclidean line’.
This latest book shows off his gifts as a satirist, but while it gets off to a rollicking start, its plot machinery soon starts to run out of gas, sputtering and stalling as it makes its way from one comic set piece to another … The last two thirds of this novel...are oddly static, as Mr. McEwan repetitiously harps on Beard’s gluttonous habits and growing waistline, his sexual promiscuity and his opportunistic efforts to cash in on global warming. As for the book’s final scenes, in which all of Beard’s earlier lies, betrayals and schemes come sliding down together in a gigantic avalanche, they feel oddly perfunctory and rushed: an unsatisfying ending to what is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.
The novel opens in 2000 in the final, agonizing months of Beard's fifth marriage, with a section that brandishes everything that makes McEwan such a terrific writer. His satire snaps wittily, his interweaving of scientific research and romantic intrigue is startlingly clever, and his psychological insights feel both genuine and comic. For the first time in Beard's life, he's desperate to win back an estranged wife, but this one won't have it … But the novel's fortunes sag from this point forward. Solar remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward.
Nominally a hot-button story about a theoretical physicist confronting climate change, his mischievous, darkly entertaining Solar better resonates as a tale of intellectual property theft … Solar zips along and turns bracingly of the moment in its final third, set in 2009, a year of ‘sclerotic credit markets’ and insurgent skepticism about global warming. Alas, a rushed and contrived climax mars the novel's last pages. What a surprise to see plot ace McEwan struggle to integrate his several narrative strands, stage a persuasive finale and go home. The happier surprise and the reason why Solar succeeds in spite of its creaky finish is McEwan's sense of humor.
Early in his career, the British physicist bags the big one from the Swedish king. Then it's booty time 24/7. The resulting fame lets Beard drift away from science into a lush life of scholarly conferences, fat stipends and white-satin nights in four-star hotels. McEwan marries a sex farce starring academic nerds with the issue of global warming. The result is neither fun nor substantial — just jarring … Yes, McEwan writes great novels — but this solar-powered sex n' science mash-up isn't one.
One of McEwan's greatest gifts as a novelist is to make the reader fear impending doom. We know that disaster is never far away, and yet when it arrives, it's still a surprise, never precisely the disaster we were expecting. Since this is a novel, and a comedy, and to a degree a satire, of course Beard's plans won't work out the way he wants them to. McEwan's own sense of morality may be far more nuanced than his hero's, but ultimately it's just as cynical. The nice guys certainly don't finish first, but then again there aren't really any nice guys in the book … The book isn't a dud, but by McEwan's high standards it does seem a bit of a misfire. Satirists always have to be moralists at some level, but the moral dilemmas that occur in Solar never seem quite real or urgent enough.
Solar is a sly, sardonic novel about a dislikable English physicist and philanderer named Michael Beard. He's a recognisable Ian McEwan type, a one-dimensional, self-deceiving man of science. We have met others like him before in McEwan's novels...but none is quite as repulsive as Beard … Solar is very similar in style to the Booker prize-winning Amsterdam, especially in its narrative tidiness, jauntiness of tone and desire to punish foolish men. But Amsterdam was a novella, whereas Solar feels as if it has been stretched far beyond its natural length. Much of the first part, which is set in 2000 and culminates in the death of the student, reads like an exercise in extended scene-setting, to no obvious purpose or effect … What is absent from Solar, ultimately, are other minds, the sense that people other than Beard are present, equally alive, with something to contribute.
McEwan guns his narrative engine in the first section, set in 2000. But there are curious detours throughout Solar. There's a riotous story about an expedition to the North Pole with artists, performers and scientists concerned with climate change. It's a trip Beard takes to escape his woes at home … McEwan has employed sudden narrative shifts before...but the middle of Solar feels in parts like he's either lost his way or run out of gas … As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.
Beard is a fascinatingly repulsive protagonist, but he can't sustain a novel broken up by fast-forwards (all of which require tedious backstories) and a stream of overwritten courtships. The scientific material is absorbing, but the interpersonal portions are much less so—troublesome, since McEwan seems to prefer the latter—making for an inconsistent novel that one finishes feeling unpleasantly glacial.