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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
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McEwan's latest novel skewers fanatics, libertines, and the god-headed media, as well as taking an unapologetic stab at the politics and religiosity of 21st century science. He reveals the folly of doublethink, groupthink, and egomania in a ferocious satire of many-layered complexity. When you close the pages of the book, you are apt to appreciate it more as it settles into the parts of your brain that mingle literature with social commentary. The entertainment value is actually eclipsed by its brilliance, the dazzling rays reaching out to prior gems and reflecting an awful lot of sublime light. It's cheeky, satirical, uncomfortable, and to some readers, it will be controversial.
Our unsympathetic protagonist is Michael Beard. (I note that the name is no accident, a beard being a person that is used by someone else to cover something up, and Michael meaning someone who is like God.) Michael is a 50-something former Nobel laureate, resting on his fleshy laurels from twenty-two years ago, where he stood on the shoulders of Einstein and proposed a scientific "Conflation Theory" that was trailblazing at the time. Now, he tours around the globe giving lectures and consults for a large fee, and he sits idly as a member of a board at a center for renewable energy in the UK. His main pursuit is women, and he pursues them with -aholic depravity. As the novel opens, his fifth marriage is falling apart due to his infidelities. But this time, his wife got the last word by having some side dishes for herself and leaving him labeled as the cuckold.
Michael is a bozo with a brain. He is selfish, hideous, immoderate, and amoral. He exploits what he sees as the folly and weakness of the mass ideology in order to feed his degenerate egomania, but he is in denial of his own foolishness and excesses. He observes the current hysteria of global warming fanatics. (By the way, don't kill the messenger--I am not denying the seiousness of climate change, but rather sharing aspects of the novel). He compares them to Old Testament Armageddon-addicts and peril-seekers. He proclaims that global warming has created so much heat that it has evolved into a religion of sorts, so that even left-wing atheists have merged science and religion into a cataclysmic catastrophe, a noble purpose--and, for some people, a fanatical life quest.
Well, Beard wants IN. He swindles and schemes and adopts ideas as his own, swaggering in with a proposal for a renewable energy source by artificial photosynthesis. He commits the most menacing breach of humanity and moral ethics in order to achieve his aims, and the reader can see him barreling toward comeuppance right out of the starting gate. His massive appetite for food and women continue to grow--he feeds the beast and the Buddha-belly at every opportunity, and drinks booze like water. He fervently maintains his invincibility as a hustler and a savior of mankind. Along the way are moments of physical comedy that are sheer hilarity, reminiscent of the Farrelly and the Coen brothers. And his apartment is so squalid it would make Dickens howl.
McEwan pays homage, with his own brand of subversive humor, to previous literary monuments. There is a character with the surname Aldous, and a twisted reference to the sex-hormone chewing gum, saluting Brave New World (P.S.), and the doubethinking of Nineteen Eighty-Four. There's also a nod to the water-sharing (substituted with Scotch) and media circus of Stranger in a Strange Land, and the mob frenzy of The Bonfire of the Vanities is also peppered throughout the story.
In order to appreciate this novel, the reader must be OK with a thoroughly revolting reprobate as a protagonist, and able to find humor in the tempest of global warming politics. Additionally, the reader is going to encounter that Beard is the only fleshed-out character. If that doesn't appeal to you, this may not be your cuppa. In lesser hands, I would not have enjoyed the focus on a singular person, with no supporting characters rounding out the story. Moreover, the prose gets scientifically dense, even verbose, at times. It was on the verge of distracting me from the novel's momentum at intervals, but not enough to thwart my pleasure. As I mentioned earlier in this review, the more I think about SOLAR, the more of its merits shine through.
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Showing 1-10 of 30 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 25, 2010 12:42:04 PM PST
Jill I. Shtulman says:
Wow! Bug, you outdid yourself. You summarized your own reading experience (and mine) and truly captured the cheeky and satirical core of the novel. I just have one complaint: now I have nothing left to write! :)
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2010 12:53:10 PM PST
Jill--I highly doubt you will be bereft of words for your review--you will fly through all the sun spots and give me something else to chew on!
Posted on Feb 25, 2010 12:56:40 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2010 12:58:46 PM PST
Friederike Knabe says:
Excellent review! I can't wait now to read it... once it appears here in print which should be next week. It seems the McEwan got into the satirical vein completely and his sarcasm about certain things British (male?) sound refreshing.
Comparing yours and Roger's review, I can almost imagine the book.
Posted on Feb 25, 2010 1:02:31 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2010 4:03:25 PM PST
Roger Brunyate says:
Well, you certainly made the case for satire to great effect, and picked out some very interesting cross-references. I find your review funnier than the book itself, though. Can you give me chapter and verse for any sections in which you laughed aloud? Comic scenes, yes, as the business with the errant lip-salve in the arctic, or that dreadful speech which virtually reproduces the unfortunate remarks of Lawrence Summers at Harvard. I squirmed, perhaps smiled through the squirming, but was never tempted to laugh. I don't think I even picked up on the necessary clues that this was satire.
"The more I think about SOLAR, the more of its merits shine through." No doubt, because Ian McEwan is a very accomplished writer. But what I find shining through is what you call "its many-layered complexity." Complexity, however, is no good unless you can discern a unity that holds it all together. I looked for such unity in the mode of his other books, failed to find it, and (perhaps wrongly) blamed McEwan for it. You are suggesting that the unity is in the satire, but I am not sure that even that pulls it all together. The more I think back, the less the various elements seem to cohere. The plotting is unusually thin for McEwan. There were times in both Parts I and II when I felt the wheels spinning, in episodes of local interest but little onward momentum. Then in Part III, we get momentum with a vengeance (literally). But, to give two examples, I was not convinced that the things that were supposed to have happened in the gap between sections (especially between Parts II and III) really could have happened, and characters seemed to pop in and out to suit the author's convenience rather than internal consistency. Were you really satisfied by his treatment of Tarpinm to name but one, a character who he uses at the times he needs him, but whose progress from point A to point B is tenuous to say the least?
The book simply requires too much suspension of disbelief to work for me, and yet the serious nature of the scientific expositions, for instance, points the reader to a much less fanciful environment. I think these discontinuities in tone really matter.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2010 1:05:30 PM PST
Roger Brunyate says:
Friederike, Michael Beard is a British male, and much of McEwan's social observation has to do with British institutions, which are what he knows best. But, as a British male myself, I hope you are not saying that Beard's many flaws result from either his nationality or his gender? Roger.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 25, 2010 1:33:12 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 25, 2010 1:45:44 PM PST
Friederike Knabe says:
Roger, without elborating too much... I lived long enough in England to recognize that, of course McEwan's (satirical?) "social observation has to do with British institutions". While I don't want to get into interpreting Beard, given I have not "met" him yet, just taken from your and SBug's description, he reminds me of Brits who I have had to deal with or have read about in recent times, especially in the context of the global warming/climate change debate. McEwan seems to me to be stronger in his characterization of male protagonists, whether the reader likes them and relates to them or not. You have read more of his novels than I have done, of course, but wouldn't you agree? And, as we discussed over the years, the British education system has something to do with how Brits develop in later life... (as with Germans, I like those better who have lived or are living outside their country of birth) On the other hand, I am probably influenced by reading and reviewing Bindman - the Brit who spent his early childhood in Germany I was trying to tell you about. Friederike
Posted on Feb 25, 2010 1:55:06 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 26, 2010 6:56:27 PM PST
Harkius--thank you! I know you demand excellence, so a credit from you means a lot.
And Friederike--I always appreciate your comments. I think you will get a lot out of this book.
And, Roger I will email you on the scenes that made me LOL--I don't like to spread too much about this book on the comments section. After all, there will be readers who don't want to know much. I don't like someone to give me a blow by blow of a comic scene in a book--that would ruin it for me.
Posted on Feb 25, 2010 6:58:39 PM PST
Well, I thought that the plotting in Atonement was pretty robust. Some surprises there. (I was intrigued mostly by Briony.) A very different book than SOLAR, which demonstrates his willingness to flex his literary muscle in a variety of tenors. I haven't read all of McEwan's work, but I have been convincingly apprised that he isn't a one-note type of novelist.
Anyway, SOLAR is pretty intricate, as far as the satirical layers piling up. There is the issue of denial at the same time that there is the issue of fanaticism. Beard denies his health issues, his indiscriminate libertine life (as being hazardous)--he denies global warming, in fact, until he sees he can make a buck and earn a crown of respect--he is self-righteous and indifferent to others. The fanaticism of global warming hysteria is the other side of the extreme.
I also think there is something to the acronym WUDU (would you? voodoo?)--I get the sense that McEwan is pointing out how whimsical or unformed ideas are apt to become a sacred interest of science, especially when groupthink and $$ is involved. Scientists are the gods since the age of Enlightenment, but a paradox is present when we have new gods, when "rationalists" are trying to disprove the existence of God with science--but then replace "God" with a new and evermore fungible scientific idea. Scientism vs science? And, oh, so sacred are these dates, these CO2 levels, these carbon footprints--but unreliable at the same time.
The scene where he is accused of being a eugenicist is a superb example of media distortion, and the tomato? Priceless. Exquisite. That was whiffs of Coen Bros, and the way that the media exploited and misconceived everything just made me purr. (Lots of BONFIRES and HUXLEY there).
I also failed to mention that the scenes in Lordsbug, New Mexico, where Beard is happy as a clam watching the cultural customs, is also reminiscent of BRAVE NEW WORLD--the Savage Reservation, which was also in New Mexico. I think Darlene is right out of BRAVE NEW WORLD, too.
The Arctic zone scenes--I howled with those.
The scenes with Aldous--most of them were vivid and highly amusing.
I will have to discuss Tarpin in email as I don't know how to be circumspect enough. Don't want to spill spoilers.
If there is a unity here--I think it has to do with distortion and misconception--in every arena brought into the book, from the physical environment to the personal arena (think of the scene with Aldous at the house, which encompasses both). Also, Beard prevails that when the Armageddon predictions come to pass and nothing happens, they just change the date.
The artificial photosynthesis has a certain vagueness to it, too. Just the whole idea of "artificial" brings more delightful bits to chew on.
I comprehend what you are saying about the discontinuities in tone, and he pushed the envelope there. But, he pulled it off, IMHO. The bottom notes were always subversive, and whose to say how serious were those science expositions? Would you? :-->
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 26, 2010 7:36:58 AM PST
Mary Lins says:
Who didn't laugh when it turned out to be his lip balm?!