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Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I'm Reading: Solar

SolarRecently, I listened to Ian McEwan's latest novel, Solar. McEwan is one of my favorite authors in general and Solar specifically won this year's Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. If you like your humor, dark, uncomfortable, and sarcastic (like me) you will love this novel.

Solar is classic McEwan. For example, in NoveList (accessible here for BPL patrons), McEwan's writing style is described as follows:
Ian McEwan's books are haunting, eloquent, precise investigations of how discrete events loom large in the human psyche. His novels are suspenseful and feature subjects of contemporary relevance, often with political undertones, that readers reflect on long after finishing. McEwan's topics are varied and creative, but his stories often involve a sudden event that turns the direction of an ordinary life, forcing the intelligent and reflective character to cope. McEwan also uses disturbing violence to expose the moment when a character's nature is stripped to the bone.
Solar is exactly as described above. Here our protagonist is long past his prime, Nobel prize-winning psysicist Michael Beard. His personal life is a huge mess. His 5th marriage is crumbling, his career is at a standstill. He has half-heartedly become a spokesperson for the British fight against global warming.

He manages to reappropriate the work of an underling on Solar energy and turn himself into a scientific superstar once again. The reader watches, cringing and laughing all the way, as Beard makes bad decision after bad decision in his personal and professional life, leading to a conclusion in which every loose end is tied up and Beard must pay the ultimate price for his choices.

Beard is fun to watch, but we do not ever like him. We feel sorry for him, maybe, but this is more a story where the reader is meant to observe the protagonist, not relate to him. I personally loved McEwan's descriptions of the horrific state of Beard's falling apart flat.  It was in an awful state; so bad that it is comic. There are literally mushrooms growing inside.  But does Beard deal with it? Of course not. He is unable to deal with anything. And when he does take action, he makes awful choices.

Also hilarious is Beard's ill fated trip to the Arctic. Just read it and try not to laugh.

I also loved how McEwan was able to bring together every single subplot into a highly comic, tragic, but inevitable conclusion. Every bad decision Beard has made throughout the book, comes back to literally "get him" in the end, all at once, in the middle of the desert in New Mexico.  Like most McEwan books, things do not end well for our protagonist, but we are not surprised (there is no way things could have ended well for Beard). The novel ends with the one bright moment in Beard's life, reminding the reader, that before his downfall began, Beard did do good for the world.

Is this book, or McEwan for that matter, for every reader? No. But you need to decide that for yourself. It is dark, but seriously, there are some scenes which are so perfectly constructed, that I laughed out loud as I listened.  I do suggest listening to this book if you can. The language is so thoughtfully crafted that I appreciated it even more as a listener.  Personally, I loved this short, sarcastic look at the scientific community, green energy, and misanthropy. It was the perfect mix of the thought-provoking, funny, and dark that I love in my novels.

Three Words That Describe This Book: darkly comic, character-centered, misanthropic

Readalikes: McEwan's darkly comic tone is very similar to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which I will review soon. Both poke fun at bring "green," both feature highly flawed, self absorbed protagonists, and both have sarcastic, single word titles that sum up the irony of their overarching themes.

In general, McEwan is most similar to Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Martin Amis and Kazuo Ishiguro in writing style, theme, and character development.

After reading Solar, readers may be interested in solar energy and how feasible it would be to bring cheap solar power to the masses. Here is a book to get you started. Ironically, it has a blurb from Bill Richardson, New Mexico's Governor; the state in which McEwan sets the third act of his novel. McEwan would love this irony.

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