Author: Ian McEwan

2010, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under Literary

McEwan’s newest book is also his funniest. This is a phrase, in so many words, that I read about this book a lot as it was approching release. And it’s true, this book is has some quite humorous moments. McEwan is a great writer, with a keen eye for detail and razor intuition. But he’s never been someone that comes to mind when I think of funny. In fact, the books of his that I’ve read (The Cement Garden, Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach) are for the most part quite serious. So I began this book unsure what to expect. Was he writing a comedic novel? Would it stray far from the McEwan I like so much?

He’s not and it doesn’t. And that’s a good thing. Like McEwan’s other novels, Solar relies heavily on character and narration to tie together a central humanistic theme; in this case, the theme is global warming.

Michael Beard is an aging, oversexed and obese climatologist. His life’s work culminates in creating a renewable energy source through artificial photosynthesis, potentially changing the world as we know it. But he is a gluttonous drunk, and an absent father. Beard at once exemplifies the worst product of Western society and positions himself as one of its saviors.

Thanks largely to the humor, the narration in Solar never comes across as pretentious or preachy. (Though the heavy-handedness in Atonement was the purposeful conceit, it’s also the book’s biggest flaw.) The narrator is not on Beard’s side. In fact, the narrator doesn’t seem to like him much. It stays sympathetic and simultaneously critical. Much of the book’s humor comes from the narrator deriding the protagonist, and I think this was a smart move on McEwan’s part.

Humor aside, the writing is great. Here’s a quick line I jotted down:

[Jesus was an] elderly man with a mournful face and curved yellowish white mustache, who smelled richly of cigars, and had a wheezing, honking sound in his voice, like a teddy bear’s growl.

Typical of McEwan’s writing, and of much quality realistic fiction, the plotting of the book pushes plausibility enough to keep things continually interesting, without feeling forced or impossible. A continual series of poor decisions and selfish manuevers sets in motion a chain of consequenses that follow Beard and crescendo later in the novel. McEwan is a very precise writer, and the plotting as well as the language is clean, crisp, and controlled.

If you like McEwan’s other novels, you will likely enoy this book as well. The somewhat deadpan humor (I especially like the scene in the Antarctic when a panicked Beard believes his penis to have literally frozen off) is a nice change of pace from McEwan’s previous work, but the book remains identifiably a McEwan novel. If you’ve never read McEwan before, this is about as good a place to start as any. It’s not his best novel, but it might be his most entertaining.

[This review is based on the unabridged audiobook of Solar.]

Similar Reads: Saturday (McEwan), Wonderboys (Chabon), Mao II (DeLillo), Enduring Love (McEwan)