Fiction: “Solar” by Ian McEwan

To say that I was disappointed in reading Solar would be putting it somewhat mildly. I have read two other novels and one novella by McEwan (Atonement, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam, respectively), and loved them all. In every work that I’ve read by him, I’ve been amazed and awed by his use of language, how he twists words around and strings together truly beautiful sentences.

But this novel — true, his language technique is still there; he still wraps sentences around his finger using large, lyrical words, but his protagonist isn’t even an anti-hero; he’s just awful.

I was talking to a friend about the book the other day, and I commented that I distinctly didn’t like the main character (I believe the term I used was “shitheel” — and I called him a shitheel during the entire conversation, much like Pete Campbell on Mad Men will always and forever be known as “Bitchface” to me), and I didn’t really want to finish it, but I needed to know what happened. It’s kind of like when I read Wideacre the first time — I hated Beatrice Lacey, but knew instinctually that something had to happen to her to lead her to either redemption or inevitable destruction.

The protagonist of Solar is Michael Beard, a Nobel Laureate for coming up with something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation, which has something to do with photovoltaics, which from what I can gather, has something to do with light and energy. Look, all I know about science I learned from The Big Bang Theory, so I can’t really be held responsible for getting this junk right. Anyway, in the year 2000, Beard is watching his fifth marriage crumble. How this guy was married five times is beyond me, because every time he described himself, he prided himself on his numerous affairs and his attractiveness to women. Which is also beyond me, as he describes himself as being short, fat, and bald. There’s two-thirds of a joke in there about a friend of mine, but he’s too good a friend for me to make it. Also, it would create a comparison between him and Beard, and Beard’s a shitheel, where my friend is not. So.

Anyway. Beard’s soon-to-be-ex, Patrice, is taking up with their contractor, Rodney Tarpin. Meanwhile Beard is working on a wind turbine at this Center or whatever, struggling with climate change and looking for more sustainable energy. And there’s this kid, Thomas Aldous, and he drives Beard back and forth from his flat to work, because Aldous is an intern, and that’s what interns do. Aldous has some fantastical ideas about using solar energy to create fuel by synthesizing photosynthesis, but Beard poo-poohs the idea and returns to ideas on how to make his wife love him again.

Then Beard goes on a trip to the Arctic, and in a moment that would have been AWE-INSPIRING in the way of making Alaina not turn away from this book: Beard almost loses his penis.

No, go with me on this. He wakes up late in his hotel in Sweden or wherever the eff, and he has to run downstairs to make the snowmobile caravan to this boat in the middle of the icy Arctic Ocean. As such, he doesn’t have time for breakfast, or his morning bathroom break. So he’s driving this snowmobile, when all of a sudden, his bladder can’t take it anymore. So he stops, goes to take a piss in the middle of the frozen tundra, and then becomes surprised when his dick sticks to the zipper of his snowsuit, four gazillion times worse than Flick sticking his tongue to the telephone pole. He gets immediate frostbite to his johnson, manages to unstick it using his hip flask of brandy as lubricant, then returns to his compatriot in the caravan and sits astride his snowmobile. And then this happens:

Something cold and hard had dropped from Beard’s groin and fallen down inside the leg of his long johns and was now lodged just above his kneecap. He put his hand between his legs and there was nothing. He put his hand on his knee and the hideous object, less than two inches long, was stiff like a bone. It did not feel, or it no longer felt, like a part of himself. [63-64]

And I sat up in bed, first with empathy pain, but secondly with “HOLY SHIT THAT’S AWESOME.”

But his dick didn’t fall off. He didn’t even have to put it in a box or anything. He had some intense pain, but it didn’t break. In fact, in the next two sections, he has even more sex than he does in the first part. What a letdown. McEwan could have done SO MUCH MORE with that, and he decided not to Go There.

So Beard comes home from the Arctic, and finds not Tarpin at his house after having sex with his wife, but Aldous. And after a confrontation, Aldous accidentally slips on a rug and hits his head on the corner of the coffee table, and dies. Beard frames Tarpin for the crime, and rids himself of multiple problems in one fell swoop.

Fast-forward five years, and Tarpin’s in jail for murder, Beard has stolen Aldous’s works towards rejuvenating solar energy, and has a new lover named Melissa. He has also grown to be more of a shitheel, and fatter. And then Melissa reveals that she loves him, but wants a baby more, so she went off her birth control and now she’s seven weeks pregnant.

The final part takes place in 2009, on the eve of the great unveiling of the synthetic photosynthesis, and all of his lies come into fruition and are almost revealed.

There was one big error that McEwan makes. In the section when Beard is in the Arctic, turning his junk into a frozen weiner (and remember, this is in the year 2000), Beard remembers this:

He had read of an American hiking alone in the wilderness who got his arm trapped behind a rock and sawed through his own elbow with a penknife. [60]

Now, every February, I attempt Oscar!Watch, where I watch all the movies nominated for the major categories of Academy Awards. Which meant that yes, this February, I sat through 127 Hours. And when I read the above sentence, I thought, “Wait, I thought that happened in 2004?”

Turns out, it was 2003, but still. Unless there is another poor soul who got his arm trapped behind a rock and needed to perform self-amputation, McEwan’s facts needed a stricter check.

All in all, I’m still disappointed in the book. I feel that it could have been so much better, but in the end, Beard is neither redeemed nor destroyed. What the hell? How is that a good ending?

Rating for Solar: 1 star


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