Solar, by Ian McEwan

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click for info

So here is a 62-year-old male reader, for the second time in two weeks, trying to review a novel by an author of major, major reputation whom the reviewer has respected for decades who is also in his early 60s (Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow is the other if you missed that post.) The central character in both novels is also a well-off male in his early 60s (how much autobiography?); both have been obsessed with sex throughout their lives (is it really autobiography?). While they have both been good at getting it, dealing with the consequences has been a major, even overwhelming, personal issue, if not outright failure. I’ll return to the comparison later — first let’s look at what Solar is about.

Michael Beard is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work he did while in his early 20s, developing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, an extension of Einstein’s work. When we first meet him at the age of 53 in 2000, he has already spent decades living off the avails of that award: honorary (but paying) university positions, memberships on Royal Commissions, consulting editor to numerous publications, paid conference appearances where he delivers the same speech, etc., etc. — it is a long list. While he has niggling concerns about effectively deserting his field, his major current worry is far different — his fifth marriage is disintegrating and, for the first time, it is his wife (Patrice) who is driving the process.

He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleano, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his marriages had lasted more than six years and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented and they protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for something that he was still on speaking terms with his exes.

Needless to say all these wives, except for the first, were younger and the age gap has grown with each succeeding marriage (this latest one is about two decades). Patrice’s lover is a builder who renovated their Belsize Park flat — younger, taller, less fat and with more hair than Michael.

On the professional front, Beard has a new and attractive scam. He is the head (they call him “Chief”) of the National Centre for Renewable Energy in Reading, a Blair government initiative to show concern about climate change and also to one-up the Americans. It is not Beard’s field of expertise and he is a climate change sceptic at best, but the time investment is only one day a week, it is an easy train ride from London and the pay is good since the government needs someone like a Nobel Prize winner to show its commitment. Beard does make a useless, indeed project-killing, suggestion for the invention and development of WUDU (a Wind turbine for Urban Domestic Use, to be mounted like television aerials of the past on rooftops) that completely preoccupies the Centre.

The post-docs who are the scientists of the project (and much more in touch with contemporary science than Beard) are an idealistic, committed bunch (many with ponytails, all in denims). Much of the Centre’s time is taking up by responding to nutbar suggestions from the public, since the Minister has said every idea sent to the Centre would get a response — one post-doc suggests they be sorted into three piles according to their denial of the First or Second Laws of Thermodynamics, or both. That kind of satire is often where McEwan is at his best, but they really are throwaway lines.

This paragraph is a spoiler, in a way, but it is essential to the set up of the book and, honest, takes you no more than a quarter of the way into it. One of the ponytails, Tom Aldous, adopts the Chief as his mentor. Aldous is convinced that the breakthrough answer is a version of photosynthesis, using solar energy to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, just as plants have been doing for millenia to make the planet habitable. In order to set up the novel, McEwan:

– has Aldous become Patrice’s lover.
— die in circumstances that could cast Beard as a murderer
— except perhaps Beard could frame her previous lover
— oh, and Aldous leaves Beard a 300-plus page file on his photosynthesis ideas

If you have ever read any Ian McEwan novel, you will understand why any further plot references in this review are going to be sketchy — it is one thing to outline the set-up, it is truly spoiling to go much further. McEwan’s best novels (Atonement and Enduring Love are at the top of my list) do have a consistent trait. More than 90 per cent of what he describes is very realistic and it is in these parts where the author offers very perceptive observations on modern foibles, usually totally unrelated to the plot. Here is one, somewhat extended, example from an incident at a press conference where Beard is introducing yet another government committee he heads, this one on how to encourage more young people to take up the sciences. It leads to Beard being scandalized in the popular press as the “neo-Nazi professor”:

Then a woman from a mid-market tabloid asked a question, also routine, something of an old chestnut, and Beard replied, as he thought, blandly. It was true, women were under-represented in physics and always had been. The problem had often been discussed, and (he was mindful of Professor Temple as he said it) certainly his committee would be looking at it again to see if there were new ways of encouraging more girls into the subject. He believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached. Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics. There was a concensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different. This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority, nor was it a matter of social conditioning, though of course it played a reinforcing role. These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability.

I have quoted only half the paragraph but I am sure you get the gist. In my days in the newspaper business, there was a phrase that described such incidents (and you would be amazed how often they occur): “Meant it when he said it, not when he read it”. McEwan milks it for several, very funny pages.

Then there is the other 10 per cent of McEwan, where reality is suspended and an unreal, unbelievable world intoduced. In his good books, it is as though the author says “grant me this licence, believe it to be true and I will deliver a result”. In the bad ones, it produces the reader response of “oh, come on, Ian”. Alas, there is far more of the latter than the former in this book. Although there is a hilarious set-piece where Beard heads off to a climate change symposium located on a ship frozen in the winter ice off Spitsbergen. He is the only scientist of the more than 20 participants literally stuck in the middle of frozen nowhere — the rest are all artists of one sort or another, bringing their creative talents to bear on highlighting the issue of climate change. The fact that it works (McEwan in his acknowledgements says he got the idea for this book from a trip with Cape Farewell to Spitsbergen in 2005) is proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, the success of this particular section serves all too much as a reminder of the failure of others in this novel.

While Beard gives up marriage after his fifth dissolves, he does not give up women — the tensions created by that, mixed with the plot line I introduced in the mini-spoiler, drive the bulk of the book. He is an unattractive enough character that one would love to be cheering for the women but they are all drawn in a curiously flat fashion (I’d be interested in comments from women readers on what I at least perceive to be a major shortfall).

Okay, back to comparisons with Amis. The narrators of both books are men in their early 60s, realizing that sex (which has played such a large part of their lives) is entering a diminishing phase at best. Amis sets most of his narrative in the past when his character was 20 and discovering his lifelong obsession — he brings the story into the present in the Coda that I did not like at all. McEwan places his character pretty much in the present (the three sections of the book are set in 2000, 2005 and 2009) but he spends a lot of his time contemplating just what produced his current circumstances. For this reader, the two pretty much look at the same lump of coal, but from two quite different perspectives. For my money, while neither is successful, Amis comes closer to hitting a reader-friendly mark. McEwan’s introduction of the Nobel Prize winner and climate change angles sets the bar for success pretty high (if you are going to use those kind of high level plot gimmicks you have a duty to deliver at an equally high level) and they just don’t work at all. There is enough science to be annoying, not enough to learn much and it mainly ends up getting in the way of what could have been a rather good story.

But then I think that is a characteristic that is true of recent McEwan fiction — Saturday in particular comes to mind. If you liked that novel (I didn’t — the medicine was as distracting as the science is here, the story as thin), I think you would quite like this one. Indeed if you have read a lot of McEwan and liked him (I have read all of his books and for a while would have called him my favorite contemporary author), this book is definitely worth the investment, despite its shortcomings. He is a highly readable author and, if he isn’t annoying you, there are some quite good moments.

On the other hand, if you think he has been slipping badly in recent books (as many McEwan readers do), this one is probably going to confirm that opinion. And if you have only read one or two, my advice would be to go back to the earlier works. For me, at least, McEwan, like his central character Michael Beard, seems to be guilty of living off his past laurels rather than his current achievement.

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53 Responses to “Solar, by Ian McEwan”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been anxious to get your opinion on this one, Kevin. I have liked much of what I’ve read by McEwan, though my opinion of his has turned as of late.

    He seems more and more to be a stylist who lacks in substance yet who takes himself entirely too seriously. Even my opinion of Atonement went down after I read So Long, See You Tomorrow. However, I’ve always found his stuff readable and enjoyable on the stylistic level, even in Saturday — not many could make a game of handball quite that dramatic. And though slight, I still think the best written book of the 2007 Booker shortlist was On Chesil Beach, though it wasn’t my favorite that year.

    I haven’t read much of his early work, so I will take your advice and go there when I want to read him more.

    • Stewart Says:

      not many could make a game of handball quite that dramatic.

      Right, you guys call football soccer, so you can call something else that rarely uses feet football, so what do you call handball if you are calling squash handball? If all that makes sense.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Touche, Stewart. It was, in fact, a squash game. Same court as handballl, but with weapons. And we spell whiskey incorrectly, as well. And gutters are “eavestroughs”.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: “Enjoyable at a stylistic level” is a very good phrase to describe his continuing strengths for me. In his earlier books, I thought he was very good at constructing complex, rather abstract situations and then developing them in a way that a reader could say “okay, if I accept the premise, that absurd result could actually happen” (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent and Enduring Love are all good examples). And there was much to think about in those stylized worlds (as opposed to incidents) that McEwan created. In the recent books, you get what are almost interludes of very good writing and development (like the handball game) and then a return to a not very good main plot.

    I too liked On Chesil Beach which, because it is so short, is almost an extended interlude, if I can borrow my own metaphor. The further I got into this book the more I found myself comparing the author and his character, not in their sexual exploits, but rather in the way they were leaning on their reputation, rather than their talent.

  3. whisperinggums Says:

    I’m rather an McEwan fan, and it is really, I think, because of this “stylistic level”. Plot and story are less important for me though maybe I am ingenuous in saying that since the story of Enduring love really pulled me in! Anyhow, I loved Enduring love, and Atonement, but Amsterdam less so (though I sometimes think I should go back to it). I liked Saturday and On Chesil Beach too. I like the way he takes an event and explores the psychological fall out. I think he does an excellent job of getting inside people’s heads. I’ll be interested to read this new one.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Despite my grumpy review, I think confirmed McEwan fans will find things to like in this book — mainly coming from that “stylistic” angle. Part of my grumpiness may also come from the personal feeling that he has already proved he is capable of better, which I admit is an unfair measuring stick. Please check back with thoughts when you have read the book.

      • whisperinggums Says:

        Back again. I have now read it – and reviewed it on my blog if you are interested. However, I tend to agree with you. I found it readable – wouldn’t totally “diss” it – but it falls a bit flat compared with my favourites of his.

  4. Craig D. Says:

    I’ve never read McEwan, but to comment on the whole style vs. substance topic, sometimes the style *is* the substance, and you’re screwed if you don’t like the style.

  5. Isabel Says:

    I like the premise: what does a scientist who peaks early in his/her career, do for the rest of his/her life?

    Getting 5 wives: possible. Some women like to say that they were married to someone famous.

    Our book club finished On Chesil Beach. It wasn’t my favorite, though. I think that I will skip this one.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Craig: Some authors have both style and substance, as McEwan does in his best books. And it is certainly true that there are many successful novels that lean heavily one way or the other. I wouldn’t characterize this as a novel of “style”, although portions of it do remind one of the author at his best. Alas, other parts don’t.
    Isabel: I agree a promising premise and your explanation for the five wives is pretty much the only possible one for Beard, once you read a little bit about him. This is a much different book from On Chesil Beach — much less introspective and with a greater emphasis on story. It is also about three times as long.

  7. lizzysiddal Says:

    Well, Kevin – here’s a turn-up – a book I won’t be buying due to your(non-)recommendation! I also agree with everything you’ve said McEwan’s career thus far.

    http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/2007/09/09/booker-2007-mcewan-and-me/

  8. John Self Says:

    Oddly, I don’t think of McEwan as a stylist – not in the way that, say, Amis or Banville are. I think he’s always been much more about story and character psychology (and, more recently, contemporary issues) than about pure prose style. (Though having said that, the long opening section of Atonement is a notable stylistic achievement.)

    For me he has always blown hot and cold on the level of individual titles: so Enduring Love and Atonement would be on the plus side, and Amsterdam or The Child in Time on the minus. Recent books such as Saturday and On Chesil Beach I was more or less indifferent to, though I must admit that in a quite unfair retrospective fashion, I took a good deal of pleasure in reading John Banville’s contemporaneous assault on Saturday recently (“if Tony Blair … were to appoint a committee to produce a “novel for our time,” the result would surely be something like this”).

    On the basis that I disliked what I read in an excerpt from Solar in the New Yorker, and that I feel myself and McEwan to be drifting in different directions of late, and that the several positive reviews I’ve read of it in the press didn’t seem to me to provide any substantial reasons for their praise, and that Kevin has produced a balanced and dissuasive review … I doubt I’ll be bothering with Solar either.

    Now can we expect the usual press hoo-ha when it’s left off the Booker longlist?

    • whisperinggums Says:

      You are right that story and character development tend to be the things we think of most when we think of McEwan, though for me the story is not the main thing I look for. It’s the psychological development in his characters that I most like, and the way he draws that out of, usually, one defining event. My favourites by far are Enduring love and Atonement…but I did find On Chesil Beach a fascinating read even though it lacked the tightness of Enduring love and the sophistication of Atonement.

    • Trevor Says:

      I think my statement that McEwan is more stylized that substantive comes from my reading of So Long, See You Tomorrow, so it’s not a fully matured thought yet. I know that the books can’t be compared in all respects, but I was surprised at how much more effectively Maxwell examined guilt and atonement through writing than McEwan who, in retrospect, seemed to place that as a nice twist on the ending — I loved the book, don’t get me wrong there.

      But since reading Maxwell I started to think about Atonement more and realized that, not knowing the ending, my favorite aspect of the book was the almost Virginia Woolf style in the first part and the play on “the word.” There is some great psychology there, I agree, but for me the main pleasure came from the writing itself on the sentence level. Furthermore, I am feeling more and more that the book doesn’t analyze atonement so much as use it for a literary technique (I hesitate to say gimmick, though I know several people who feel that way). In fact, because the atonement theme is tacked on at the end, I have to wonder if Briony herself wasn’t simply using her guilt to show her writing skills, that the writing is primary, any real introspection secondary, almost incidental.

      As for the war segment, I can see how it relates to and furthers the themes, but I still think it leans more to showiness than analysis.

      It’s been an interesting journey for me, and I’m not certain at this point whether my thoughts will stand as they are, but I actually now feel that On Chesil Beach is more penetrating (in one sense, not the other) than Atonement, though it certainly has its faults.

      All of this is not to say I don’t still admire Atonement. I need to read it again. But for me any analysis of the character remains secondary to the pleasure I took in the style at a sentence-by-sentence level.

      If I pull in Saturday I think the best part is the handball scene, or perhaps the fretting over the mirror. But not for the psychological insight (though I do think they are great for that), but again for the style. I read those segments more impressed not with what the book was saying but with how the book was saying it.

      Sorry to babble on so much. But my thinking on this has found a bit more traction in the process.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lizzy/John/wg: The four of us are pretty much in agreement, at least in the ranking of McEwan’s work, although I was probably somewhat more enthusiastic in overall rating him, at least before this work. Just a few thoughts:

    1. The book at least is better than the New Yorker excerpt, which was taken from one of the duller parts of it (there are quite a few).
    2. I appreciate John’s point about “stylist”. I think when I apply that adjective to McEwan I am speaking to his ability to narrate and deliver an extended incident (like the disastrous press conference) to great effect. That is not style in the conventional sense, I guess, but for me it characterizes the McEwan “style”.
    3. Character psychology is definitely his strength in his good books and is what was missing in this one for me. Beard is not so much annoying (which would be legitimate) as he is shallow and predictable (and thus annoying). Also, the good McEwans share the characteristic of developing a productive tension between the central male and female characters — none of the women in this book have much depth, so that tension is not there.
    4. Lizzy — since you hated Saturday, I am pretty sure you would hate this one even more. Actually, you could have a great time reading it simply to enjoy the experience of seething at it — it is only 285 pages and McEwan is still a very readable writer, even if you aren’t thinking very much of his characters and story. There are enough funny bits along the way to distract you.
    5. I suspect it hits the Booker longlist simply on the basis of author reputation (although that would mean Amis would have to also). I also suspect the experience of commentors here with McEwan has extended for more years (and books) than a good chunk of the Booker jury. Given his reputation and not knowing how good he can be, that’s likely to sway some opinions.

    • Trevor Says:

      I think when I apply that adjective to McEwan I am speaking to his ability to narrate and deliver an extended incident (like the disastrous press conference) to great effect.

      Ahh, thanks Kevin. I think you’ve articulated something I could not. McEwan is very impressive at this type of writing. If I could, I’d incorporate this by reference into my long tumbling comment above.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      yes, kevin, I was going to say exactly the same thing re style – in fact we used the word “stylistic level” – which means to me the way a particular author writes – rather than the word “stylist” which to me has a more formal, narrower definition implying an emphasis on “style”, on “style” being part of what the work is rather than the tool behind the work. IF that makes any sense at all!

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I do think we have the same general notion when we use “style” and “McEwan” in the same sentence. And that when I use the same adjective with Amis or Banville, I would be referring to something different. Those two each have a distinctive voice, McEwan has a distinctive way of telling a story.

    Your thoughts on Atonement and atonement are interesting. As I read that book, I liked it for the reasons that whispergums cites as McEwan strengths — the story itself and the psychology that he wrapped around a very interesting cast of characters (which is why I too found the war part rather overdone). For me, the atonement angle at the end (I can’t say I totally anticipated it, but it did not come as a surprise) was a technique that added depth to that original impression, an invitation to go back and think the story over again, but from a more “informed” point of view.

    So I think “atonement” was only one aspect of the story, unlike Maxwell’s novel where it is the central theme.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      I responded very much like you, Kevin, to Atonement. I laughed at the end – not a funny ha-ha laugh, but a wry sort of laugh, a laugh that, like you probably, reflected my surprise but also my recognition that it fit so beautifully. The ending added immense depth I thought to the novel (which had a really strong beginning and ending). I was interested in the notion of the writer using writing as a way of atoning (for her/his sins, for, by extension, the world’s sins) and yet, the writer, at the beginning, was an innocent who got caught up in events she really had no way of comprehending (until she felt trapped in her own incomprehension) so we also have here an exploration of innocence versus experience.

      This is one book that I think was effectively adapted for film – the sound track in particular was very effective in underpinning what was going on in the book.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        McEwan’s better novels, like Atonement, do have a complexity of levels that this one does not. For me, the ending of Atonement did add a whole new set of interpretations.

  11. Isabella Says:

    Very nice review, Kevin. I agree wholeheartedly. I haven’t read that many McEwan, but this one is definitely the weakest of them. Also, I didn’t realize for a while that it was a comedy.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabella: Thanks for commenting and the compliment. I’d tend to say it was closer to grey humour than comedy. :-)

  13. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Chiming in late: I really enjoyed Atonement and Enduring Love. The later stuff…well no thanks.

    On the other hand, I am still going to give Martin Amis and the Pregnant Widow a go. Can’t help myself on that one.

    Finally, it’s a bit sad on a selfish level to find oneself NOT reading an author previously enjoyed. Recently I was unable to finish The Preserve by Russell Banks. I’ve loved his earlier novels and short stories, so this came as a bit of a blow. I knew I was in for trouble when I read that the children of the main character were named Wolf and Bear or some such thing.

  14. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Sorry Freudian slip– should have been The Reserve.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: You provide the chance for an observation I was looking for an excuse to make. Today’s Globe and Mail had a very positive review of Solar, with references comparing it to A Child in Time and Amsterdam. I don’t see the comparison but, like John Self’s earlier comment, I would regard those as two of McEwan’s lesser books, if not failures. And I share you favorites. So I have been scratching my head today wondering if perhaps McEwan is so good that he has two totally different constituencies. Somehow, I don’t think so.

    And thanks for the Russell Banks comment. I haven’t read anything but want to (since he was a Giller Prize judge last year). Could you recommend one — doesn’t have to be his best as I would be quite happy to look at a two or three book project if that is the best way to approach him. Thanks in advance.

  16. Guy A. Savage Says:

    Kevin: If you get a chance and you’re curious, wander over to Amazon and take a look at some of the customer reviews of Reserve. I’m not the only one to think that this novel pales next to some of other Banks novels. Titles include:’Sigh, stuck at the cottage with only this book,’ ‘Reservations about the Reserve,’ ‘A Colossal Flop,’ and ‘Shame on you, Russell Banks.’

    For me, the best is The Sweet Hereafter which you can follow up with the film version by Atom Egoyan.

    Then Affliction. For short stories, Trailer Park and Success Stories. There are some stories in those collections that remain memorable to me more than 10 years after reading them.

    Some people liked Cloudsplitter a great deal but I tend to avoid historical novels, so I didn’t read that one.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Thanks for the advice — I think I’ll start with the Sweet Hereafter and then decide where to head next.

  18. Trevor Says:

    I got The Sweet Hereafter when Banks was put on the Giller Jury, but it looked a bit like a “book club” book, so I haven’t opened it yet. I admit, I have little to base my opinion on other than the cover and blurb in my book, so I’m glad to have Guy’s good opinion and I look forward to yours Kevin.

  19. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Y’know, I enjoyed Saturday, I thought all those medical details created a nice atmosphere, even though I didn’t understand them.

  20. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I read a review in the paper yesterday and it looked intriguing. It usually takes me ages to get to IM’s new books but whed I do I am usually fascinated by them. I am however sorry to read in your comment above that you feel the old complexity of IM’s other work isn’t quite there in this one.

    You wrote a fine review – who needs newspapers?

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: You weren’t alone in that with Saturday. And the positive reviews that I have read of Solar don’t find the Nobel and climate change aspects as annoying as I did, so you might like this book much more as well.
    Tom: In fact, one of the biggest problems of the novel for me was the failure to deliver on an intriguing premise. Despite some very interesting and well-written parts, that kept coming back to haunt the book.

    • Ronak M Soni Says:

      I’m just wondering, have you read The Child in Time? I have it in my college library, and it sounds like an intriguing premise. Does it lean most towards Atonement, Amsterdam or Saturday (the three archetypes of his work as far as I can see)?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I have. I think it leans most towards Amsterdam. albeit with elements of Atonement. I also think your three archetypes are quite appropriate. A Child in Time was not one of my McEwan favorites, but I would qualify that opinion by noting that I am not a parent. My impression is that people either really like or really dislike the book.

  22. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, after Amsterdam I pretty much swore to myself never to read another McEwan. Such a good opening section, then such violence done to the characters and so clumsily in the name of plot.

    To be honest, I was astonished that a literary writer should be so prepared to crush character before plot, and it wasn’t even a good plot. More a lengthy setup for a poor joke.

    Which was a shame, as I’d enjoyed Black Dogs, but Amsterdam remains one of my worst reads in recent years. This sounds in similar vein, a focus on cleverness of plot over character or ultimately style.

    Plot seems to be McEwan’s weakness, he’s a very plot heavy writer, yet his plots make no sense. Saturday, which I grant I’ve not read, I did read about and the stereotypical character concepts and soap-operatic idea of the ending twist (another sign of a plot-heavy novel), it just sounded terrible.

    Interestingly, the Guardian ran a blog a year or so back on overrated writers, almost every commenter cited McEwan. It was remarkable. So pronounced that the Evening Standard wrote an article about it, arguing that those responding had been an anonymous internet mob fuelled with hate, but having read the article that wasn’t true. It just seems there’s an awful lot of people who don’t agree with McEwan’s position in the British literary establishment.

    It doesn’t sound like Solar will change many minds.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do think there is a bit of a “McEwan” effect that ends up casting opinions about his novels (both positive and negative) in a somewhat unreal context.

    Because he is both telegenic and articulate, every new McEwan novel is accompanied (logically enough) by an amazing round of media appearances. Given that the interviewers aren’t long-term literary readers, they treat him as a super-star, which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Those who have been reading him for decades, meanwhile, bring a deeper context to the experience. Each new novel is approached with previous examples in mind — McEwan is interesting because his books provoke a wide range of differing responses from readers, as the comments above show. The media-hype, if anything, weighs against him with this crowd (yes, I include myself in it) by increasing expectations. And McEwan feeds all this with plot elements (Nobel Prize winner, climate change) that make things more topical and easier for his interviewers, more challenging for his long-time readers.

    I’ve been wondering what I would have thought of this book were it a first novel. I think my reaction would be “some very good bits that show talent, but drop some of the gimmicky parts that get in the way”. At his best, McEwan has a balance between plot and character — as you observe, at his worst, plot tends to take over.

    It is unfair to characterize McEwan as “over-rated”, since that is more a comment on those who are doing the rating than anything else. I would say, however, that he polarizes opinion and Solar will definitely add to that. Knowing your tastes, I don’t think you would like it — although I will qualify that by adding that it is not at all like Amsterdam.

  24. savidgereads Says:

    Great review Kevin, I think you are spot on with the last two paragraphs and how different McEwan readers (and non McEwan readers) will react to this novel. I have enjoyed everyone of his books that I have read and so far (though this could be tempting fate to say it) haven’t found a book of his that I haven’t liked. I am planning on taking on Saturday soon though, so who knows how that could go.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A fair point on being overrated Kevin, it often does a writer (or artist of any stripe) no favours at all to build them up too highly.

    That said, if I do revisit McEwan I suspect I shall do so with a novel less focused on fashionable issues, of late he seems to have become attached to them. Then again, I work nowadays mostly in low carbon finance, climate change related deals, so perhaps I’d find that aspect of it more interesting than some.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: I think the comments here illustrate the range of opinion that recent McEwan works provoke. While I am on the negative side of neutral with Solar that in large part is because I found many of his earlier books much more to my taste — I can understand why others would have a different opinion.
    Max: It is only a guess on my part, but I suspect that your work experience around climate change enterprises means you will find McEwan’s treatment trivial — whether that ends up annoying or amusing you would be an open issue. On the positive side, his exploration of it is much more about the “commercialization” than the science itself, although I found that too rather shallow. And for me the best parts of the book (and there definitely were some) are actually quite tangential to that.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Speaking of tangential thoughts, check out Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges. It’s about a rogue trader in New York (part of a “golden couple” who believe themselves above the rules) — James Wood was very positive about it in the Feb. 15-22 issue of The New Yorker. Given our shared interest in “corporate” fiction, an under-represented genre, Wood’s positive thoughts intrigued me. I haven’t ordered it yet, but think I will give it a try.

  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds like if I want to revisit McEwan sometime, I should do so with the earlier works. Atonement perhaps.

    On Chesil Beach actually rather tempted me, funnily enough.

    Thanks for the tip on The Privileges, it does sound interesting and a James Wood recommendation is not to be sniffed at. I’ll look into it.

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think you would find On Chesil Beach worth the tempting. I quite liked it — in fact, read it twice in one sitting (it really is just a novella). Given your interest in some of the darkish European “romance” novels, like Quartet, it makes for some interesting comparisons.

    And I have ordered The Privileges and will probably get to it as soon as it arrives. Mrs. KfC reads a lot of the non-fiction financial disaster books (e.g. Too Big to Fail) and updates me on them — I feel that I should be making a contribution to the discussion. Wood’s description also indicates it in some ways is like a modern, literary version of Mad Men, a television series that we both enjoy.

  30. alison Says:

    What a great review – and a great discussion. I’m late to weigh in simply because I’ve been buried in other books for other reasons lately, but was keen to read about Solar. I, too, liked Saturday (but think Atonement is probably the best and the less said about Amsterdam the better), and did not find the medical information annoying. (The Dover Beach scene was prepsoterous, however). I did have mixed feelings about the new one and worried that even if a writer could weave global warming and physics into a story of character, I’d be lost. At the same time, I thought McEwan may well be the man for the job. I guess that says more about my feelings about him as a writer – that I’ve admires so much of his work for so long, I still want to like him. Now I feel armed and ready to give it a shot

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: Exactly the right attitude to approach this book. Good luck.

  32. Kerry Says:

    I was looking forward to this one, but now think I should check his back catalog first. I have only read a few of his works, with Saturday and Enduring Love still to come, so I think I will put this one on hold. I would rather work my way through his best than pick up the newest.

    Thanks for that. Of course, this reminds me that I have to read So Long, See You Tomorrow soon too.

    Also, curious that no one mentioned the obvious parallel between the Lawrence Summers controversy and that paragraph you quote. I think Summers’s comments were very similar to those of Michael Beard (or vice versa). Perhaps McEwan was trying to be a little too current, a little too hip (ala Lethem, Franzen, etc.), for his own good.

  33. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I admit to avoiding the Lawrence Summers parallels through lack of space — and they are obvious — and the commercial media seems to be ducking them as well. I suspect the Nobel Prize, climate change angles have overtaken them. That is part of my problem with the book — McEwan has thrown in so many obvious references (and none to great impact, I might add) that critics can’t cover the whole lot. It makes the novel the opposite of Maxwell — instead of focusing on a subject and examining it in detail, it splashes paint on a broad canvas and hopes that that will do.

  34. Kerry Says:

    The mashing into a novel of numerous references that distract rather than focus the attention is a pet annoyance of mine. It is one of the problems I had with The Corrections. Yes, Mr. Franzen, it is very cute that you take on Big Pharma. Ooh, and the risk, it gives me shivers.

    Could it be that McEwan thought the technique was working so well on this side of the Atlantic, he would try something similar? Anyway, this earns a definite pass from me. Thank you.

  35. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry Ronak, we ran out of reply space on our previous exchange. It is only my opinion, but I would suggest Solar would suit your tastes more than A Child in Time, particularly since you liked Saturday. There is a part of me that says McEwan (for readers like you and me) actually suffers from the relentless media attention when he releases a new book — the interviews and talk shows produce predictable drivel that eventually swamps what is quite a good book. You and I are both somewhat geographically removed from that, so his work stands more as work, as opposed to hype. Solar is definitely not a bad novel, but it could be much better. Indeed, it is quite a bit better (for me at least) than A Child in Time.

  36. bookermt Says:

    kevin

    Great review. I’ve really lost faith with McEwan since Atonement with Saturday being a real low point. Still your review makes me think I should perhaps give him another chance though I won’t be rushing to it.
    On Russell Banks Cloudsplitter is pretty good if rather long. I really enjoyed The Darling but The Reserve, despite its brevity is one to stay clear of. I think it is his attempt to write a sort of version of The Great Gatsby but really didn’t work for me at all. He’ll be a thoughtful and considerate judge from what I know of him.

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: One thing about McEwan is that even when he is not very good, he is at least readable. As for Banks, I’ve discovered I have a copy of Continental Drift on hand — can’t remember buying it and know that I haven’t read it. So I suspect that’s where I will start.

  38. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Totally agree with you on this one Kevin. Solar was the first book I’ve had a chance to read since the birth of my daughter in May (so much for my naive notion that I’d have more time for reading while on mat leave) – and I was kinda disappointed. I felt faint stirrings of hope during the Arctic section which was wonderful and hilarious (especially loved the chaos in the boot room as allegory of how we are making a mess of our finite resources), but turns out climate change as a topic is even more tedious and boring in fiction than it is in real life. But I will give McEwan this: Solar had one of the best last lines that I’ve read in a long time which redeemed things a bit for me. And that’s why I’ll keep reading McEwan, uneven as he’s been of late. Hope all is well – I love your blog! Cherine

  39. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: If I can judge by reports from the book blogging world, as a new parent, the world of the short story is about to become very attractive to you :-) . As for Solar, I do remember some of the funny parts (inlcuding the Arctic experience) well, but most of the novel has become rather fuzzy. And do check out Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists — it comes in manageable chapters, each featuring a character from a dreadful newspaper and will provoke some memories of the communications business for you, between all the laughs.

  40. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Thanks for the tip Kevin – I’ll be sure to pick up a copy of The Imperfectionists – sounds great!

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