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Book Review: Ian McEwan — Solar

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | APRIL 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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A writing sin perhaps as egregious as underwriting is overwriting, in which a piece is crammed with too much detail to really get rolling.

British novelist Ian McEwan’s latest work, Solar, with its plodding pace and overly dense description, probably could have used some underwriting.

Solar is a look at the life of Michael Beard, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who seems to glide by on his fortunes. Beard holds a post at a Swiss university seemingly in name only, attending events and taking a stipend but doing little else. He also holds a position as the head of a climate-change center, where he actually goes to work but doesn’t seem terribly interested by the people or ideas he encounters.

Though things at the climate center eventually turn interesting, the real intrigue is Beard’s personal life. Beard, as the book opens, is a chronic womanizer near the end of his fifth marriage, and his wife is getting back at him by sleeping with a local builder and flaunting the affair.

But where there’s intrigue in Solar, there’s very little entertainment.

McEwan, especially early on in the novel, has a tendency to violate the simplest principle of writing, showing instead of telling. The first 20 or so pages contain no dialogue whatsoever. This wouldn’t be a problem except that conversations take place, or at least appear to, or should. Instead, conversations are recounted in the narrator’s voice, shattering prime moments that would allow the reader to get into the minds of the characters.

Perhaps it’s an effect of the characters that the world of Solar is difficult to be absorbed into. As the book plods on, one begins to know of these characters but not really know them. The reader is shown that Beard is a stupid, foolish man sure to receive his comeuppance, but he and the others never seem truly worth getting to know, making it hard to get into the story.

McEwan takes a period-piece approach to many of the events in the text, even though it ends in 2009. As if the reader were unfamiliar with the year 2000 (this may be a reach, but it’s probably fair to say he doesn’t have many 9-year-old readers), he reminds them of the time with a section in the book detailing the highlights of the 2000 U.S. presidential election. It’s short, sure, but it’s also unnecessary and slows the quicksand pace of Solar.

McEwan makes even affairs seem the most tame thing in the world and throws in nods to Oedipal complexes and other things that make Beard not only unsympathetic (as he rightfully was) but downright tiresome. In the end, he’s not even worth hating.

A credit to McEwan is that he deals with the science quite well. The parts of the book revolving around Beard’s work are informative and insightful, without being too dense — like much of the rest of the book.

There’s no question that McEwan is a talented writer. His long résumé of novels and awards more than speaks to that. With Solar, however, the reader is seeing too much of the writer, of the narrative authority, instead of the characters and events. Had those not been stymied by dense writing, Solar would have been much better.

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