It’s difficult to pinpoint just when an author’s thematic obsessions begin to resemble easy formula. But if the rote nihilism of his latest bad-news book, Solar, is any indication, Booker Prize poster boy Ian McEwan is already some way down the primrose path to literary hackery. Much like his most recent novels of determinist predictability – Saturday and On Chesil Beach – Solar presents a bleak, monochromatic world, where amoral upper-middle-class twits get a book-length spanking from McEwan’s over-controlling iron hand.
Now meet Solar’s central twit: Nobel Prize-winning London scientist Michael Beard, who is possibly McEwan’s most debased protagonist yet. He’s equal parts cynic, narcissist, womaniser, failed father and
husband, compulsive eater and fat slob. To compound the problem, Beard is also an intellectually dishonest physicist who has made a reputation from augmenting the scientific innovations of others (Einstein, namely).
Ageing and desperate for occupational direction, Beard eventually latches onto trendy alternative-energy causes that he doesn’t believe in. Then, after a fellow scientist’s random slapstick death (which comes off as yet another shamelessly contrived plot shift), Beard begins to slip into slow-motion career suicide.
McEwan’s grandest achievement here is making routine physical descriptions serve as damning moral indictments: you sense that Beard’s double chin and protruding gut are transgressions on par with plagiarising his dead colleague’s solar-power theories. And McEwan’s usual freeze-dried humour manifests itself in middlebrow furtive jokes and whimsical associative flights (at one point, the book likens Beard’s past to stinky cheese).
But even at his most verbally agile moments, McEwan’s prose never goes beyond its eviscerating tendencies. With a little more imaginative heat, Solar could have easily transcended its timeworn Old Testament stance on sin and punishment. Why not give Beard a soul and make him a figure of pathos, despite his flaws? If McEwan deigned to enlist reader sympathy for his perpetually doomed bourgie characters, it could be a Nobel-worthy event in itself.