"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 20, 2011

"Solar" by Ian McEwan (Book review)

Solar is the story of the middle-aged, rotund Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him and who now only lives to show off his pride, devour enormous quantities of food and drink, and make love to as many women as is humanly possible. Stealing the research papers of one of his post-docs, he next passes himself off as the savior of mankind from the global warming disaster, by planning to make solar energy cheaply available via "artificial photosynthesis." But at the moment of his greatest triumph, reality is about to catch up with him...

Talking about ecological issues, Beard is a living example of the greed of modern society. He devours mountains of expensive food and slobbers away whole rivers of wine and whiskey (this all shows of course in his figure). He is a serial adulterer. Besides Gluttony and Lust, he is guilty of all other cardinal sins one can think of.

But this mountain of greed is also strangely likable. Everything Beard does tends to go wrong in a funny way (and sometimes rights itself again like a Daruma-doll). Solar therefore is enormously entertaining. Strangely enough, that is what many reviewers seem to regard as a negative point (they talk about "set pieces"), as if the comic novel were not a genre, too.

But Solar is more than only a humorous novel. Although it is not politically motivated (and all the better for it!) and does not take sides in the discussion about global warming, it gives off a clear warning signal: not only is Beard typical of the greed of modern mankind, he is also self-destructive, and it remains to be seen whether his scientific powers will be enough to save him. So it is with the real world.

Solar makes you laugh, but also sets you thinking.