Review: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Solar, by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2010
283 pages
From 2007 to 2011 I was in a bit of a McEwan whirlwind. The film treatment of Atonement spun me one way, and the novel itself threw me off my feet and into a corner where I wept for about three days. So naturally I picked up everything I could easily find by McEwan, trying to piece together my sanity (which, if you know McEwan's writing) isn't really a smart thing to do. His protagonists are flawed, often unlikeable, quite often undeserving of the lives they lead. It's a reality that few would be eager to confront (and, yet, here I am)

I first heard of Solar via Walter Kirn (author, Up in the Air) when he reviewed it for The New York Times in March of 2010. The review was all-but scathing. To put it much simpler than he did: it's too high-concept, too scienc-y, and too contrived. When I read that review, I was disturbed somewhat. I don't think I believed that a McEwan novel could truly be any of those things. Naturally, I immediately sought the book out.

Not wanting to spend money on a hardcover, I thought I would get it from the library. But of course, all of the copies were already checked out, and there was a backlog of reservations. I was not going to be stopped. For the first (and, markedly, only) time, I downloaded Adobe Digital Editions and was able to borrow a digital copy of the novel from NYPL that way. This was before I had an iPad, so I started reading it on my computer.

Now if you know me, or you know my blog, you're aware that I dislike the concept of an e-reader. I won't go into it here, but just know that I am very solidly on the side of actual books - unfortunately for Solar. I tried - I truly tried. I got through a third of the novel when I had to stop - not because my borrowing was expired, but because I could not take reading those words on a screen any longer. I moved on immediately to another novel. As a result, I did not finish the book until this September - over four years later.

It was stumbling upon another Times review - this one by acclaimed critic Michiko Kakutani - that made me think to find the book again. I'm not easily swayed by the critical opinions of other writers, but had Kakutani clearly disliked it as much as Kirn had, I might not have given it a second glance. But Kakutani saw in the book what I eventually did as I read it - just how funny it is.

Yes, we've got another protagonist who is not just unlikeable but nasty and unctuous and - worst of all perhaps - forgetful. He has a memory like swiss cheese and is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. But, unlike some of McEwan's other creations, the author seems to want the reader to be in on his little joke at his character's expense. And yes, it's a lot of high-concept science that is inevitably above most readers' heads - but perhaps that's the point. The math and science are meant to buzz about like static while the characters play on, letting the reader focus more on their personal deficiencies than on their intellectual ones.

At least, that's how Act I plays out. Kakutani and I hold the same opinion that Acts II and III are mostly gratuitous and unnecessary. I hesitate to use the word contrived, but the structure of those later parts is as predictable as any Greek tragedy, and the ending is somewhat nebulously contrite - but one gets the feeling that even the author cannot stand the character any longer and so, as I did four years ago, he gave up.


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