Friday, 19 August 2011

Solar really shines

One of the things I find most irritating about much of the mainstream messaging on carbon and energy and why we should produce or use less of it, is the emphasis on money -- either commercial imperatives or 'cost to families'. Gah! Why the human race should consider that cutting down on carbon emissions in order to save the planet should necessarily be cheaper than polluting practices is beyond me.

But this is not going to be a rant about stupid attitudes to the Australian carbon tax (which I support) or other environmental issues; it's actually going to be about Ian McEwan's latest novel, Solar (2010), which comments on the decay (both global and personal) derived from human excesses, while exploring our immediate need for renewable energy.

Michael Beard is a nobel prize-winning physicist in his 50s, resting on his professional laurels as he chairs a centre for research into renewable energy. He is also experiencing the disintegration of his 5th marriage. The culmination of a marvellous first act, in which we also meet Beard's brilliant post-doc Tom Aldous and Beard's wife's disreputable lover Tarpin, sees Tom's notes about a theoretical revolutionary new solar energy technology fall into Beard's hands . . . The 2nd and 3rd acts take place five and then another four years later respectively, each one providing a snapshot of Beard en route to developing the technology into a commercial enterprise, until it all comes crashing down.

Beard is a thoroughly unlikable and extravagant protagonist. As a serial womaniser, his attitude to women is deplorable. He overindulges in food, getting fatter and fatter with each passing act, and shows signs of being an alcoholic. His ego overrules his professional ethics, and he is the master of rationalisation, self-delusion and self-denial. And, to top it all off, his motive for developing the solar technology is almost all pure self-interest -- both commercial and to restore his failing professional reputation. This all makes him the perfect allegory for the human race and our many vices. McEwan holds us up to the repellant Beard as a mirror and shows us just how much we have to answer for.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. It's the first McEwan novel I've read, and I understand he is renowned for his 'set pieces', which in Solar are laugh-out-loud funny. (Even when reading in a cafe!) This novel has in fact been described by many critics as a comedy, and, although I wouldn't have necessarily called it that, it does have a light touch. Certainly the character of Beard is simply too revolting to be believed.

I particularly liked the first act, which circles around through various events as Beard worries about his wife's affair, has an altercation with his wife's lover, fobs off the theories of Tom the post-doc, goes on a visit to the arctic to 'witness' global warming . . . and returns to the Climactic Event of the act that tightens all the slack strings into a neat bow and left me awe-struck. It is so skillfully done. All through the novel the writing is fabulous -- such brilliant descriptions and super-effective use of narrative action to convey exactly the right mood.

Usually I don't like novels where I can't relate to the characters at all, but in Solar the writing and storycraft is so skillfull that I was totally absorbed. Even the science sounds feasible. Interestingly, it seems other McEwan fans don't like this as much as his other books, so now I am really looking forward to reading some more of his works.

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