Solar: A Review
Nan A. Talese, 2010
Hardcover, 304 pages
After writing such a lengthy post on one paragraph in Solar, it seems strange that I would use such few words to talk about the book as a whole. However, this is an Ian McEwan novel which means that it has already been reviewed in countless widely circulating publications and highly trafficked websites. So I’ll stick with this small blurb.
As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of Alan Lightman’s essay “A Scientist Dying Young,” anthologized in A Sense of the Mysterious. Lightman describes how many scientists do their most revolutionary work in their 20’s and early 30’s, and how he entered “early seniority” at age 35. In particular, I thought of this line:
The administrative and political plums conferred in recognition of past achievements can crush future ones.
Lightman describes the many avenues the old scientist can take to stay relevant: lectures, book writing, advisory committees, etc. He could be describing Michael Beard. However, Beard is the dark side of this “scientific aging;” instead of getting older wistfully and gracefully in the way Lightman describes, Beard is the 50-year-old actor who gets 10 plastic surgeries in 5 years to convince everyone he’s still 30 and still thinks he’s entitled to 20 something blonde fashion models even though everything that made him relevant is a good 15 years behind him. He has fed off the prestige of his Nobel Prize until he became bloated and lethargic, both physically and spiritually. However, as we later see in the book, perhaps it’s safer when he’s lethargic because when the chance comes for him to be the big hero again…*
Usually, I cannot be in the head of someone so narcissistic and unlikable, but somehow McEwan makes it work. Perhaps because he makes it abundantly clear how a monster like Michael Beard can come into existence.
Some parts of the book dragged (the “women in science” imbroglio seemed less like something the Beard character would do and more an excuse for McEwan to filibuster on the old Larry Summers controversy and his own personal drama). It’s not his most well written (Atonement) or his funniest book (The Innocent). However, there is still plenty here to showcase what McEwan does best: morbid humor, protagonists that are at once thoughtful and completely unselfaware, and the fluent incorporation of complex science into the overall story.
* And that chance comes from the cumulation of several unsavory actions by our protagonist Dr. Beard.