Monday, August 26, 2013

the last book I read

Solar by Ian McEwan.

Michael Beard is a physicist, an eminent one but one whose best years are behind him. Those best years included some good stuff, though, including winning the Nobel Prize for some work expanding on Albert Einstein's work on photovoltaics. So now Beard is in his early fifties and surfing on his eminence by sitting on various councils and committees. Meanwhile his fifth marriage is falling apart. Don't get the idea that beard is some kind of square-jawed muscled Adonis though; he's more your stereotypical short fat bespectacled science guy, apparently irresistible to certain types of woman but not really a long-term prospect owing to his aversion to the idea of having children and also his pathological infidelity.

While normally it's Beard's own putting it about that signals the end of his marriages, in this case it's his wife Patrice who is having it away with the Beards' former builder in an indiscreet and shameless fashion. Eventually Patrice moves on to having an affair with Tom Aldous,  a young colleague of Beard's at a centre devoted to climate change research. When Beard returns home unexpectedly early from a fact-finding trip to Spitsbergen and surprises Aldous in his house, a freak accident involving a badly-secured bearskin rug and a sharp-cornered coffee table results in Aldous' death, a death for which Beard manages to frame Patrice's previous lover Ronald Tarpin. Meanwhile there's this dossier of secret research that Aldous had put together for Beard's eyes only, which it turns out contains some good and even revolutionary stuff.

Cut to a few years later and Beard is heading up a team pioneering artificial photosynthesis techniques using a big solar array in a newly-purchased site in the New Mexico desert. Certain of these techniques were based on the contents of Tom Aldous' notes, which Beard hasn't necessarily been scrupulous about properly attributing. He's also embroiled in a relationship with a woman, Melissa, in London, who has finally managed to snare him into fatherhood, and another one with a trailer-dwelling local waitress, Darlene. Beard is in New Mexico for the grand opening and unveiling of the test facility, but constant distractions intervene - Ronald Tarpin, recently released from prison, his own ill-health, comprising morbid obesity and a recently-diagnosed skin cancer, his various mistresses, in particular Melissa and Darlene who have each recently become aware of the other's existence, and the presence of a lawyer acting for Tom Aldous' (and Beard's) previous employer, the climate change centre, who wants to talk to him urgently to discuss some claims of plagiarism and intellectual property theft.

Like the Booker-winning Amsterdam in 1998 this is best categorised under "Entertainments" rather than "Novels", as it's blackly comic throughout. And while some of the set-pieces are derivative of other comic novels - the whole crisp-stealing story is lifted from Douglas Adams' So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, for all that it's acknowledged as such when Beard re-tells the story later, and the delivering-a-speech-while-queasy routine is straight out of Kingsley AmisLucky Jim - overall it works pretty well. There's inevitably a fair amount of exposition about climate-change issues, about which McEwan is commendably robust in defending the scientific consensus, and some more hand-wavey stuff about exactly what it is Beard is meant to have done to have earned his Nobel back in the day.

I actually enjoyed this more than the rather po-faced and self-consciously literary pairing of Atonement and Saturday, more than the barely-a-novel-at-all On Chesil Beach, indeed probably more than any McEwan I've read since 1997's Enduring Love. The unexpected death of a peripheral character halfway through providing the central protagonist with a moral dilemma does provide an odd parallel with the last McEwan I read, The Innocent, though Beard manages to resolve the situation without having to dismember anyone, which is nice.

Solar won the apparently fairly recently instigated and splendidly named Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction in 2010. My list for this one goes: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2010.

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