Cape £18.99

Solar, By Ian McEwan

A climate scientist's priapic urges eclipse his professional drive in Ian McEwan's tepid farce

Physicist Michael Beard, the unlikely seducer at the centre of Ian McEwan's latest novel, won the Nobel Prize for his Beard-Einstein Conflation, a brilliant theory that allowed him to be sucked along in the slipstream of Einstein's hurtling importance. Celebrity in his field and honorary degrees ensued, while he coasted through two decades without producing any further original hypotheses, "vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives".

His latest appointment, as head of the Government's new National Centre for Renewable Energy, is already mired in a wrong-headed project to build domestic roof-mounted wind turbines, launched after one of Beard's glib throwaway comments, and now too personally embarrassing to reverse. To add insult, his ponytailed junior colleague, Tom Aldous, is becoming a nag, relentlessly proselytising his own world-saving work on carbon-free photovoltaic (solar) energy.

While Beard's professional career shows rapid detumescence, his private life is still packed with "excitement and unpredictability". Patrice, his gorgeous young wife, has just moved into the guest-room of their well-appointed Primrose Hill abode and embarked on a flagrant affair with a builder, seemingly to repay Beard for humiliating her with years of clumsily hidden infidelities. For the first time in five marriages, Beard is forlorn, unable to dislodge his wife from his libidinous cravings by the habitual method of a little light philandering. When Beard happens upon Patrice's latest lover – Tom Aldous, nag-turned-opportunistic stud, guiltily wearing Beard's robe in his own living room – matters come swiftly to a head.

Although the overarching context of Solar is the search for clean energy, which is presented with McEwan's usual liberal salting of plausible research, it serves as little more than a proscenium for the turgid drama of sex, compromised integrity and serial irresponsibility played out by Beard's shambling figure. As a weak sybarite in thrall to his appetites and overly fond of his own voice, Beard could have been the richly flawed character that would carry Solar. However, despite the many ponderous ruminations on his own sensual and moral weaknesses, his smug lack of any humility or self-reproach gives the reader little purchase for any enduring interest.

Beard briefly wonders what Melissa – the willing doormat who accommodates him after Patrice – sees in "a man as faintly absurd, short, tubby, ageing, as scalded by public disgrace, corrupted by a whiff of failure" as he is. Bewildering indeed, since Beard proffers no appealing characteristic, physical or spiritual, in compensation. Yet his lovers afford him indulgence untethered from any meaningful form of responsibility. Portly on first appearance, but carrying wobbling wattles of fat by the novel's end nine years later, Beard is a ridiculous figure and a highly unconvincing Lothario. One could imagine Philip Roth or Howard Jacobson giving an interesting degree of psychological unease to the sexual incontinence of such "a monster of insincerity", but Beard seems to be played only for laughs. From the early scene of Beard's penis welding to his snowsuit during an al fresco micturition in the Arctic, a farcical tone dominates, occasionally goosed by a judicious spot of slapstick.

The sprawling mess of Beard's priapic career contrasts starkly with the fraught and prurient conduct of sexual relations that framed McEwan's last work, On Chesil Beach. That precisely crafted novella, held in its mildly claustrophobic, mid-century period by sharp characters and difficult mores, showcased the fine textures and nuanced sensibilities that McEwan is capable of. Before that, Saturday, a sententious novel whose sudden violence ripped into a coterie of urbane, privileged lives during London's anti-Iraq war protests, made state-of-the-nation claims and delivered a flawed but rich meditation on McEwan's familiar themes. Ideas of obsession, loss, moral responsibility, innocence and guilt throng much of his largely impressive canon and are predicated upon strong interpersonal relationships and the individual's understanding of how to engage with society. But Beard's farcical character and serial pratfalls glibly shrug off this engagement, thereby denuding Solar of the credible or meaningful relationships that would add colour and depth to its essentially two-dimensional plot.

Beard coasts through a string of vignettes, which build into a listless plot that remains rather less than the sum of its parts. There are no breath-taking, cinematic moments (such as the openings of Saturday or Enduring Love) and Beard's bland fulminations, despite a certain defiant joie de vivre, soon begin to grate. Forgive the pun, but Solar is purely light entertainment – no bad thing in itself but lacking the scope and tenacity that one might expect from McEwan. Farce, perhaps thankfully, may not be his métier, and one cannot help thinking that a writer of, say, Barbara Trapido's comedic skills would give Beard more punch than paunch.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker