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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee