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
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'