Too Much in the Sun

Author Ian McEwan's Latest Novel 'Solar' Examines Problems Both Global and Personal

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If you've ever wondered about Jake Barnes's unmentionable injury that has something to do with his genitals in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," Ian McEwan might have the answer.

In McEwan's new pre-apocalyptic novel "Solar," nature calls-with unexpected results. Scientist-cum-cuckold Michael Beard finds himself in subzero temperatures as McEwan, disguised as either fate or coincidence, deals him a wicked turn of events. While on field research in the North Pole, Beard just has to pee, but it seems global warming hasn't worked in his favor.

"For when his business was done ... he watched in horror as his penis shrank even smaller," McEwan writes. "And not only was it diminishing before his eyes, but it was turning white. Not the white of a blank page, but the sparkling silver of a Christmas bauble."

Set against the backdrop of global warming, this psychosexual irony is both unsettling and hilarious, the kind of double entendre so prevalent amongst McEwan's trademarks. In prose that's almost postmodern in its veering-away from the author's typically ornate, modernist voice, McEwan sublimates big issues of the universe in the petty marital problems of a pathetic physicist.

Spanning from 2000 to 2009, "Solar" sometimes heavy-handedly attempts to cover a bevy of contemporary earthly issues, both within and beyond the grasp of humans. In part one, Beard finds himself dealing with his wife's infidelity as well as the aftermath of the 11 affairs he's had during their marriage. In parts two and three, Beard is divorced and has several other flings as he tries to galvanize support for solar energy. His chutzpah, however, is often thwarted by his ineptitude with the female sex. He's a theoretical physicist who can't get anything right outside the world of science and numbers.

One of literature's best metrosexuals, McEwan devotes passage upon passage to stuff like clothes, an ominous polar bear rug, an intoxicating perfume. Beard's fifth wife Patrice is often defined solely by her appearance ("As if reading his thoughts, she was now wearing her lipstick red and thick") and reduced to a pawn in Beard's oversexed court. As in "Atonement" or "Amsterdam," McEwan is interested in the psychic world vis-a-vis the material world and ultimately how our possessions define us. In this vein, Beard's penis is a detachable accoutrement that poisons just as it voraciously fulfills him while he screws around.

At its best, "Solar" succeeds as a winning portrait of a botched libertine who is also quite ordinary, a man so subsumed within himself that he literally starts to fall apart. At its weaker moments, the novel feels too farfetched in its satire. And Michael Beard is often too loathsome a creature, with his social awkwardness and sagging gut, for us to truly be invited into his icy world.

Several other women weave elusively in and out of the stage of the narrative like pirouetting ballerinas, offering us a glimpse of other people. Still, "Solar" is ultimately solipsistic in its character development, grounded in the phallocentric-or rather phallus-less-universe of Beard and often sacrifices fleshing-out of other characters.

By the end of "Solar," it's clear McEwan has done something brilliant. He reminds us that Beard's universe is one among many, and thus his little problem is made even smaller by the grand-scale issue of climate change. Yet, by juxtaposing this end-of-the-world scenario with Beard's personal problems, McEwan suggests our own crises and meltdowns are just as giant and incomprehensible as the Sun, the Earth and all that other stuff. Relatively speaking, of course.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead literature critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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