If you scan the large body of comments placed here, and if you track down the published reviews of major book critics, you'll find that reactions to McEwan's new novel have been -- to use a word from the lexicon of the book's physicist protagonist -- polarized. Many reviewers, especially the British establishment critics, declared "Solar" a delightful work by a master, well worth your while. Others, especially on this side of the pond, vented their disappointment, perhaps best expressed by an online critic who headlined his review: "A Flabby Character Portrait."
With the verdict on the book's merits a split decision, it doesn't seem useful simply to add to the chorus of contradictory conclusions ("Yes, it's brilliant!" "No, it's a waste of your time!"). Instead, let me offer some guidelines for you to consider if you're thinking of reading "Solar."
- Are you expecting an experience comparable to McEwan's recent novels? If so, be forewarned that "Solar" is not cut from the same cloth. In the best of his recent works, McEwan provides readers with the supreme pleasure of a plot and characters that fully seize your consciousness and sympathy. He composes set pieces with such fine craftsmanship that you forget you are engaged in the act of reading. You lose awareness of the author's guiding hand. These are the moments readers long for: being pulled forward by a frictionless, seemingly unmediated flow of story and emotion. The opening chapter of "Enduring Love" and parts of "Saturday" achieve this magical state. Many readers, myself included, experienced this phenomenon most memorably amid the sweep of "Atonement". So a red flag must be raised this time: if you pick up "Solar," do not expect to enjoy anything similar. The book is lighter, less engrossing; it is a lark, an entertainment, its enjoyments of a different order.
- Are you usually annoyed when an irredeemably bad character occupies center stage in a novel you are reading? Do you choose your fictional heroes and heroines as carefully as you do your friends? If so, best stay clear of "Solar." Even those readers who ended up enjoying other features of the writing concede the book's protagonist -- the sole thread of continuity among the vignettes that comprise the novel as it jumps around in time and geography -- is a thoroughly despicable human being. In his own words, Michael Beard is "neither observant nor sensitive." This makes him an odd choice to carry the weight of the story. Worse yet, Beard is an inveterate liar and thief; a criminal in the making; and morally bankrupt ("But why should he feel guilt? Someone please tell him why.") At the book's end he begins to acknowledge the hell he's put people through ("Someone, or everyone, will be disappointed. Nothing new there.") Yet he doesn't much care. Being in his company is a chore -- for his five discarded wives, for his professional colleagues, and, possibly, for you as a reader.
- Are you in the mood for a picaresque comedy/satire? Take care to note "Solar" is being ballyhooed by its publisher as a "comedy" -- a book plum-filled with "comedic antics". Humor is a tricky subject for a reviewer to tackle: there are few things more subjective, more personal, than the question of what is funny. With that in mind, consider the serio-comic episode, set in the Arctic, in which Beard joins a group of environmentalist-artists on an excursion to receding glaciers. When McEwan launches into his jokes, you may be struck by how the best laughs are borrowed ones. Even if you think the author's recycling of old jokes fits within acceptable bounds of comedy piracy, you will struggle to call the humor "novel."
For example [Spoiler Alert (jokes revealed in this paragraph)], you will probably laugh again at the dilemma of a child straight-jacketed by winter clothing rendering him helpless. This is a staple of cartoons such as "The Family Circus" and "Peanuts"; kid-centered sitcoms; and movies such as "A Christmas Story" (remember the bundled up Randy?). This old chestnut is cadged by McEwan for a scene where Beard, who in so many ways is a child-like man, prepares for a sub-zero trek by donning layers and layers of clothes including multiple gloves -- only to discover his self-mummification bars him from putting on his boots, not to mention answering a call of nature. Next, you might squirm with delight, as you've done before, when Beard undergoes a variation on the "There's Something About Mary" film gag of genitals caught in a pants zipper. You may also be familiar with the lines coined by Robert Mankoff back in 1993 and used as the caption for a cartoon published in "The New Yorker" (one of its most popular ever). In the cartoon, an executive, looking at his date book and trying to dissuade a caller who's asking for an appointment, says: "No, Thursday's out. How about never -- is never good for you?" If this is part of your memory bank, you will smile again when reading a flash-back scene in "Solar," set in the early 1950's, as a co-ed parries a young Beard's request for a date by replying: "How about never? Can you make never?" [End of Spoiler Alert].
- Are you interested in a British author's take on America? If so, you will find McEwan's attention to things American to be an attractive aspect to "Solar." This is the first of McEwan's novels to be set in whole or in part in the U.S. In the book's final section, McEwan shows a fondness for our manners and our civic culture. At one point he describes "the plenitude and strangeness of America as represented by its television." He favorably notices "the intimate politeness at which Americans excel." Beard thinks about his female companion in New Mexico in these terms: "She was so merry, so hopelessly optimistic and well-disposed. So American." And of course the climate is better: "Always a delicious moment to be savored, and never to be had in the British Isles, when, showered and perfumed and wearing fresh clothes, one steps out from the air-conditioning into the smooth, invincible warmth of a southern evening."