Books: “Solar” by Ian McEwan

Unexpected book grief. Ian McEwan’s “Solar” is that rare thing: a wickedly funny satire about science featuring a wholly unlikeable main character. I loved every page of it.

When we first meet Michael Beard he’s 53 and fat, a Nobel-prize winning physicist riding the high-fee, high-calorie lecture circuit. His (fifth!) marriage is in shambles and his public comments about women’s intellect has made him a reviled household name. Even a boondoggle to a polar region, to witness global warming, turns sour: Beard mangles the skin of his penis when it freezes to his zipper.

And he keeps getting fatter.

Why read on? I fell for the lunacy of Beard’s situation. He’s a snob. It’s great fun seeing him brought to his knees by wives, lovers, thinkers, artists, outdoorsmen, doctors, business associates, scientists and the young daughter he most certainly did not agree to father.

Charmed by a serial adulterer? I was. Beard pines for his wife, nursing himself with excess wine and late night television, listening to Patrice dress for her lover and leave the house. ”No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have.”

Same with his misadventures in the polar region. Always the last to arrive, in ill-fitting outerwear and cracked goggles, the one who can’t find the “start” button on his ski-doo: Beard tugged at my heartstrings.

I even bought into his complicity in framing Patrice’s lover for a murder.

Not so much his theft of a dead colleague’s research, which he’ll use to create an energy source that could save the planet. Couldn’t he share credit?

Of course not: Beard is liar, thief, cheater, glutton. Beard is the Military/Industrial Complex: brilliant but uncaring, consuming, destroying, polluting.

And he keeps getting fatter.

“As he listened to Parks enumerate his possible futures, he decided not to mention his recent acquisition of a classic symptom, the occasional sensation of tightness around his chest. It would only make him appear even more foolish and doomed. Nor could he admit that he did not have it in him to eat and drink less, that exercise was a fantasy. He could not command his body to do it, he had no will for it. He would rather die than take up jogging or prance to funky music in a church hall with other tracksuited deadbeats.”

McEwan is one of our finest living authors, smart and accessible. His blockbuster “Atonement,” and smaller works such as “Saturday” and “On Chesil Beach” are skillfully told, but serious, even grave.

“Solar” is playful, outrageous. McEwan tells it with great calm, one nutty situation rolling into another. It’s a delicious situation: a man who won’t save himself may hold the key — which he stole! — to saving the planet.

A very funny, uncomfortable read. (My friend Libby hated it.)

Also in the blog

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Living in a city beside an inland sea, my morning walk sometimes yields trash, or an odd hello: a washed up, desiccated raccoon, its teeth bared. Dried vomit. Charging geese. Our harmless resident crazy, who mistakes me for Hillary Clinton, and asks after Bill. Why keep walking? Because there’s treasure to be found: a mother


The fall Chicago Humanities Festival, since 1989, brings thinkers, dreamers, doers, writers, artists, performers to our city for dozens of events that stretch for more than two weeks. We are in the thick of it. The theme this time is “citizens” and so far I’ve heard about effective altruism from moral ethicist Peter Singer, extreme weather


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