April 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Solar’ by Ian McEwan

By Tim Flannery

Ian McEwan’s latest work can be read as a farce whose principal theme is Hamlet’s musing that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Indeed, when introducing the novel’s protagonist – the physicist Michael Beard, who is a “bald, short, fat, clever” man in his fifties – we are told that he believes he is attractive to women “and thinking seemed to make it so”.

Despite his allure, when we meet him Beard’s fifth marriage is disintegrating. His wife, Patrice, who resembles Marilyn Monroe, is having a flagrant, punitive affair with Rodney Tarpin, a builder; Beard is frantic, filled with shame and longing for her. Not that he has valued her much previously, having had affairs with 11 women during the course of their five-year marriage, which appears to be Patrice’s principal reason for taking up with Tarpin.

Beard is an intensely unlikeable man. In his personal life he is slovenly, creating instant and overwhelming disorder wherever he goes and treating his own body with little regard. Over the course of the novel he progresses from being an overweight 50-year-old to a morbidly obese man in his sixties who fills himself with alcohol and American junk food and who allows a melanoma on his wrist to go untreated. He is also without purpose, having long outlived his momentary fame as the originator of the “Beard–Einstein Confiation”, for which he received a Nobel Prize. This repugnant being holds our attention throughout the book in large part because of the role he’s fated to play in trying to save the world from climate change.

Beard attempts to get Patrice back through the ridiculous ruse of pretending he has another woman in the house. As the melodrama of the relationship plays out, it’s almost as if Beard is playing a typically female role, while Patrice plays the male one. But nothing is quite as it seems in Solar. In time, Beard is handed a thick file left by a deceased physicist, which contains the key to creating artificial photosynthesis – a vital technology in the battle against climate change.

Solar contains a stereotype of almost every kind of person who is interested in climate change: artists wishing to protest against it, bureaucrats administering institutions devoted to it, scientists researching it. Compared with Beard, however, they remain mere sketches. Where McEwan excels is in his descriptions of all the tiny physical changes that accompany our reactions and emotions. From the pain involved in having one’s penis frozen to a zipper to the sensation of eating a salt-and-vinegar crisp, his descriptions are sublime.

It’s not exactly clear what the moral of this strange farce is, but surely the book’s epigram is misplaced. It comes from John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich: “It gives him great pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world’s wasting, to know the earth is mortal too.” This, for all his obnoxiousness, is not what Beard does. Instead, the moral power of the book – what there is of it anyway – comes from the paradox of a man whose private life is in such ruins imagining he can save the world.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Tamiflu medicine pill by a Swiss company Roche against Influenza A (H1N1) virus causing the 2009 flu pandemic. © Andrew Wales/Flickr

Known unknowns

Influenza

© FoodPhotography Eising / Getty Images

Like a virgin

Amateur league

The game of politics

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Kissinger & Burchett


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality