Ian McEwan is, in one sense at least, the best prose craftsman now working in English. That sense is finish; his writing is like a perfect cabuchon-cut jewel, slick and flawless; or like a perfectly aged brandy, so smooth you hardly feel it as it goes down.
Unfortunately, I find that the impression it leaves behind, at least with me, is also as ephemeral as the effect of fine brandy: a slight hangover the day after, and then gone for ever. I've enjoyed nearly every book of his I've read, as long as I was reading it. A month after I'd finished it, though, I could remember little of plot, character or indeed, anything else. Surely this can't be good?
Solar, however, is a book I will remember, because it is the first time Ian McEwan has completely failed with me. I think I understand the trick he's trying to pull off here: create an unsympathetic character, one deserving of nothing better than pity or contempt, and try to interest the reader in him, even feel some sympathy for him in spite of his faults. It doesn't work. Michael Beard, the Nobel-prizewinning protagonist of Solar, is a gluttonous, womanizing slob to whom essentially unbelievable things happen, and not very interestingly. We are privy to his thoughts most of the time, but these neither bring us any insight into his creepiness that would help us understand him and possibly empathize, nor do they seem to me like the workings of the mind of a physicist--unless physicists' minds work just the same way as everyone else's, which may be the case most of the time but surely not all of it. The fact is, Michael Beard doesn't seem very intelligent at all. Is that McEwan's point, then? That Nobel-prizewinning physicists are just the same as all of us, only intermittently bright and otherwise slaves to their passions and habits, not very interesting apart from their work? We knew the first already--it's a truism of the most banal sort--and as for the second, it's a lie. People like Einstein, Dirac, Feynman and Bohm were far from uninteresting as human beings. They were all, in their different ways, a little bit peculiar. There is nothing in the least peculiar about McEwan's physicist creation Michael Beard.
Somewhat to my astonishment, I actually found myself speed-reading the last third of Solar, just to see whether anything worthwhile would happen in the end (nothing did). Speed-reading Ian McEwan! Has it come to this?