Review

Solar

by Ian McEwan

Though we know there never will be a truce, perhaps the time has
come to call at least a brief ceasefire in the deadly serious
debate over global warming waged between Al Gore and his scientific
allies and their vocal detractors. To leaven the solemnity of their
pronouncements, we could do worse than turn to Ian McEwan’s
biting new satire on the subject. In SOLAR, he has delivered a
wickedly funny novel full of sly insights on the climate change
controversy and equally perceptive ones on the foibles of human
nature.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for a discovery known as the
Einstein-Beard Conflation, 53-year-old British physicist Michael
Beard can’t escape the feeling that life is playing some sort
of cruel joke on him. His fifth childless marriage (a “series
of corrected drafts,” none of which has lasted longer than
six years) to a woman nearly 20 years his junior is unraveling as
she embarks on an affair with a building contractor, but
she’s a long way from matching her husband’s compulsive
philandering, rivaled only by his prodigious appetite. Beard has
been invited to lend his prestige, and little more, to the National
Center for Renewable Energy, an institute created to vet proposals
for alternative energy sources like the WUDU (Wind turbine for
Urban Domestic Use) that only works well when the wind blows
smoothly from one direction.

“Everyone but Beard was worried about global warming and
was merry and he was uniquely morose,” McEwan writes.
“He cared only for darkness and silence.” In one of the
comic highlights of the novel’s opening sections, Beard
accompanies a group of novelists and artists on an expedition to
the North Pole. There he senses, in the chaos of the
station’s boot room, the futility of achieving real progress
in dealing with the problem of climate change.

By the time Beard surfaces again in 2005, there has been an
accidental death involving a polar bear rug (an innocent man sent
to prison as a result), more philandering, and a maelstrom of
controversy as his private life is hauled into public view. McEwan
wryly describes how Beard’s momentary brush with infamy
quickly disappears from public consciousness: “New material
had befuddled the public memory, fresh scandals, sporting events,
confessions, war, celebrity gossip, and the tsunami had wiped clean
his slate. A twelve-month torrent, swelling steadily, had carried
him to safer ground.” Amidst the chaos in his personal life
(including yet another mistress), Beard now is promoting a project
to turn sunlight into electricity (an idea he has filched from a
dead colleague) that promises the riches and acclaim missing from
his career for more than a generation.

But as 2009 arrives, Beard’s world teeters on the brink of
collapse. He is decamped to the tiny town of Lordsburg, New Mexico,
where he and his partner, Toby Hammer, are apprehensively readying
a demonstration of his artificial photosynthesis project.
Occasionally sharing the trailer of a waitress named Darlene, Beard
feebly pushes back against the ravages of physical decay (a
cardiovascular system that’s on the verge of rebelling
against years of abuse and a malignant melanoma he’s decided
to treat with benign neglect). To make his situation more perilous,
converging on him are his ex-wife’s former lover, his British
mistress (their precocious three-year-old child in tow) and a
rapacious lawyer threatening litigation to cash in on the invention
about to bring Beard enduring fame. “It’s a
catastrophe. Relax!” he chides his colleague.

In Michael Beard, McEwan has created the quintessential
antihero. Possessed of the intellectual capacity and reputation to
leave a towering legacy in the world of science, he’s
determined to dissipate his gifts in an orgy of self-indulgence. As
knowing as SOLAR is in its sendup of modern science and
contemporary culture, there’s equal pleasure in the way
McEwan gives voice to Beard’s plight in one savagely funny
gem of characterization after another. “Who else as young
would take on so tenderly a man as faintly absurd, short, tubby,
aging, as scalded by public disgrace, corrupted by a whiff of
failure, consumed by his cranky affair with the sunbeams?”
McEwan observes of Beard’s lover Melissa, the mother of his
only child. “Beard knew many people but had no close
friends,” McEwan writes. “He was never exactly popular,
but he was well known, talked about, useful to people, and faintly
despised.”

Anyone seduced by the image of white-coat-clad scientists
toiling ceaselessly in pristine laboratories to unlock
nature’s mysteries will find a witty corrective in Ian
McEwan’s arch portrait of one man’s life in freefall
while the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance. For all his flaws
--- and they are prodigious --- it’s hard to resist a tinge
of sympathy for a man like Michael Beard, just as we hope he has
plenty of sober counterparts with the wisdom to save us from our
own ecological folly.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Solar
by Ian McEwan

  • Publication Date: March 30, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • ISBN-10: 0385533411
  • ISBN-13: 9780385533416