By Ian McEwan
The hero, or anti-hero, of Solar is Michael Beard, a scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation. This work, however, is years behind him when the novel begins, along with four (soon to be five) ex-wives and innumerable mistresses. The aging and obese Beard is a man of vast, fleshy appetites and almost no self-awareness. Which makes him not just a modern Everyman but someone whose poor physical health and moral shortcomings are both literally and symbolically connected to the fate of the planet.
The Earth, too, is on a course for destruction due to the growing appetites of our industrial economies. As his plane descends over London Beard notices the urban sprawl “like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a soft fruit.” How, he wonders, can we ever learn to restrain ourselves? It is a question Beard is personally ill-suited to answer, and yet he soon finds himself, quite accidentally, on the front line in the battle against global warming with a new invention for harnessing solar power.
Though it presents itself as a social satire, Solar is not a funny book. McEwan, despite being a terrific writer, can’t tell a joke to save his life. His timing is all off, as he takes forever to set up his comic set pieces and sometimes telegraphs punchlines pages in advance. But the larger point, the point of most black humour, is that laughter and a sense of the absurd is the only response possible in the face of catastrophe. The book’s epigraph comes from John Updike and describes the “great pleasure” Rabbit feels at contemplating the mortal world’s wasting away. On board an expedition to view shrinking Norwegian glaciers, Beard notices the same perverse enviro-schadenfreude, as everyone “was worried about global warming, and was merry.”
It’s nice to see McEwan back, if not on top of his game, at least partially recovered from On Chesil Beach. As always, he demonstrates a mastery of capturing fluid mental operations and the finest of subjective impressions in arrestingly clear sentences that never seem to get a word wrong (except when trying to imitate an American voice). And in a number of ways, some of them very clever, his earlier work is returned to in ironic contexts here. But there also signs that he is working what seems to have become a rut. For example, the dichotomy between the male, rational, scientific mind and a female, expressive, imaginative principle is introduced yet again, and in a way that shows he isn’t moving forward. Can’t McEwan allow himself to imagine a female scientist, or a male poet? And the character of the aging and physically unprepossessing yet still virile genius who is – surprise! – a chick magnet who has no trouble attracting beautiful, intelligent women half his age is fast becoming one of the most embarrassing recurring characters in contemporary fiction written by – surprise! – aging men. This is one lane McEwan doesn’t want to follow the likes of Roth and Rushdie down.
And yet that same hunger and sensual abundance, writ large, is a big part of what Solar is all about. Michael Beard is an expanding, entropic microcosmos, and his end a mirror of our own.
Review first published April 10, 2010.