I sure hope the scientists working on the issue of global warming take their charge and challenge a bit more seriously than Michael Beard, the main character in Ian McEwan’s latest, “Solar.”
Beard is a self-absorbed, pompous and self-indulgent. As main characters go, he’s downright hard to be around. This is a man, we learn early on, whose wife is having a torrid affair with their builder, “the one who had repointed their house, fitted their kitchen, retiled their bathroom…”
So, in order to send his wife a message that his own needs are still being met, he goes to great lengths to fake some fun in his bedroom, even to the point of going down the stairs backwards and “bending forwards to beat out on the treads with his palms the sound of his companion’s foot fall, syncopated with his own. This was the kind of logical plan only a madman might embrace.”
Dripping with McEwan’s effortless style, “Solar” slowly roasts Beard on a skewer, from gray London to frozen fjords of Longyearbyen to the blistering sun of New Mexico. With five wives to date when we meet him, Beard is a self-admitted “lying womanizer.” He doesn’t improve his skills at relationships as the book progresses, though the number of women who find him desirable never seems droop, even as Beard’s body grows fat and more grotesque.
Reading the roadside diner scene at the end, at the Blooberry Family Restaurant in New Mexico, there are echoes of “Mr. Creosote,” the “just one more mint” sketch from Monty Python. “Solar” isn’t that far gone, but it takes a stroll (silly walk?) down the same road. There’s the “orange-coloured cheese, dipped in batter, rolled in breadcrumbs and salt and deep fried, with a creamy dip of pale green.” To Beard, however, the dinner is “Perfect and in such quantity.”
Much of “Solar” is along these lines—deliciously overdrawn. There is nothing subtle about Beard’s complete inability to control his cravings for food and women at the same time as he’s trying, ostensibly, to save the earth.
Yes, save the earth. “Solar” is about global warming and Beard the professional scientist is trying to assume several roles in managing the issue or at least being seen as a prominent player and appearing to care, discuss ideas, conduct research and, much later, develop a cheap-energy device that will reduce carbon footprints and produce all sorts of environmentally friendly magic. (If artificial photosynthesis is on the horizon, I say let’s step up the work and get busy.)
Beard is equally repellent when it comes to thinking through his mission. “The Gulf Stream would vanish, Europeans would freeze to death in their beds, the Amazon would be a desert, some continents would catch fire, others would drown, and by 2085 the Arctic summer ice would be gone and the polar bears with it. Beard had heard these predictions before and believed none of them. And if he had, he would not have been alarmed. A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism.” Beard, in fact, refers to the climate change issue as just a “looming sorrow” and sees various ideas and proposals as nothing more than “variants on the perpetual motion machine.”
In an explosive moment worthy of a Patricia Highsmith novel, Beard seizes a moment of confrontation and violence to further his own career and to simultaneously resolve a nasty professional and marriage-related tangle. That this happens around a slippery polar bear rug sometime after Beard himself needs to run from a polar bear during his visit to the Norwegian islands is the kind of unsubtle humor that McEwan boldly crams into the story. Here and there, you might think McEwan might shared a beverage with Carl Hiaasen or channeled a bit of Kurt Vonnegut.
The writing is exquisite McEwan. To me, it’s the details—the relentless drip of credible details that McEwan spots along the way and weaves into the fabric. The sentences flow with energy. At their best, the sentences relay insight and emotion and attitude all at once. Beard is flying into London and looking out the window: “Here was a commonplace sight that would have astounded Newton or Dickens. He was gazing east, through a great rim of ginger grime—it could have been detached from an unwashed bathtub and suspended in the air. He was looking past the City, down the bulging, widening Thames, past oil and gas storage tanks towards the brown flatlands of Kent and Essex and the scene of his childhood, and the outsized hospital where his mother died, not long after she told him of her secret life, and beyond, the open jaw of the tidal estuary, and the North Sea, an unwrinkled nursery blue in the December sunshine.”
It’s easy to see McEwan is a big fan of poetry.
At the same time, I found the long flashback catch-ups a bit intrusive to the story’s moments; tension sagged. As McEwan begins each of the three parts of “Solar,” he leaps ahead five years (from 2000 to 2005 to 2009) and then must inevitably flip us back in time to catch us up on the highlights. In one case (beginning the third part), McEwan takes us back to the story of Beard’s first marriage to a college girl whom Beard won by faking a deep knowledge of the poet John Milton. The flashbacks are interesting, but dragged on the momentum of the main plot. Nonetheless, if you enjoyed “Amsterdam,” “Atonement,” and “Saturday,” as I did, you will find “Solar” filled to the brim with plenty of McEwan treasures on the writing, imagery and big-theme front.
It’s not giving anything away to say “Solar” does not draw neat conclusions. The end may not provide the satisfactions you might dream up for Beard’s comeuppance, but Beard does squirm.
So will you. I found myself wondering if McEwan is trying to suggest that the solutions to these big-deal issues likes global warming are only as solid and dependable as the quality of the character of the people working on them. If they are like Beard, folks, we’re screwed.
Despite some thriller-element moments, “Solar” is played for the smile. McEwan said it in an interview (with The Wall Street Journal): “There is something comic about the shadow that falls between our good resolutions and what we actually end up doing.”