Solar by Ian McEwan

28/03/10, Mail Today

Of all the fallible heroes in fiction, Michael Beard, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s twelfth novel, Solar, appears to be the most unredemptively flawed and dislikeable. Even his maker has called him “a complete bastard”. When the book opens in 2000, the 52-year-old Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s fifth marriage is on the rocks because his wife, Patrice, tired of his eleven affairs during the five years of their marriage, is having one of her own, with the builder who renovated the bathroom at their Belsize Park home, in an attempt to claw back some dignity. Compulsive philandering is, however, only one of his legion failings. In the nine years over which Solar unfolds, the priapic Beard is shown as a slob of gigantic proportions; a greedy man with an eating disorder of such magnitude that he puts on an extra 65 pounds during that period – ‘the equivalent of a combat infantryman’s full pack’ – while making endless resolutions to clean up his act; a venal plagiariser of other people’s work; a delusional liar; and a man of such clinical selfishness and disregard for the consequences of his own actions that it’ll leave you slack-jawed with incredulity.

In his twenties, he was a sharp man whose work on Einstein’s photovoltaics led to the Beard-Einstein Conflation, a contribution to quantum theory so significant that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. But all that is far behind him. Now, he is little more than a lazy bureaucrat, sitting on committees, lending his weighty name to institution letterheads, even acting as the titular head of a desultory New Labour centre on research into viable solutions for global warming. A trip to Spitsbergen in the Arctic, along with a team of artists, to observe global warming firsthand, allows him to get away from the worst of the avalanche in the disintegrating marriage, only for him to discover on return that Patrice is now having an affair with the over-eager, annoying, ponytailed nerd, Tom Aldous, from the Centre. Here, a set of plot twists, improbable coincidences and thrillerish elements for which McEwan, fatally, seems to have such a penchant provides the armature for the future motion of the narrative. It would be churlish to give away this veritable mountain-terrain of twists, some immediate, some deferred, but suffice it to say that McEwan lays the foundation for the builder, Rodney Tarpin, with whom Patrice was involved before her affair with Tom Aldous, and a lethal form of the revenant of Aldous, to reappear later.

Fast forward five years. Beard is now involved with a kind-hearted woman, Melissa, and has been made to leave the Centre after a media controversy which seems to have been inspired by the Larry Summers affair in Harvard in 2005. He is using Aldous’s substantial research on photovoltaics, notably the younger man’s work on splitting the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen and using the former to power the world, to reinvigorate his career and become the guru for a new, clean, efficient energy, thus solving the global climate change crisis. To this end, he has convinced a raft of people, this time in the USA, to set up a site in the New Mexico desert where he can stage a demonstration that will effectively power the nearest small town, Lordsburg, on solar power for an entire day as proof of the miracles of the new energy. But all the debris that Beard leaves in the wake of his disastrous life, both personal and professional, accumulate, reach critical point and cascade into the mother of all reckonings in the end. The comic light flickers and dims shut.

While not the train-wreck that was Saturday, Solar is light years away from a successful novel. What trips up Solar is the comedy. Instead of the principle of harmony and reconciliation that felicitous examples of the genre have at their core, it would appear that McEwan’s understanding of the comic mode is wholly congruent with farce, slapstick, pub comedy, sitcom, even bedroom farce. Take, for example, the egregiously tacked-on setpiece of the Arctic episode that serves only to emphasise the ‘comedy’ aspect of the novel, especially in the ridiculously juvenile moment when Beard’s penis freezes along his zipper as he is taking a piss in sub-zero temperature. This will perhaps appear to be funny to readers with a mental age of eight. Much of these ‘comedic’ moments in the book – and particularly strained is a misunderstanding over eating crisps between Beard and a passenger on a train, and another one involving fighting the urge to vomit while giving a speech – are akin to being held down and tickled to elicit laughter. The upshot is as clear as radioactive glowing: McEwan is emphatically not a comic writer in his chosen modes. Far more successful, witty and intelligent is the send-up of the drivel and politically correct thuggery emanating from humanities departments that Beard falls foul of.

Solar suffers from other problems. Having Beard as the focal consciousness of the book means that not a single other character comes even halfway alive. The women, Patrice, Maisie (his first wife), Darlene (his woman in New Mexico), are especially woeful: they’re hardly more than names on the page. This unrelentingly singular point of view palls after a while. And the clumsy structure – clunky ways of filling in backstories; obvious elisions that we know are being suppressed for future, more dramatic, release; an oversignalled, hamfisted strewing of clues that will take in only gullible children – draws unwelcome attention to McEwan’s tendency, now somewhat of a tic, to stake everything on that one major plot twist. This may make for gripping reading but it comes at the price of credibility, surely a damaging cost for such doggedly and conservatively realist fiction to pay, especially when these plot manipulations traduce the novel’s moral energy as well. Stripped of these, Solar’s only point seems to be that humans are fallible creatures. To borrow from Wolfgang Pauli, another physicist, this is not even banal.