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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Solar’
Question of the Day
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, $26.95, 304 pages
REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE
It is occasionally said that physics is a discipline for the young. Sure, a physicist may make fruitful scientific contributions throughout his life, but only in youth, when the mind is at its nimblest and most audacious, will a moment of true genius emerge. This is certainly true of Michael Beard, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s new novel. Middle-aged at the start of the book, Beard has been living off the splendid and elegant formulation of his youth: the Beard-Einstein conflation, for which he received the Nobel Prize:
“Two decades had passed since he had last sat down in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life. … He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark. He had no new ideas.”
So he finds himself doing very little science and instead playing the role of bureaucrat, as head of a research center devoted to climate science (despite the fact that as a global-warming skeptic, he dismisses “the apocalyptic tendency” of the environmental scientists among whom he works). Ever the egoist, Beard cannot stand the fact that “none of these young men [at the center] appeared as much in awe of Michael Beard, Nobel laureate, as he thought they should.”
To make matters worse, the physics they do is largely unfamiliar to him: “Much of the time,” Mr. McEwan writes, “he did not know what they were saying.” A problem experienced by many a professional: the feeling of being left behind, of having one’s work eclipsed by younger, cleverer generations.
And yet we never get the sense that Beard ever really cared about physics. He certainly acts nothing like a scientist, let alone a Nobel Prize-winning one. His interests in life have to do only with his own carnality - his urges toward food and sex. Compare Beard’s rather narrow worldview with the cosmopolitan outlook of the brilliant young physicist Tom Aldous, who immerses himself not only in science, but also in music and novels and documentary films.
Beard, by contrast, is little more than “a lying womanizer,” his numerous marriages destroyed by infidelity and his current marriage in jeopardy, too, on account of his having conducted 11 affairs in a mere five years. The twist, we learn as the novel opens, is that Beard’s wife, Patrice, is now cheating on him, carrying on an open affair with a builder called Rodney Tarpin. The relationship is pure cliche: Patrice, the neglected woman, choosing the rough, physical Tarpin over the meek intellectual Beard.
The physicist wants nothing more than to confront his wife’s paramour, but he cannot bring himself to act. He is hardly a Hamlet figure. There is no nobility to his purpose; his vengeance is borne not out of love, but only out of his own self-absorption.
Later, Beard catches his rival Aldous at his house and realizes that the younger man also has been sleeping with Patrice (a scene that verges on the ridiculous when Aldous, caught basically with his pants down, launches into a monologue having to do with quantum coherence in photosynthesis - as if such a speech could occur at such a time). Aldous ends up dead, and Beard ends up covering it up:
“[Beard] marveled at what he had done and how he had acted so calmly, without reflection, behaved like a murderer covering his tracks while obliterating the truth that could have saved him. He was now in deep, the sole witness of his own innocence.”
Unlike a character such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Beard will undergo no spiritual rehabilitation over the course of “Solar.” He is a man with no core beliefs, no moral system to guide him through life, to inform the choices he makes and the way he behaves. He is both plagiarist and opportunist, and with zero interest in anything or anyone other than himself.
Beard’s opportunism will soon turn him into a climate-change convert, as he devotes his bureaucratic energies to a new “vision”: that “of a world cleansed and cooled and energized by photovoltaics, by concentrated solar power, above all by his own artificial photosynthesis, and by systems centralized or distributed and grid-tied.”
By Michael P. Orsi
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