- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

SOLAR

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.”

The irony is that in Beard’s quest to harness solar power, he fails to illuminate his life in any way, and in the end, “Solar” disappoints largely because of Mr. McEwan’s conception of this misanthropic, loveless, self-aggrandizing anti-hero, whose character never evolves, never develops, simply spirals outward in successively larger orbits, leaving those who love him to fend for themselves.

There are other problems with “Solar,” namely the matter of tone or the lack of constancy of tone - sometimes realistic, sometimes satirical. But the novel would work far better as satire (its targets are worthy of a skewering: the scandal-craving media, zealots, academics who are driven primarily by politics) if the situations didn’t descend so frequently into absurdity.

And if the characters weren’t rendered as caricatures, as mere types: from the feminist scholar to the environmentalists, from the builder Tarpin to Beard’s lover Darlene, a woman he meets in New Mexico, a character who makes me wonder whether Mr. McEwan’s experience of the American Southwest was derived mainly from watching reruns of the sitcom “Alice” (think Flo, only grittier and drunker).

The whole story comes tumbling to its inevitable end in a great swirl of melodrama. (We are far, indeed, from the epic, sure-handed sweep of Mr. McEwan’s “Atonement,” one of the most wondrous novels I have read, or the quiet perfection of his more recent “On Chesil Beach.”) Perhaps the point is that some men never learn, that they continue cheating themselves, cheating their loved ones, until all those who have been wronged come calling, demanding their due.

Not every character in a novel, of course, must undergo some transformative epiphany. But the trouble with “Solar” is that when we do, finally, glimpse for just a second the possibility of redemptive love in Beard - the merest flicker of sunlight thawing his cold, Arctic heart - the moment is utterly unbelievable, based on what has come before. This final note - much like the rest of the novel - rings false.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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