‘Solar: A Novel’ by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday:
294 pp., $26.95
In 2006, Ian McEwan survived a minor scrape with the plagiarism police. A British newspaper pointed out the resemblance between passages in his celebrated 2001 novel, " Atonement,” and those of a 1977 memoir by the late romance writer Lucilla Andrews. McEwan serenely dismissed the matter in the Guardian two days later. He hadn’t copied Andrews, merely referred to her book for hard facts about a 1940 London hospital, and he’d cited it in “Atonement’s” acknowledgments. A small army of big shots (Pynchon, Updike, Amis, Ishiguro) sprang to his defense. Case closed. The world moved on.
Did McEwan? Nominally a hot-button story about a theoretical physicist confronting climate change, his mischievous, darkly entertaining “Solar” better resonates as a tale of intellectual property theft.
Nobel laureate Michael Beard has a brilliant mind, a nimble wit and a debilitating weakness for women, liquor and junk food. In other words, he’s empathetically human. He also happens to be a cheat and a fraud -- but just try rooting against him.
We meet Beard, 53, in 2000, humiliated by his younger wife’s dalliance with their blue-collar contractor and by his own reflexive adoration for her. Suddenly, there is no woman in the world he desires more than Patrice, who cheerfully admits and carries on with her affair. Beard has been an adulterer his whole life -- Patrice is his fifth wife -- and yet the position of cuckold leaves him emotionally deranged. Thank goodness for the arid, rationalist landscape of his profession. As Beard puts it to himself, “physics was free of human taint, it described a world that would exist if men and women and all their sorrows did not.”
The rest of McEwan’s novel will boisterously, comically demolish the notion that any such world exists -- or, anyway, lies within reach. In “Solar,” which skips from London to the North Pole to a New Mexico desert (finely realized settings all), there is no human endeavor, least of all physics, uncontaminated by foible, appetite and ego.
The author of 13 previous works of fiction, McEwan is a writer of ideas who is gratifyingly committed to the old-fashioned pleasures of plot and suspense. His intelligent novels tend to be corkers -- “Solar” is no exception, and giving away the story line spoils the fun. So here’s a pencil sketch: Longing for distraction from his marital mess and “always on the look-out for an official role with a stipend attached,” Beard takes a post as head of a British research center on renewable energy. One of the younger postdocs on staff, Tom Aldous, has groundbreaking ideas about solar power, but Beard can’t abide his save-the-planet peppiness. Beard knows the science on global warming, but he’s a hedonist who likes heated tile in his bathrooms and jumbo SUVs. Still, Beard hasn’t had any genuine ideas since the calculations that won him the Nobel Prize two decades before, and when an opportunity presents itself, he’ll claim Aldous’ work as his own.
That work involves applying quantum theory and nanotechnology to replicate the natural process of photosynthesis via a solar panel, drawing hydrogen from water and creating liquid fuel. It all sounds terribly convincing to an English major like me, but I’d bet the scientific passages would pass muster among novel-reading physicists too. McEwan famously performs deep research -- he shadowed a brain surgeon for weeks before writing “Saturday” -- but he also has the good sense to avoid clogging his narrative line with Tom Clancy-esque excerpts from his notebook.
Could Beard’s (really Aldous’) next-generation solar panels reverse climate change? “Solar” zips along and turns bracingly of the moment in its final third, set in 2009, a year of “sclerotic credit markets” and insurgent skepticism about global warming. Alas, a rushed and contrived climax mars the novel’s last pages. What a surprise to see plot ace McEwan struggle to integrate his several narrative strands, stage a persuasive finale and go home.
The happier surprise and the reason why “Solar” succeeds in spite of its creaky finish is McEwan’s sense of humor. Here’s a writer who began his career more than 30 years ago with grim, perverse novels and short stories about incest and violence. His recent work has skewed less macabre, but still -- not a lot of laughs in the McEwan backlist. In fact, he recently told an audience that he hates the comic novel, saying “it’s like being wrestled to the ground and being tickled.” And yet “Solar” offers both high-minded amusement in its skewering of environmentalist, postmodern and objectivist pieties, and, in the North Pole scenes in which Beard braves subzero cold and a hungry polar bear, something awfully close to slapstick.
A comic global warming novel? Well . . . why not? After December’s fiasco in Copenhagen, the story line on climate change is looking a bit like a tragicomedy. Can individuals, corporations and governments all go outside self-interest and do the responsible, painful, self-preserving thing? “Solar’s” answer runs something like: Are you kidding?
Instead, the novel reminds us that even our most illustrious figures can’t resist dark urges: to lie, to cheat, to steal. I’m not sure what this tells us about the “Atonement” affair. Michael Beard certainly is no McEwan stand-in. And yet I also can’t shake the sense, presumptuous as it may be, that the character has sprung from something like the author’s conscience.
Antrim is the author of the novel “The Headmaster Ritual.”