Book Review: Solar, Ian McEwan
Solar Ian McEwan Jonathan Cape, £18.99
I MUST confess that when advance publicity announced that the new novel by Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan was to concern climate change, my heart sank and my eyebrow arched. Ever since Black Dogs, I have found the novels where McEwan tackles Themes Of Contemporary Relevance – particularly his Iraq demonstration novel, Saturday – his most forced and febrile. Solar is not a novel without its infelicities. It read like some good stories shoehorned into having the same protagonist.
The protagonist in question is Michael Beard, Nobel Prize winner for the Beard-Einstein Conflation, a piece of genius which has allowed his career to coast. Beard is a slob, glutton, alcoholic, serial adulterer and egomaniac; a kind of self-loathing Falstaff with a physics degree. As the novel opens, his fifth wife is having an affair with a vulgar builder and he has an honorary and pointless role in the "National Centre for Renewable Energy", since he is "not wholly sceptical about climate change".
Nevertheless, he sweats indifference at the ideas of a idealistic student who believes the Einstein-Beard Conflation may hold the key to "artificial photosynthesis" – a clean, efficient way to harness sunlight. The first section welds together marital collapse (done with some verve), a crime plot (done with ham fists) and a conference in the Arctic. The Arctic section is the finest in the book. It's genuinely funny, with sharp satires on the various artists and ecologists accompanying Beard, a polar bear, and an excruciating scene where he thinks his frostbitten penis has fallen off. McEwan even mocks his own endeavour, as the artists enthuse that "it was art in its highest forms, poetry, sculpture, dance, abstract music, conceptual art, that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat, and inspire the public to take thought". This from a group he deftly reveals can't organise a cloakroom.
The novel jumps from 2000, to 2005, to the present day. Beard has new women, a crisp addiction, is party to a miscarriage of justice and becomes a successful advocate for artificial photosynthesis through shameless plagiarism. Again, there are well done set pieces with Beard as the bloated, boastful thread connecting them. McEwan has said Solar is not a comedy, but a "novel with extended comic stretches", and the comedy certainly stretches in the finale. As all the parts of Beard's life converge on the launch of his artificial photosynthesis, the plotting gets inelegantly overheated: more Young Ones than Yes Minister.
Sometimes McEwan seems to be trying to channel the young McEwan, that master of the cold grotesque. But the disgust is overplayed: eating too many salmon sandwiches before a speech, Beard feels "an oily nausea at something monstrous and rotten from the sea, stranded on the tidal mud flats of a stagnant estuary, decaying gaseously in his gut and welling up, contaminated his breath". Later he is disappointed not to find "the chocolate arabesque of another man's excrement" in the toilet as he tries (on a separate occasion) to vomit.
But the fundamental problem – if this is a novel about climate change – is that Beard is too amoral, too flabbily flawed to carry the theme. He compromises it, in a manner that, had he been a sceptic, or a falsifier of data, would have still allowed the speechifying and polemic to stand. His self-absorption smothers the seriousness. Solar could as easily have been called Solo.
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 14, 2010
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