Book Review: 'Solar' By Ian McEwan — 'Solar': McEwan's Cold-Hearted Scientist Melts Down In Ian McEwan's novel, a morally corrupt physicist is convinced he has the answer to the world's energy problem. Critic McAlpin recommends sticking out the bumps for an overall "turbocharged" read.


Book Reviews

'Solar': McEwan's Coldhearted Scientist Melts Down

By Ian McEwan
Hardcover, 304 pages
Random House
List price: $26.95

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Ian McEwan has shown, in novels such as Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam and Enduring Love, that he's a master of turbocharged fiction that explores ethical issues in both the domestic and the global realms. His 14th book, Solar, driven by the debate on global warming, concerns a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who's been coasting for decades in both his personal and professional lives, "a solipsist at heart, and his heart was a nugget of ice."

Michael Beard, whose fifth marriage has melted in the heat of tit-for-tat adultery, becomes convinced that both his and the world's EZPass to renewal is artificial photosynthesis through solar energy. He throws himself into its development for nine years, lining up funding and racking up 17 patents. By novel's end in 2009, he's poised to reap the rewards, when his past and present converge like an interstate pileup.

The problem is, Beard's ideas have been filched without attribution from a dead man. Worse, that dead man was his last wife's lover, a junior colleague at the British National Centre for Renewable Energy, where Beard, courtesy of his Nobel Prize, was nominal director. Worse still, that dead man died in an accident witnessed and abhorrently covered up by Beard.

Sound wild? McEwan guns his narrative engine in the first section, set in 2000. But there are curious detours throughout Solar. There's a riotous story about an expedition to the North Pole with artists, performers and scientists concerned with climate change. It's a trip Beard takes to escape his woes at home — inspired by a similar expedition made by McEwan. Like the lovely long back story about Beard's childhood and first marriage — first published in The New Yorker as "The Use of Poetry" — it feels oddly spliced into the novel.

McEwan has employed sudden narrative shifts before — most dramatically in Atonement, where he jumped from a Merchant-Ivory-worthy country estate to Dunkirk — but the middle of Solar feels in parts like he's either lost his way or run out of gas.

Beard, however, is a noteworthy addition to literature's catalog of self-deluding morally myopic monsters. He's short, fat, bald, obscenely gluttonous, chronically unfaithful, "bristling with academic grandeur" and yet somehow "unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women." Among his sins is inattentiveness, which McEwan nails with the memorable observation that he's "lost patience with the small print of human contact."

Perhaps appropriate for someone so interested in solar energy, Beard is aggressively passive, repeatedly absolving himself of responsibility for his chicanery, his unlivable apartment, his tangled relationships, even his health: he invariably sees decisions as "out of his hands."

As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.

Excerpt: 'Solar'


The place was emptying, and he was not ready. Someone very old with snow in his beard and a damp, unlit cigarette on his lower lip came in muttering ill- temperedly, snatched Beard's bag, took it out to a sled hitched to a snowmobile, and drove off. Both the waitress and Jan had disappeared, and Beard was the only person in the lobby. This was a long- forgotten experience from his school days, not only being late but feeling ignorant and incompetent and wretched, with everyone else mysteriously in the know, as though in league against him. Fatso Beard, always last, useless at team games. With that memory came added clumsiness and indecision. Although he was dressed in ski clothes of many layers, he was expected to climb inside this extra skin, even to wear his own boots inside another pair. There were inner gloves and giant outer gloves, a heavy balaclava made of carpet underlay to wear over his own, and goggles, and a motorcycle helmet.

By Ian McEwan
Hardcover, 304 pages
Random House
List price: $26.95

He got into the suit — it must have weighed twenty pounds — put on the dusty balaclava, squeezed his head into the helmet, put on the inner and outer gloves, then realized that he would not be able to put on the goggles while wearing the gloves, took off the gloves, clamped on the goggles, put on the inner and outer gloves, then remembered that his own ski goggles and gloves, hip flask and stick of lip salve on the seat next to him, would need to be stowed. He took off the inner and outer gloves, put his stuff in a pocket inside his jacket after much struggling with the zip of the outer suit, put on the inner and outer gloves again, and found that in the damp warm air of the lobby and with his own impatient perspiring, his goggles were fogging up. Hot and tired, an unpleasant combination, he stood suddenly in exasperation, turned, and collided with a beam or a column, he couldn't see which, with a massive cracking sound. How fortunate it was that the Nobel laureate was wearing a helmet. No damage to his skull, but there was now a diagonal crack across the left eyepiece of his goggles, an almost straight line that refracted and diffused the low yellow light in the lobby. To remove the helmet, balaclava, and goggles and wipe the condensation from them he had to remove all four gloves, and now that his hands were sweating, these items were not so easy to dislodge. Once the goggles were off, it was straightforward enough to take them to the almost- cleared breakfast table and employ a crumpled paper napkin, used, but not much used, to polish the lens. Perhaps it was butter, perhaps it was porridge or marmalade that smeared the already scratched plastic, but at least the condensation was off, and it was relatively simple, after replacing the balaclava, to secure the goggles around the helmet and lower it over his head and put on all four gloves and stand, ready at last to face the elements.

His vision was much restricted by the new breakfast coating; otherwise he would have seen the boots earlier lying on their sides under his chair. Off with the gloves — he was not going to lose his temper — and then, after some fiddling with the laces, he decided he would see better without the goggles. Clear sight confirmed that the boots were far too small, by at least three sizes, and there was some relief in knowing that not all the incompetence was his own. But he was game, and thought he would give it one last try, and that was how Jan, entering the lobby with a blast of icy air, found him, trying to push his foot in its hiking boot into a fur- lined snow shoe.

"My God, you thick or which?"

The giant elk man knelt before him and with impatient tugs removed Beard's hiking boots, tied the laces together, and slung the pair around Beard's neck.

"Now try."

His feet slid in. Jan secured the laces at speed and stood.

"Come on, man. Let's go!"

Possibly it was his embarrassment that helped fog up the goggles again, but he had a pretty good idea of the direction of the door, and he had the rough outline of Jan's shoulder to guide him.

"You drive a snowmobile before?"

"Of course," he lied.

"Good, good. I want to catch the others."

"How far is it to the ship?"

"One hundred fifteen kilometers."

When they stepped out, the wind slapped his face, no less hard than Tarpin had, and with the same stinging aftermath. The condensation inside his goggles froze instantly but for a small patch, through the marmalade veneer of which he could just make out Jan's form retreating along a path cut through the deep snow that wound between the shapes of buildings. After ten minutes they arrived at the edge of the settlement, before a vast white plain that stretched away into a mist. It may have been an airfield, for there was an orange wind sock nearby straining in the horizontal position. Parked by a ditch were two snowmobiles, noisily pumping out a blue-black mist of their own.

"I follow you," Jan said. "Minimum fifty kilometers an hour if we want to arrive before the storm. Okay?"


But it was not okay. The wind was strong, and they would be driving straight into it. Deep inside his helmet, the tips of his ears were already numb, and so were the tip of his nose and his toes. To see, he was obliged to tilt his head and angle his sight line through a diminishing area of semiclarity, avoiding at the same time the illuminated crack over his left eye. But all this was incidental; blindness and pain he could live with. A more urgent problem was oppressing him as he turned toward his snowmobile. In his hurry and thickheadedness that morning, he had omitted all the usual routines. He had not shaved or washed and, except to drink a pint of freezing water, had not set foot inside the bathroom. Then he had hurried out of the room with his bag. Now it was minus twenty-six, wind force five, they were pressed for time, a storm was looming, Jan was already astride his machine and gunning the engine, and Beard, trapped inside many layers of intractable clothing, needed to urinate.

From Solar by Ian McEwan. Copyright 2010 by Ian McEwan. Reprinted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.