Ian McEwan: Solar
When McEwan gets philosophical, he can be one of the best English writers. In this book, while he does his bit for science, he seems to be more interested in his main character, Michael Beard, and, in particular, satirising him mercilessly, while, at the same time, having him, more or less, survive. Beard faces a variety of risks during this novel – incarceration (three times), murder, the wrath of his various ex- (and possibly future) wives, a melanoma, obesity, freezing to death (or, at the very least, losing his penis to sub-zero temperatures), assault and general decay, yet somehow he more or less comes out a survivor. McEwan mocks him at every turn, from the frozen penis incident to various pratfalls, from his lack of knowledge of his subject (physics, in which he has not only a first class degree from Oxford but a Nobel Prize) to his varied sexual life.
Michael Beard won the Nobel Prize when quite young, hailed by Richard Feynman, a fellow and very real Nobel Prize laureate. He is the developer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation. He has lived off his early achievements for the rest of his career, frequently being offered valuable positions for which he has to do little or no work, paid to give prestigious lectures and sought after as a guru. He is currently the first head of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, a government body set up to rival the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. He only has to work one day a week. The centre has not had too much success, not least because much of the time is spent responding to the various cranks who write to it, offering their designs for perpetual motion machines and the like, all of which, according to the government minister responsible, have to receive an intelligent response. To save its reputation, Beard has therefore proposed a small-scale wind-turbine which will sit on the roofs of private houses and save the UK billions of pounds. The project is foundering.
Meanwhile, his fifth marriage is also foundering. His first four marriages failed primarily because he was massively unfaithful. His latest wife, Patrice, is much younger than him but she has discovered one of his infidelities (we later learn that he has had eleven affairs during the course of their five-year marriage) so, to get her revenge, she is openly having an affair with Rodney Tarpin, their builder, a large man (Beard is small). She tells Beard when she is going to spend the night with Tarpin and even proposes having Tarpin spend the night in their house. Beard is jealous, though more for a loss of face than jealousy, but also because he is very sexist and considers it quite all right for him to have affairs but not for any of his wives to do so. When he gets the opportunity to visit the North Pole (or, at least, go to near the North Pole, all expenses paid), he jumps at the chance, both to escape Patrice and Tarpin but also to show that he is keen on investigating global warming himself.
Though, as far as I can tell, he only uses the word once, McEwan seems as much interested in the idea of entropy as he is in particle physics and climate change (though these two both receive a lot of discussion during the book). We see entropy in Beard’s life with everything falling apart but it is wittily shown on the North Pole expedition, where all the special clothing for going out in the cold from the ship seems, almost on its own, to become mixed up and scattered, to the extent that there does not seem to be any matching clothing at all. But the expedition does not preserve him from Patrice’s affair nor win him much kudos. However his return does precipitate a series of events which will change his life and the life of others.
McEwan, by his own admission, does not write comic novels. His previous novels have been serious, often macabre. But he seems to have got hold of the character of Michael Beard in his novel and is determined to have a go at him while, somehow, letting him more or less survive. Beard behaves badly, and not just with women. He is amoral, a drunk and a bon viveur who eats too much. He is completely amoral, egotistical and sexist. He is dishonest and even borderline psychopathic. He is definitely not the sort of man you should like yet you cannot help but have a certain admiration for his survival skills and his ability to be so utterly self-centred that he fails to see how anyone else might feel. But McEwan is so wrapped up in his character, that the arguments about climate change – generally familiar to anyone who has followed the issue in the press – tend to take second place. It is not one of his great, philosophical novels but it certainly is a very funny work, atypical for McEwan.
First published 2010 by Jonathan Cape