Never let it be said that Ian McEwan doesn't know how to step out of his comfort zone.
The UK author, possibly the best of our contemporaries, has patented the story arc that sees characters adjusting to life after a traumatic event. In Enduring Love the characters try to recover emotionally from a fatal balloon accident. In Saturday all of London is still reeling from 9/11. And in the literary classic Atonement, a young man lives the rest of his life with the consequences of a false accusation.
Here, in Solar, the author mostly does away with the trauma angle in favour of a satire with possibly his most unsympathetic character at its centre.
He's Michael Beard, a physicist studying climate change at an English university. He's lived his entire life off the success of a Nobel Prize he won decades before, recognizing the Einstein-Beard Conflation, a formula that expanded on the ideas of history's most pre-eminent scientist.
Now, however, he's an overweight philanderer, about to lose a beautiful wife, Patrice, so hurt by his cheating that she won't even sleep in the same room with him. He falls into a deep depression on the realization that he may finally be losing someone he truly loved.
Outside his broken home, he maintains a salary through the National Centre for Renewable Energy, a government-appointed study group looking into sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity in Britain.
Beard is treading water in his life until a chance encounter with one of his wife's lovers sets him on a new path, awakening him to the dangers of global warming and forcing him to find an immediate solution that will make the world love him.
The magic of McEwan's writing is the empathy he brings to his characters. Every figure in his stories is the product of meticulous research.
For Saturday he spent two years shadowing a neurosurgeon to help him draw Henry Perowne, a London doctor who's an expert in Huntington's Disease. The result of McEwan's research was that he offered painstaking detail of a surgery in the book's final pages.
It made for a rather anticlimactic ending but it was nevertheless compelling to appreciate the depth and detail that McEwan included, especially for someone with no background in neuroscience.
I can't be certain of the research McEwan put into Solar but it appears as rigorous as the work he put into Saturday . Instead of neurosurgery he tackles physics, not always in a manner as compelling as his earlier work but laudable nonetheless.
Most impressive about the novel is how much McEwan subsumes himself inside the mind and body of Michael Beard. He's a lazy, arrogant has-been with a stubborn sense of entitlement, whether to fame or food.
You're right there with him as he struggles to put on a snowsuit during a trip to the Arctic. You feel him at an academic salon as he gobbles down too many smoked salmon sandwiches, trying desperately not to vomit them up as he gives a talk on solar energy.
Most entertaining in the novel is Beard's outright antipathy for global warming enthusiasts who profess a deep knowledge of science. He scoffs at the theories of an assistant at his centre who thinks a solar panel in the desert can power an entire country for a year. Were he a real person, he'd never put a foot close to Whistler.
As for the story itself, the book meanders a fair bit. It's less a narrative than a study of a man incapable of seeing beyond himself. It unfolds in three parts, in the years 2000, 2005 and 2009, and in the process makes it difficult to become fully absorbed in the book. A section where Beard hits the tabloids for saying the wrong thing at a lecture is a funny diversion but it's unnecessary in the context of the book.
Overall, Solar is a sarcastic-yet-engaging tome, proof that Ian McEwan can be as dynamic as he is empathic. His book is a sharp satire with plenty of gentle ribbing at modern environmentalism, and that alone makes it worth a read.
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