Critical Mass

NBCC Featured Reviews: Hephzibah Anderson on Solar, by Ian McEwan

By Hephzibah Anderson

Critical Mass reguarly highlights exemplary reviews by NBCC members. This week, in a review originally published by, Hephzibah Anderson considers Ian McEwan's new novel Solar (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

To take global warming seriously would mean thinking about it all the time, says a character in Ian McEwan's new novel. And that's impossible, she adds: “Daily life would not allow it.”

Happily for skeptics and believers alike, Solar is serious only in a Charlie Chaplinesque way. It's a farce with a somber message — a satirical parable of human nature in all its entertaining, doomed folly.

The story pivots on a freak accident that catapults a tubby physicist, Michael Beard, to the forefront of the race to find a sustainable energy source. Pursuing this worthy goal in the run- up to the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, the balding British boffin will clock thousands of air miles and resort to intellectual property theft and worse.

Beard is a Falstaffian character, both in his gluttonous appetites and his implausibility. While in his 20s, he wrote a paper that led to a Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum theory, the “Beard-Einstein Conflation.” He has been resting on his wilted laurels ever since.

The novel opens in 2000; Beard is 53. His professional life has become a swirl of lecture junkets, media punditry and state-funded sinecures. His private life is what consumes most of his energy. Unaccountably attractive to women, he's five years into his fifth marriage — time enough to have crammed in 11 affairs. Then his wife retaliates by bedding their builder.

Arctic Expedition

Beard, irritated by his own jealousy, agrees to join an Arctic expedition to witness the effects of global warming first-hand. The trip, similar to one McEwan took, morphs into a running joke, as Beard finds himself the only scientist among a bunch of artists.

In the few daylight hours available near the North Pole, a sculptor named Jesus hews polar bears out of ice; others perform experimental sound works. One moment of surreal slapstick involves Beard's frozen genitals and a stick of lip balm.

Things take a darker turn when Beard returns to London. A violent death, divorce, perjury — all occur within a few pages. In middle of all this, he glimpses a bright future in a pile of scientific notes. Someone else's notes.

Fast-forward to 2005. Beard has turned into a global- warming evangelist, certain that only his system of artificial photosynthesis can avert an energy crisis. He's also fighting the urge to get hitched for a sixth time.

Gastro Porn

His appetite for women is surpassed only by his gluttony. McEwan chronicles each mini-bar raid with a skinny man's faint revulsion. The delights of salt-and-vinegar potato chips are described in sensual detail. The gastro porn continues with stacks of chicken and steak, all wrapped in bacon, topped with cheese and served alongside jacket potatoes “impregnated with butter and cream cheese.”

Beard is incapable of self-restraint or exercise. Nor, for all his rationality, can he shake the notion that this might one day change. From the squishy comfort of a queen-sized bed, he fantasizes about kicking fried foods and taking up tennis.

“Human imperfection was a large subject,” he later muses.

McEwan anatomizes each of Beard's failings, from lust to tardiness. Meantime, the comedy keeps coming. Beard falls afoul of a feminist academic, and the tabloid press dubs him a eugenicist. His business partner frets that the world might not be heating up after all. Beard reassures him.

“It's a catastrophe,” he says. “Relax!”

Photosynthesis Plant

If only they could. In the final stretch, lawyers, two of Beard's lovers and one angry ex-con — not to mention his own porcine body — look poised to catch up with the Nobelist as he gathers investors and journalists to watch him electrify a small town in New Mexico with his artificial photosynthesis plant.

The novel is partly a love letter to science, and McEwan refers to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and “coincident M2-branes.” Even a highway runs “straight as a Euclidean line.”

Yet Beard's orb-shaped body tells the story of our polluted planet more vividly than any amount of well explained physics. Though the scientist's mind may hold the answer to our predicament, his flabby flesh embodies what we really need to overcome: our own natures.

Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News.