‘He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.’ Really? I disliked Michael Beard – his lusts, his greed, his domestic sloth, his utter selfishness – from the first sentence of McEwan’s most recent book, Solar (2010). Where can an author go with a character so little likely to command the sympathy of many readers? The options are to see him redeemed, or laugh at his downfall. McEwan has gone for a bit of both.
The story is told in three slices, set in 2000, 2005 and 2009. Some years previously, Michael Beard won a Nobel Prize for Physics for research on the interaction of light and matter. By 2000, already over fifty, he is more or less drifting, doing little real work and obsessed with the infidelity of his fifth wife. By 2005 he has a new solar energy project, a new girlfriend and a whole new set of complications in his life. By 2009, the project – and his life – are at a point where he will succeed brilliantly or fail disastrously, or maybe a little of both.
There is of course a plot running through the book in the sense that there are connections between events over the three periods, so that decisions taken in 2000 come back to haunt Beard in 2009. This sort of clever plot architecture is characteristic of McEwan’s work – see my post on Amsterdam. But for a lot of the book, plot is not the major consideration. Instead, there are various set piece comedy scenes, most of which I didn’t find particularly funny. On a trip toSpitsbergen, his penis is frozen onto his zip. On a train inLondon, he inadvertently steals another passenger’s packet of potato crisps. He is attacked by feminists for some ill-advised remarks about the absence of women from the physics profession. I got one genuine laugh, but that’s not a very good return for effort. Perhaps others may find these incidents funnier than I do.
It might be argued that the true comedy of the story lies in Beard as an example of the human condition. ‘Never a complete cad’, he knows he needs to change, makes resolutions to do so, and is quite incapable of carrying them out. He knows that he is morally compromised, and not only goes ahead, but finds ‘masterstroke(s) of self persuasion’ to justify for his actions. ‘He thought he was an average type, no crueller, no better or worse than most. If he was sometimes greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious, when to be otherwise would embarrass him, then so was everyone else.’ This again is classic McEwan territory, and there is a mordant humour about it. Beard’s self knowledge and its limitations don’t make him any more attractive as a character, though.
McEwan has a strong interest in empirical science. He has a bit of a tendency to show off his knowledge for its own sake, but he seems committed to the case for climate change. To begin with, Beard is indifferent to the issue: ‘A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism.’ During the course of the story, he is converted to the need to develop alternative energy sources in response to global warming. Admittedly he is interested in their commercial development, though the money doesn’t seem to matter much to him; more likely it is the fame. He may or may not have made the right choice of technologies (artificial photosynthesis), but McEwan has him put the general case very persuasively. I guess it is just another of his ironies that so important an argument is put by so self seeking and self interested a character.
McEwan has won many literary prizes and ‘book of the year’ citations. But as far as I know, Solar hasn’t won anything. This is fair enough. For all that Beard’s weaknesses and failings are made plain, the whole exercise has more than a whiff of male fantasy about it.