The Menace of Egotism
Ian McEwan, “Solar”
Nan A. Talese
2010, 304 pages, hardcover, $27
Michael Beard, the antihero of Ian McEwan’s 2010 “Solar,” is a cynical Nobel Prize-winning physicist who has long ago abandoned his scientific pursuits so that he may more easily satisfy his most base desires—weaknesses for women and potato crisps. In McEwan’s satirical novel, we meet Beard in 2000, in England, as he is struggling through mid-life. A dedicated misanthrope, Beard sometimes reflects that he might even be slightly sociopathic. He is bored, listless, and deeply irritated by the starry-eyed post-docs he encounters at the Center for Renewable Energy, an organization to which he has lent his name and which he sometimes graces with his presence. Despite his involvement with the Center, he is skeptical and uninformed about climate change. As the novel progresses, Beard does develop an interest in climate change but only for his own benefit and without sincere concern for the planet’s wellbeing—an irony that propels McEwan’s story forward.
The opportunity to capitalize on global warming arises when Beard discovers that his cuckolding wife has most recently seduced Tom Aldous, one of the Center’s fresh-faced junior scientists. “Solar” gains momentum and suspense when a well-plotted mishap leaves Aldous dead and Beard in possession of the junior scientist’s theoretical papers. These papers hold the key to developing revolutionary means for harnessing and exploiting solar energy by mimicking photosynthesis. In a disappointingly diffusive narrative move, McEwan then leaps forward five years; and we learn that Beard, having rationalized away his moral conflicts, has patented Aldous’s ideas in his own name and is hoping the new solar technology will give him a resurgence of acclaim and admiration. In the novel’s last act, Beard’s indiscretions—both personal and intellectual—catch up with him, and the narrative ends just as Beard is facing the daunting repercussions of his actions. The consequences for Beard appear to be large, but the consequences for the planet are even larger, because Beard’s obstinate desire for personal glory seems to have also seriously jeopardized the future of the new solar technology.
The tone of “Solar” is darkly playful and sometimes ridiculing, and it leaves the reader with the impression that McEwan has enjoyed jabbing at his antihero to enrich the ironies of the story. Perhaps it is Beard’s vanity and lack of conscience that render him ultimately too irritating for the reader to want to follow. Beard’s fixation with his ever-expanding waistline, for example, reads more like obnoxious vanity than pitiable, if comical, distress. Beard’s decision to steal intellectual property and his desire to pressure his lover into terminating a pregnancy—opportunities for psychological complexity—are left uncomplicated; and as a result, larger swathes of the story are dedicated to ironic but mostly empty passages, such as the section in which McEwan details Beard’s fondness for barbeque and a zaftig American waitress named Darlene—a flat attempt at humor.
It is unfortunate that the moral and psychological complexity McEwan mastered in “Atonement” is not evident in “Solar,” but it is clearly McEwan’s intention to create a morally ambivalent antihero for this novel, because without this quality, the novel wouldn’t drive home such a biting message about how one man’s character flaws can thwart all of society’s progress (in this case, the search for sustainable energy). Beard’s nastiness is key to the novel’s overarching, more serious message—that human greed and arrogance may be the biggest stumbling block to overcome before our society can develop solutions to any of our environmental crises. As a result, the message of McEwan’s novel is actually quite serious (and blunt): if morally corrupt forces drive the search for solutions in the battle against climate change, the final joke will be on us.
Emily Howorth’s fiction is recently published or forthcoming in Washington Square, Midwestern Gothic, PANK, and New Madrid. She lives in Texas.