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Book review: Ron Charles reviews 'Solar' by Ian McEwan

By Ron Charles
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; C04

SOLAR

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 287 pp. $26.95

This has been a bad month for the penis. Two weeks ago, a character in Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That" castrated himself in a fit of deadly rage. And now comes Ian McEwan's "Solar," whose funniest scene involves a scientist trying to pee in the Arctic. If you thought it was dangerous to lick a metal railing in the winter, just wait. No man can read this without crossing his legs. Tightly.

If only the rest of "Solar" weren't so flaccid. McEwan writes sentences of such witty elegance that the loss of John Updike seems a little easier to bear. But as a whole, this comedy about a venal scientist never generates the tension one expects from the Booker Prize-winning author of "Amsterdam" and "Atonement."

The subject, though, is hot. Whether or not carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere, there's no denying that novelists are warming up to the subject. From Michael Crichton's "State of Fear," which claimed that we're being hoodwinked by faulty data, to Kim Stanley Robinson's "Fifty Degrees Below," which imagined Washington encased in ice, popular fiction about climate change has been as nuanced and illuminating as a shouting match on Fox News.

Not surprisingly, McEwan comes to this debate with considerably more sophistication. While he has publicly expressed his belief in man-made global warming, "Solar" is not a particularly polemic novel. "The best way to tell people about climate change," he said in the Guardian, "is through nonfiction." And so, while "Solar" contains plenty of references to dwindling polar ice caps and rising CO2 levels, its real subject is the slippery nature of truth and the very fallible people who claim to pursue it.

The villain here is Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who's been coasting for decades on his youthful discovery of the "Beard-Einstein Conflation," involving the nature of light. "He had no new ideas," McEwan writes bluntly. He's "a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice." Gluttonous and snobby, he's tortured by the realization that "the tiny vehicle of his talent -- a child's tricycle, say -- had hitched a ride behind the juggernaut of a world historical genius." But he's a master of false modesty, telling an audience, "I can claim nothing for myself. I stood, like Newton, on the shoulders of giants." McEwan catches the flutterings of this narcissistic mind with such clarity that you'll recognize your own little shameful tendencies reflected here on a global scale.

Physically and intellectually flabby, Beard serves on various scientific commissions, delivers well-worn speeches "for an unnaturally large fee" and keeps an eye out for any "official role with a stipend attached," which brings him, almost accidentally, to the subject of this novel. Although he has no real interest in climate change -- he considers "the apocalyptic tendency" of tree huggers distasteful -- he agrees to be the figurehead for the new National Center for Renewable Energy. One day while struggling to say something relevant, he makes an offhand remark that sends dozens of young scientists, hundreds of proposals and millions of pounds toward the production of urban windmills that can't possibly work.

The novel opens in 2000 in the final, agonizing months of Beard's fifth marriage, with a section that brandishes everything that makes McEwan such a terrific writer. His satire snaps wittily, his interweaving of scientific research and romantic intrigue is startlingly clever, and his psychological insights feel both genuine and comic. For the first time in Beard's life, he's desperate to win back an estranged wife, but this one won't have it. She responds to his betrayal with an affair of her own that drives him psychotic with jealousy and regret. In a moment of slapstick violence involving -- what else? -- a polar bear rug, Beard shifts from merely selfish to downright evil: He commits an act of deception and intellectual theft that vanquishes his enemies and raises his fortunes dramatically.

But the novel's fortunes sag from this point forward. "Solar" remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward. Beard's trip to the Arctic, for instance, is intermittently funny but seems included only because McEwan took such a trip himself in 2005. The novel's ridiculous conclusion in 2009, when Beard's legal, scientific and romantic crimes collide, produces very little heat. I was left wondering if "Solar" would have worked better as a collection of sharp short stories -- the treatment given by Updike to his own Nobel-winning narcissist, Henry Bech.

Then there's the issue of recycling, which is admirably green in real life but rather dull in a novel. Beard's thieving and borrowing seem awkwardly reflected by the author himself. There's a long speech in the middle of the book that sounds like Al Gore's routine but without the pizazz. Many pages are turned over to a reenactment and then a retelling of an urban legend called "The Unwitting Thief." And after Beard makes Larry Summers-like comments about the limited nature of women's brains, he suffers all the usual criticisms with withering predictability. The best that can be said about this tired incident is that it's a chance to recall Philip Roth's much fresher satire of political correctness in "The Human Stain" a decade ago.

McEwan's detractors -- they're a weirdly aggressive group -- won't be surprised by this tepid novel. But if, like me, you think he's one of England's very best writers, just let "Solar" pass and wait for his next book to eclipse it.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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