What happens in the age of global warming if nobody’s eye is on the prize and everybody’s eye is on the money? In Ian McEwan’s Solar, a dark comedy about climate change, alternative energy is viable only if financiers and scientists exploit it. Whoever saves the planet won’t necessarily be a nice guy. But what if the world-saving physicist turns out to be Michael Beard, an aging fat sociopathic Nobel winner who hasn’t done a lick of work in years and doesn’t believe in global warming? Beard works for an environmental think tank, which is developing a home wind turbine only because he off-handedly threw out the idea at a meeting. It’s costing so much money that it’s hardly worth it. The real brains at the think tank is a ponytailed graduate student, Aldous, with a penchant for solar energy. But Beard won’t look at the student’s research until Aldous dies, grotesquely slipping on the polar bear rug in Beard’s living room after a tryst with Beard’s fifth wife, Patrice.
Beard is portrayed as a thoroughly despicable character, yet when McEwan tricks us into spending time inside his warped brain, we see the world through his greedy eyes and find ourselves wanting him to get away with things–and then we’re appalled. Everything in Beard’s world is outrageous–from the stunning eco-error of the polar bear rug, his father-in-law’s wedding gift, to a polar bear’s chasing him when his snowmobile stalls on a fjiord at a climate-change awareness conference. The environmentalists at the conference–mainly artists– earnestly believe they can change the world, but can’t even keep the boot room tidy. Their elaborate gear is thrown hither and thither–one man wears two left boots for most of the week.
Beard, a sex addict who has multiple affairs, becomes obsessed with his fifth wife once she begins an affair with their carpenter. Once home from the conference, he walks in on his student Aldous, who is lounging around on the couch after spending the night with Patrice. Patrice is away, and Aldous, running toward Beard, slips on the rug and dies,. Beard, terrified that he will be accused of murder, elaborately frames Patrice’s first lover, the buff carpenter, for the accident. This is a grotesque scene: he even pulls hairs from a comb and rubs a hammer in Aldous’ blood. And when the carpenter goes to prison for murder, Beard has absolutely no remorse. Believing his own version of reality, he almost believes in the carpenter’s guilt. Sure he can get away with it, he expropriates Aldous’ research when he realizes solar power could be lucrative and becomes a global warming evangelist.
It does seem that Beard will get away with everything. He has a very nice English shop-owner mistress, who doesn’t insist that he marry her after she has a baby, and a very nice American waitress girlfriend, who insists that he must marry her. Everything eventually is tangled up with everything else–work, love, theft, and fame–and it seems that he must fall. But will he?
The ending is brilliant in a way, and the appendix is certainly sad: it portrays Beard as he used to be before he became so cynical. But Solar can be wearisome–it’s brilliant, but Beard is so unlikable, so appalling, that it certainly makes one doubt the future of the world, though there is no doubt that the brilliance of a Beard can change the world. McEwan is a fine writer, but the hero is so grotesque, and odd allusions to other Nobel winners, Al Gore, for instance, in his fight for the presidency in 2000, puzzle me: are we supposed to think of Gore’s Nobel Prize and doubt him, or see him as a constrast to Beard (I suspect the latter)?
It’s a complicated, well-written novel. Just not all that funny. Old Lucky Jim without ethics?
Solar just won the Wodehouse Humor Award in England. Up for the Booker Prize next?