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Review: Ian McEwan's satirical 'Solar' tracks egotistical scientist through the arctic, New Mexico

Ian McEwan's novels are often about unforeseen consequences.

In Amsterdam, Atonement and many other of his books, his characters act — casually, desperately or with the best of intentions — and McEwan spins his intricate plots out of the unintended, unexpected, sometimes astonishing consequences of those acts.

In Solar, McEwan's protagonist is a man who doesn't believe in consequences, at least for himself. It's an odd attitude for a famous physicist, whose very profession — the study of matter and its motion in space and time, of energy and force — is the analysis of consequences, of cause and effect.

But Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize winner still coasting and profiting on his youthful achievements a couple of decades later, blunders through life as if he doesn't expect anything bad ever to happen to him — no matter how badly he behaves.

McEwan divides Solar into three periods in Beard's life, in 2000, 2005 and 2009. As the book opens, Beard's fifth marriage, to a beautiful wife 19 years his junior, is fracturing. He's in agony over Patrice's openly flaunted affair with a builder who is remodeling their house in London, sleepless with jealousy: "No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have."

His anger isn't tempered a bit by the fact that, in the five years of their marriage, Patrice has had one affair and he has had 11. His compulsive philandering broke up several of his earlier marriages, but this is the first time a wife has dared to pay him back in kind, and he's flabbergasted.

He's just as arrogantly clueless in his work for a government research center for renewable energy. He's mainly a name on the letterhead, "Nobel laureate" appended. He makes speeches, attracts grants and goes on junkets like an absurd trip to the Arctic Circle with a boatload of artists concerned with global warming — who get to their ship by blasting through the pristine landscape on fume-spewing, habitat-damaging snowmobiles.

Beard is one of those characters who is delicious fun to hate, and McEwan gives us every opportunity, whether it's his ridiculous arctic adventures (overdramatizing an encounter with a polar bear, spending a panicky hour on one of those snowmobiles sincerely believing he has frozen his penis off) or his appalling, spur-of-the-moment decision to frame Patrice's lover for a serious crime (a circumstance that shows dead polar bears can be as dangerous as live ones).

But McEwan has more on his mind than making fun of a pompous fool, or gleefully destroying any illusions we might harbor that someone who is a brilliant scientist (or athlete, or entertainer, or politician, or novelist) is therefore a good person.

It's no coincidence that Beard's work becomes increasingly involved with climate change, or that the potential solution he devises (one meaning of the book's title) is a method that doesn't require any changes in anyone's behavior.

Beard is above all a consumer. He has prodigious appetites, not just for sex but for fame and alcohol and food (since childhood, when his mother "doted on him, and the medium of her love was food"). He eats and drinks to the point of nausea and beyond but is always surprised to see himself naked in the mirror, "a conical pink mess."

But Beard lives, as we all do, in a world where consequences are all too often denied. He conducts his climate-change crusade by flying around in jets and being ferried in lumbering SUVs. He lives mostly in hotel rooms and his mistresses' homes, where he can leave the evidence of his voraciousness behind.

But he does have a home, his own sort of Picture of Dorian Gray, a dank, secret basement flat in a London building that he bought rather than abandon the place, meant to be a way station after his last divorce. Nine years later it's a squalid, stinking mess, piled with unopened mail and filthy dishes, its carpets unswept for years. "Yellowish gray mushrooms were flourishing along a line where the wall met the ceiling in the kitchen."

McEwan is, as always, utterly in control of his story in Solar, placing his revelations and twists for greatest impact. He turns Beard's greedy, combative consumption of a bag of potato chips into a modern parable, the story of the Unwitting Thief: "This was the moment that would remain with him and come to stand for every recalculation he would ever make about his past, every revised or improvised perspective he would ever gain on his own history, his own stupidity and other people's motives." Maybe.

Will Beard ever face a judgment day or will he just devolve into chaos? Here's a hint: His life's trajectory takes him from his aptly named birthplace, Cold Norton, to the hot-as-blazes New Mexico town of Lordsburg, where he thinks he's going to save the world. The consequences are not quite what he expects.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Solar

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pages, $26.95

Review: Ian McEwan's satirical 'Solar' tracks egotistical scientist through the arctic, New Mexico 04/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 12:09pm]

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