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'Solar' Powered by Accidents

'Solar' by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese)

Michael Beard’s life is a series of contradictions. He is a Nobel Laureate, but also a scientific fraud. He is the chief of a climate research center, but doesn’t believe in global warming. Riding on the coattails of his own youthful contribution to Einstein’s groundbreaking work, Beard is thoroughly dissatisfied with his life and disillusioned with the society that continues to laud him for the sole professional achievement he made decades ago. Ian McEwan’s latest novel introduces Beard just as his fifth marriage is dissolving, when an accident provides him with a final chance at personal and professional redemption as an advocate for the health of the planet. While providing a comedic portrait of global warming as a political issue, “Solar” is also an exploration of man’s ability to guide his own life in the modern world.

At the outset of “Solar,” Beard is neither a champion of alternative energy nor persuaded by the dire warnings about rising seas and melting ice. Beard refuses to be won over by the emotional appeals and mass hysteria about a phenomenon that has little immediate impact on his daily life. As one of Beard’s mistresses laments, to take action against global warming “would be to think about it all the time,” something that “daily life would not permit.” But when he is presented with the opportunity to regain his former professional glory as a champion of solar power and the global warming movement, Beard conveniently forgets these concerns and finds his faith in climate change.

As in “Atonement” and “Saturday,” McEwan employs a series of seemingly random accidents to set his characters on paths that they would not have otherwise contemplated. The main accident in “Solar” is a sudden and unforeseen death that enables Beard to recast himself as a friend of the environment. But “Solar” complicates the theme of accidental change that McEwan returns to so often by incorporating a new idea of willful self-deception. Though Beard believes that “barring accidents, life does not change,” he is constantly going through self-imposed reincarnations of his character. Beard is unaware of these changes in himself because he is able to convince himself that his new persona always existed.

With each chapter, Beard discards the unwanted pieces of his former life in order to strive for some higher plane of personal or professional achievement. Beard is “a man of science” with “an automatic respect for internal consistency.” He knows truth to be “impregnable,” but he also knows that he can abandon his old life in order to inhabit his own reality. Beard believes that after learning “the tricks of managing, of simply being” he will reach “the calm plateau” where he will finally be content. But as he progresses through life, Beard is frustrated with the “pseudo-work” he uses “to mask his irrelevance” and is “well aware of the singularity by which the tiny vehicle of his talent, a child’s tricycle say, had hitched a ride behind the juggernaut of a world historical genius.” Beard’s whole life has been spent unsuccessfully trying to surpass his youthful self who captivated the world with his brilliant achievements.

The futility inherent to Beard’s personal quest for fulfillment and professional crusade against global warming is personified in his own bodily decay. Beard, the lifelong womanizer, neglects his body against his better judgment and the repeated urging of his doctors. Repeated resolutions to lose weight, exercise, and cut back on his daily drinking fall by the wayside as the vinegary scent of potato chips, cool sensation of a scotch-on-the-rocks, and plush comfort of a hotel bed overwhelm Beard’s reptilian brain. This subtle allusion to the problems inherent in collective action against global warming is the site of McEwan’s true argument on the issue. While “Solar” incorporates amusing jabs at hippie environmentalists communing with nature, McEwan is clearly concerned with man’s inability to unite in the face of common adversity, regardless of whether that includes the melting arctic ice.

As “Solar” comes to a close, Beard is forced to confront the various deceptions and half-truths that have defined his life. A chameleon, Beard nevertheless begins to lose control of his relationships, of the image he projects on the world, and of his own beliefs and emotions. The man who shunned commitment and love in favor of status, pleasure, and freedom realizes that the only true solace resides in the personal relationships that endure life’s changes. McEwan’s writing becomes increasingly fatalistic and forlorn as the novel progresses, and Beard realizes that even the “highest ambitions” cannot save him from “another night of unmemorable insomnia.” The environment of “Solar” is populated with miserable individuals who enjoy employment without understanding their purpose, and who embrace causes unprepared and unable to make a difference. Through Beard, McEwan hints that satisfaction is derived from the daily accomplishment of one’s own goals, rather than a perpetual search for a better future. But while living in the moment might allow for immediate happiness, it prevents the reflection necessary for addressing problems of the future, whether that problem is global warming or finding a companion in life.

—Staff writer Eric M. Sefton can be reached at esefton@fas.harvard.edu.

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