In an early scene in “Solar,” the new novel by Booker Prize-winning author Ian McEwan, the main character is snowmobiling across the Arctic tundra when he realizes he has to relieve himself. He stops, does his business, and then discovers to his horror that a key body part has frozen to his zipper, exposed to the subzero elements.
Let’s stop and repeat — Booker Prize- winning author.
After a few moments of panic, he frees himself using a flask of scotch. Then, in agony, as he mounts the snowmobile, he feels a horrible tearing in his groin, and feels what McEwan describes as a two-inch, cylindrical object slide down the inside of his snow pants. (Don’t worry. Turns out, it’s just his lip balm.)
It was at this point in “Solar” that I was wondering — is this really the same guy who wrote “Atonement”? Did I misread the cover type, and “Solar” is really written by some bawdy comedienne named Jan McEwan?
No, this is really Ian McEwan, and “Solar” does contain his trademark gorgeous sentences and elegantly perceptive characterizations. What “Solar” also has that may throw some readers is a consistent and sometimes even raunchy sense of humor. Hey, we’re just talking about the end of the world as we know it here. No need to get all glum about it!
The protagonist of “Solar” is Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is the marquee name at a British scientific institute aimed at finding ways to combat global warming and come up with forms of renewable energy.
He is also an absolutely horrible human being. He’s completely arrogant at work, despite the fact that he’s been coasting on that Nobel Prize for the past 30 years or so, basically showing up at the research institute once a week for his paycheck. And he’s a serial womanizer, currently on his fifth wife, on whom he’s cheated on approximately 11 times in the course of their five-year marriage. But when his wife, Patrice, takes a lover of her own, he’s outraged and filled with self-pity.
His professional and personal lives intersect when he comes home from that Arctic expedition and finds his wife in bed with one of his ambitious underlings at the think tank. What happens next provides Beard with a golden opportunity to do what he does best; claim the moral high ground without doing anything moral, and gain all the accolades without doing anything noteworthy.
And yet, McEwan is too good a writer to ever just condemn one of his characters; he revels in complexity and contradictions. We sort of like Beard even as we stand by, horrified, as he tries to rationalize one piece of selfish behavior after another.
If anything, Beard’s approach to life is much like the human race’s approach to global warming; yes, yes, we know we should do the right thing, but it’s just so much easier to keep indulging ourselves and just hope everything will turn out fine. One more quail’s egg, or one more coal-burning power plant, can’t really hurt, can it?
One of the satirical undercurrents of the novel is that most of the do-gooders in the novel think of the fight against global warming in terms of how it will affect their own careers. When a nervous colleague expresses fears that a climate denier may be right, Beard coolly lists all the scientific reasons that global warming is a real, viable threat, and then adds, “Toby, it’s a catastrophe. Relax.”
Which is not to say that McEwan is at all skeptical about the science. He’s just skeptical about us.