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'Solar': McEwan's Coldhearted Scientist Melts Down

Ian McEwan has shown, in novels such as Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam and Enduring Love, that he's a master of turbocharged fiction that explores ethical issues in both the domestic and the global realms. His 14th book, Solar, driven by the debate on global warming, concerns a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who's been coasting for decades in both his personal and professional lives, "a solipsist at heart, and his heart was a nugget of ice."

Michael Beard, whose fifth marriage has melted in the heat of tit-for-tat adultery, becomes convinced that both his and the world's EZPass to renewal is artificial photosynthesis through solar energy. He throws himself into its development for nine years, lining up funding and racking up 17 patents. By novel's end in 2009, he's poised to reap the rewards, when his past and present converge like an interstate pileup.

The problem is, Beard's ideas have been filched without attribution from a dead man. Worse, that dead man was his last wife's lover, a junior colleague at the British National Centre for Renewable Energy, where Beard, courtesy of his Nobel Prize, was nominal director. Worse still, that dead man died in an accident witnessed and abhorrently covered up by Beard.

Sound wild? McEwan guns his narrative engine in the first section, set in 2000. But there are curious detours throughout Solar. There's a riotous story about an expedition to the North Pole with artists, performers and scientists concerned with climate change. It's a trip Beard takes to escape his woes at home — inspired by a similar expedition made by McEwan. Like the lovely long back story about Beard's childhood and first marriage — first published in The New Yorker as "The Use of Poetry" — it feels oddly spliced into the novel.

McEwan has employed sudden narrative shifts before — most dramatically in Atonement, where he jumped from a Merchant-Ivory-worthy country estate to Dunkirk — but the middle of Solar feels in parts like he's either lost his way or run out of gas.

Beard, however, is a noteworthy addition to literature's catalog of self-deluding morally myopic monsters. He's short, fat, bald, obscenely gluttonous, chronically unfaithful, "bristling with academic grandeur" and yet somehow "unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women." Among his sins is inattentiveness, which McEwan nails with the memorable observation that he's "lost patience with the small print of human contact."

Perhaps appropriate for someone so interested in solar energy, Beard is aggressively passive, repeatedly absolving himself of responsibility for his chicanery, his unlivable apartment, his tangled relationships, even his health: he invariably sees decisions as "out of his hands."

As a narrative vehicle Solar suffers from some of the problems with braking and acceleration that have been plaguing Toyota hybrids. But even though not McEwan's best, it still outperforms many competitors in both moral reach and linguistic flair.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.