Beard’s Women, or, the Problem with Ian McEwan’s “Solar” (2010)

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) has received mixed reviews, and for good reason. It’s a novel that starts with remarkable strength. Unlike Adam Roberts, over at The Valve, I found the novel’s Arctic penis-freezing-and-possible-castration set piece somewhat funny, in a South Parkish sort of way; although I must, only somewhat proudly, admit to the utter baseness of my sense of humor. But after a strong start (which could almost serve as a stand-alone novella), Solar quickly peters out, dissipating much of the momentum it builds in its first part. The remainder of the novel is only intermittently successful as a satire of the global warming debate. Writing for the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer describes the novel ably as "a mash-up of the Hampstead adultery novel and a conflation of the Bradbury/Lodge academic satire, with the merest dash of politics (George W, New Labour spin), and a side order of the trusty McEwan standby of violence." "Merest dash" is absolutely right.

Told in three parts, Solar narrates the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel prize winning physicist whose best days are behind him. Riding off the fumes of his Prize, he floats from one occasional position to another, giving speeches, cashing in his cultural capital. He is also a global warming skeptic who is invited to become part of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, which is dedicated to spearheading technological solutions to climate change. As we might expect of McEwan, various complicated plot developments ensue. By the end of the novel, Beard — who becomes a believer in the reality of anthropogenic climate change — has stolen the work of a colleague at the Centre, has created his own solar cell start-up, which will deploy a new generation of solar cells in New Mexico, and stands on the cusp of his greatest triumph, a worthy followup to his brilliant earlier work. Things, as you might expect, don’t work out so well for Beard. The façade of fraud he has built his success upon threatens to crush him under its tremendous weight. And it does, in a kind of creaking or mechanical way.

The main problem with the book is Beard. As many others have noted, Solar is only indirectly about global warming, though McEwan slips in his own relatively uninteresting, New Labourish views of the debate. (Spoiler alert: The market and technology will save the day!). McEwan’s real concern is apparent in his novel’s first line: “He belonged to that class of men — vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever — who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.” Solar is really about Beard’s myriad farcical relationships with beautiful women, all of whom find him unaccountably attractive. Indeed, we never witness Beard being clever. The account of the seduction of his first wife — his decision to learn about Milton in order to impress her — comes across as flat and unconvincing. In the immortal terms of creative writing teachers everywhere, one wishes McEwan would do a little more “showing” and a little less “telling” about Beard’s charm, wit, and appeal.

Why does this matter? It matters because Solar‘s plot depends on whether or not we believe in the truth of the novel’s first line. That is, McEwan’s failure to “show” matters because the crescendo of the novel stages the collision of two of Beard’s women, his only child, and his solar cell project in New Mexico. By the end of the novel, one wonders why anyone would want to have anything to do with Beard. His behavior is so self-destructive, his decisions so ridiculously implausible, his grotesque fatness so disgustingly rendered, that one cannot help but conclude that Beard’s women are (1) unaccountably stupid, or (2) caricatures unworthy of our interest or attention.

This is all a backhanded way of saying I wish Solar had actually been a novel about global warming rather than a novel that uses global warming as a backdrop or fashionable context within which to paint the portrait of a boorish, narcissistic, and unrepentant protagonist. Not that I have any problems with representing “unsympathetic” characters in fiction. The problem is, even accepting McEwan’s peripheral interest in global warming, that Beard is not unsympathetic in any interesting ways and that his caddish appeal is unconvincingly rendered. In her sharp blog posting on the novel, Rohan Amanda Maitzen claims that Solar is successful at stimulating the head but not the heart. On the contrary, though I agree that my heart did not much notice Solar, the novel was not particularly successful at stimulating my head, despite its excellent opening section.