Ian McEwan’s “Solar” swirls with a vortex of false narratives. The hapless hero, Michael Beard, is a physicist at the book’s beginning in 2000 who is brooding over the ruins of his fifth marriage. He is a Nobel Laureate, coasting on the accomplishments of his youth and seemingly doomed to playing out the string of his life by gaining weight, taking teaching positions and engaging in research of little distinction.
But that’s only the truth of his position. Beard senses his wife’s infidelity, so he fabricates a lover of his own, and the damage is done. Through a typical series of McEwanesque calamities, he pins a murder on another man, uses a dead man’s research as his own, and ultimately in entangled with a woman who fabricates her own lover to tease him. Any character’s individual honesty is only as good as their least elegantly told lie.
But all of these fictions point to something else - one of the grand narratives of our time - global warming. The idea that human consumption of energy is slowly but inevitably heating the atmosphere and will have catastrophic effects on human life is accepted by the scientific community but dismissed by much of the public as either an elaborate hoax or the kind of doomsday scenario scientists dream up for more government funding.
McEwan’s aim - to write a novel “about” global warming - seems a task tailor made for him. McEwan’s supple prose has been used before in illustrating, through fiction, the beauty of science. His usual combination of macabre happenstance and an appreciation for the comic in the human condition are up to the task here. But instead of writing a big, important novel about the dangers of consumption, McEwan has written a comic novel so subtle and enjoyable that his message, if he intended one, might be totally unrecognized.
McEwan slyly plays on the public’s skepticism about global warming to construct a story about false stories. And over ten years time, we follow Beard as his false stories grow through his career, his relationships, and his objectives. But we are aware, even as he is not, that none of these stories will last forever. The truth will not be held at bay indefinitely. Men framed for murder eventually leave jail. Jilted lovers will not be ignored. Plagiarism will out. A lifetime of junk food, alcohol and sedentary living will eventually choke the heart. McEwan leaves the parallel there, untouched, for the reader to pick up - that global warming can’t be ignored forever. Eventually, all the doubters will have to acknowledge they were wrong. But will it be too late by then? This is a playful invitation to believe, and quite refreshing. As someone who is dubious of the doomsday claims myself, I found his “argument” strangely compelling.
This isn’t a book of long sermons in the service of Al Gore-like hysteria. Instead, even as Beard gives speeches and engages in conversations about the dangers of global warming, he is thinking about his next meal, his insistent nausea, his lover. This is quite a journey, since at the book’s beginning, Beard is an indifferent, slightly skeptical believer in the truth of our rising temperatures. Predictably for McEwan, the book’s devout believer is a crank - a brilliant crank whose research Beard appropriates after the man’s untimely and convenient death.
Beard, our “hero,” reminds one of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the character in John Updike’s famous tetralogy on American life. Rabbit grows thick around the middle and hastens his own demise through his self indulgence and indifference to the consequences of his actions. It is Beard’s self-satisfaction that keeps this book grounded, as he leaps from lover to lover, trying to stay ahead of time itself, inventing his own explanations that only serve a little while. He even notices this himself, and is amused by it:
“At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short-and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.”
McEwan is an atheist, which makes his book that much more interesting, because he has created a book about belief. Michael Beard doesn’t believe in global warming until it suits him, but we aren’t sure he believes so much as he wants to wrap himself in something that will make others believe in him. He clings to his image even as it deserts him, and at book’s end reaches out for the touch of the toddler daughter he was a second before ready to abandon. He doesn’t need rising oceans to signal the end of the world - he unwittingly brings it on himself.