Solar

– photo by Annalena McAfee

Solar does something I didn’t think possible: it makes global warming suspenseful.

As something we all live with, and read about in the paper every day, climate change is mostly background noise. Documentaries and non-fiction books, or perhaps an alarmist thriller by Michael Chrichton, are better venues, or so it would seem, for presenting the planet’s rush to doom.

But Ian McEwan – author of literary page-turners Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach – has taken the abstract concept of planetary crisis and turned it into a smart, impossible-to-put-down read.

He does this through Michael Beard, a weak-willed physicist who, at the beginning of Solar (Knopf Canada, hardcover, 283 pps) is coasting on the Nobel Peace Prize he won years earlier for his contribution to physics, a theory expanding on that of Einstein. But the Beard we meet is long past his prime – this Beard is corpulent (this is a good book to read if you’re on a cleanse), borderline alcoholic, lazy, womanizing. And those are his good qualities.

When Beard’s private and public lives intertwine, and fate comes along to throw him a curveball in the form of his fifth wife’s infidelities, Solar begins to take a recognizably McEwan-esque (though still unpredictable) shape. In true McEwan form, his protaganist takes the easy way out, capitalizing on an accident in such a way that benefits him but will inevitably bring all the birds home to roost (almost literally). As McEwan (in Beard’s voice) writes, “The past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.”

Many of McEwan’s themes are here – the art of storytelling, what it means to be a man in the 21st century, how ambition and success are at odds with virtue and decency, the role of art and science in our lives. I loved a later passage that describes how Beard seduced his first wife, a student of John Milton, by spending a week brushing up on Milton – something an arts student, he believes, could never do with physics.

And I find McEwan to be one of the most on-the-mark contemporary authors in his descriptions of everything from science to art to the grimy industrial wasteland that is this here modern society: “Now a fresh tilt of the aircraft’s wings turned him into the sunlight and a view of west London and…the microscopic airport, and around it, the arterial feeds, and traffic pulsing down them like corpuscles, M4, M25, M40, the charmless designations of a hard-headed age.” “A hard-headed age”; how beautifully precise. (Although less generous readers might suggest these are less the protagonist’s thoughts than the author’s.)

While the grinding, inexorable wheels of fate are the engine that keeps us wanting to learn of the next catastrophe to befall the unlovable Mr. Beard, it is this character’s faults that gives Solar its human complexity. Because Beard is one of McEwan’s greatest creations – a man whom most readers will hate to love. It is his cynicism, moral turpitude and his own climate changes – Solar spans 15 years, 1995-2009 – that is the book’s most rewarding, and fun, aspect.

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