Michael Beard is a slob. An alcoholic, womanising Nobel physicist who, when we first meet him in 2000, is heading up an alternative technologies research project in which he has no real interest he is preoccupied by the fact that his fifth wife, Patrice, no longer loves him and is having an affair with their builder.
The novel explores the gap between the chaotic private man and his public image and the plot revolves around the way in which the private chaos, over the ten years of the noughties that the novel charts, undoes the public man.
Much is made of the comedy of this novel, although it is not in any way comic: the denouement is in fact tragic, and Beards inability to change his behaviour, to exit the cynical feedback loop of his thinking, proves to be his fatal undoing. There are some brilliant comic set-pieces, however a sub-zero accident on a polar research trip in which Beards penis becomes frozen to his zipper provides one of several laugh-out-loud moments.
The contemporary issue of climate change provides context, in much the same way that the anti-war protest did in Saturday. But this novel is not Political with a large P. The main scientific issues are laid out (sometimes somewhat clunkily) but there is no sense of the novelist taking sides on the debate, or trying to proselytise, rather, and more interestingly, this novel is about the personal political. Beards slobishness, his inability to change, go to the gym, eat less, be more faithful, is mapped onto the scientific material. Beards personal atrophy reflects something of the intransigence of the wider culture that despite knowing we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels, we maintain a rapacious rate of consumption, while realising we must make radical, collective self-sacrificing lifestyle changes, we still jump in our cars and eat at the drive-thru. Beard entertains thoughts of personal change, but lacks the will to effect them and ends up gorging on whiskey, wine and women (and in another wonderful set piece, crisps) thus furthering his own sense of hopeless self-disgust and bringing on himself the inevitable chaos of the denouement.
The old McEwan concerns are here too the fascination with science, which sometimes leads to some very clunky passages of telling, and an inability to write women. McEwan has none of the priapic belligerence of Martin Amis, who always seems to be whining about the fact that women dont understand him; rather McEwan just cant write them. He shows a much clearer grasp of the issues between the sexes, which was one of the triumphs of On Chesil Beach, but he fails to realise women as people on the page. They exist as ciphers to the main event without much of a sense that they are real people, in contrast to the men, who are always vivid, 3D creations. And although the women in Solar are not as awful as the risible Clarissa Mellon in Enduring Love, they still move stiffly across the page and act and speak in ways that seem to undermine the veracity of the story.
Solar has a surprisingly emotional ending and Beards final disgrace, though richly deserved, is full of pathos. This is classic McEwan too, showing the short story writers instinct to keep everything for the last line. As a portrait of our times, of the way in which Climate Change with all its bad and good science and predictions of human annihilation have dominated the headlines, this is a real novel of the moment and is much more engaged and contemporary than much else that is currently published. And the nugget of truth to take away from it is that really, there is no one to blame but ourselves.