I like Ian McEwan’s novels. This might not be one of his greatest, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Solar (287 pages, Nan A. TAlese/Doubleday, $26.95) tells the story of a feckless philandering Nobel Prize winner, an overweight, middle-aged physicist who has dedicated himself to find alternative modes of energy production.
The Nobel Prize is well behind Michael Beard, the hero, when the novel opens. In some ways it even embarrasses him—he wonders sometimes whether his earlier ideas aren’t outmoded—but that does not stop him from trading on its value; and several of his sinecures can be directly connected to his stature as a Nobel winner.
When the novel opens, however, Michael is much more obsessed with his (fifth) wife Patrice, who is having an affair with the lummox who did some work for them in their Belsize Park (London) home. Michael is seemingly devastated by his wife’s infidelity, and he hardly feels chastened when she throws his own “eleven affairs in five years” in his face. It seems that our miserable cuckold is himself an incorrigible womanizer, and the novel shows him courting and bedding various women and fantasizing about even more.
He is not a good-looking man, but the novel postulates the notion that there are beautiful women who might want to “rescue” an unfocused intellectual like Michael, and he takes this notion for all its worth. Each wife seems younger and more beautiful than the last; but however perfect, they always part after a few years.
In the course of dealing with Patrice’s infidelity, Michael goes through the motions of running a think tank about alternative fuels, and early in the novel he is thinking about house-based turbines that might change the ways electricity reaches homes. Michael does not really feel this plan is feasible; but he also knows that the government wants results, and constructing a few prototypes seems harmless enough.
One of the brainy post-grads at the think tank, one who seems to know Michael’s earlier work and respect him deeply, tries to persuade him to turn his attention to solar energy. Tom Aldous, the young geeky enthusiast, makes some of the novel’s most impassioned speeches, which form the heart of this bizarre narrative.
When Tom dies, and that is a complicated story in itself, he leaves Michael his various files on solar energy, and when the novel jumps ahead from 2000 to 2009, we now see Michael as a worldwide authority on solar energy with some seventeen different patents. He is himself making impassioned speeches about the power of the sun, and as we hear Tom’s voice in what Michael says, we also recognize that he has left Tom’s name out of all the claims to solar energy that he is making.
This is a sad tale—Michael is almost as grotesque to himself as he becomes to us readers—but it is also a fascinating one. It is compelling about solar energy, of course, almost in spite of itself, but it is also intriguing about the nature of fame and the ways in which intellectual sophistication and personal corruption can go hand in hand.
I know some reviewers have talked about some personal issue McEwan might be working out in this novel. I don’t know enough about his personal life to follow this line of argument, but I would say that the novelist who created this character and situation has thought long and hard about the meaning of fame, about sexual neediness, and about what intellectual property really means.
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