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Solar by Ian McEwan

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SOLAR

By: Ian McEwan.

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 287 pages, $26.95.

Review: Oddly detached, occasionally hilarious, McEwan's latest novel centers on a professor nearing the end of his powers.

A slow fade of heat and light

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 27, 2010 - 2:04 PM

Ian McEwan's novels are more thought than felt -- everything explained -- though this makes them no less real, especially in the case of a character like Michael Beard, the protagonist of "Solar" (on sale Tuesday). Beard, a physicist who some years ago won a Nobel Prize but hasn't done any worthwhile science for decades, is coming to the end of his fifth marriage, not because of his own multiple infidelities but because of his wife's retributive one (or, as it turns out, two). Meanwhile, on the basis of his reputation, he's asked to be the "chief" of a project exploring clean energy alternatives.

There is, as generally happens in McEwan's novels, a schematic way in which all of this -- as well as every other theme involving light and energy and love as a volatile force -- comes together. Beard courts his first wife, a Milton scholar, with his knowledge of that poet's "Light." He takes part in a consortium of artists and scientists (though he turns out to be the only scientist) traveling to the North Pole (almost) to contemplate global warming. And he becomes the proponent of an alternate energy source based on artificial photosynthesis.

The energy in his own life, diminishing as he enters his 60s, goes largely to procuring and satisfying women, though one wonders how Beard, repeatedly described as short, progressively more overweight, balding and largely uninterested in long-term commitments (to say nothing of conversationally bereft), continually attracts younger and lovelier mates; a Nobel, apparently, is an aphrodisiac. Along the way, discussing the dearth of women in physics, he manages to give offense in a situation reminiscent of James Watson's controversial pronouncement on the intelligence of black people.

Somehow, Beard's stolen glory in the solar power project and his duplicitous romantic affairs dovetail in a comeuppance worthy of Kingsley Amis or Evelyn Waugh. It's a peculiar thing -- much, even the fate of the world, is at stake in this story, but because of how it's told, always at one remove, nothing seems to matter; there is none of the immediacy of, say, "Atonement." And yet there are wonderful scenes, comic set pieces -- when Beard, in his North Pole clothing, needs to stop and urinate, for instance; or when he gives in to a craving for chips, only to be flouted by a seatmate on a train -- when it doesn't matter how much you care (or don't): If you're human, it's hilarious.

"People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality," Beard observes at one point. And it is only the squiffiest view that would find McEwan's story too hard, or too cold or too dark.

Ellen Akins is a writer who lives in Cornucopia, Wis.

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