Michael Beard, the physicist at the center of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, is a flabby, foul, oft-divorced husband and unforgiving cheat. He has a “curtain-swag of fat” that hangs below his armpits and “human blubber” where his abs once were.
Although his Nobel Prize still, inexplicably, succeeds in getting him laid, he is intellectually spent. “He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark,” Mr. McEwan writes, adding, “He had no new ideas.”
As painful as it is to say out loud, reading Mr. McEwan’s new potboiler, Solar, about global warming, made me wonder whether the same fate has befallen one of Great Britain’s great novelists.
After Atonement, I, like millions of other people, became McEwan-obsessed. Amsterdam, in 1998, about a music composer and his small-town newspaper nemesis, impressed me, but Atonement, which came three years later, astonished. The book’s twisting, multigenerational plot set in Europe between the two world wars was heart-tugging—the movie version less so—and the teen love story felt like a Twilight for the smart set. When my wife and I spotted the real-life Mr. McEwan at a bistro in central London a few years back, I was too star-struck to say hello.
But then came Saturday, a post-9/11 novel that was praised for the way it showed how the terrorist attack had wormed its way into our psyche. That much was true. The first half of the book, in which Mr. McEwan’s heart-surgeon protagonist deals with the fallout from watching a crippled airplane streak across the sky, captured the paranoia that came in the wake of the terror attacks and the wars that followed. All of us were traumatized, no matter where we lived, and Mr. McEwan’s surgeon was our stand-in for how nothing about our own lives would ever be the same.
But then things got terribly pulpy. A thug who had been in a traffic scrape with the surgeon comes back to torment the doctor and his family, only to be disarmed when the surgeon’s daughter recites a poem (!) that softens his cold heart. The brilliant stylist and dramatist behind Atonement had rendered an ending that seemed more at home in a Lifetime movie.
Solar suffers the same fate. This time, the ripped-from-the-headlines story centers on the physicist Mr. Beard, a global warming doomsayer dreaming that his advances in renewable solar energy can revive a tired career.
The subject tees up some remarkable McEwan set pieces, including a dream-sequence standoff with a bully on a train and a four-page riff on what’s it’s like to look down on your hometown from an airplane stuck in a holding pattern. “We appeared, at this height, like a spreading lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mold enveloping a soft fruit,” he writes, in a passage that is more compelling than it might sound here.
Mr. Beard is a pathetic character, a too-smart loser who brings to mind the meticulously conceived surgeon in Saturday. Fair enough. But once again, the juicy background source material about an end to the world is eclipsed by a dumb domestic story line that dwells at length on a cheating Mr. Beard and his cheating wife, sometimes to absurd ends.
At one point, Mr. Beard discovers one of her lovers at the family home. Trying to escape, the man trips on a polar-bear rug (global warming, get it?), hits his head and dies. But the death provides an opportunity. Mr. Beard, desperate to climb out of a deepening oblivion, steals his big ideas for how to cheaply produce energy from the sun.
Other stuff happens that is, frankly, beneath Mr. McEwan. Mr. Beard’s frozen penis melds with his zipper during a research trip to the tundra; some bad fish gives him diarrhea during a speech to an industry conference; and a wholly predictable pregnancy comes when he knocks up one of his lovers.
The novel ends in the New Mexico desert, of all places, where Mr. Beard is set to show off his solar-power ideas. Once again, the novelist captures the feel of the place (I grew up in El Paso, where some of the pivotal action takes place), but the plot lines are hackneyed. Mr. Beard’s showy demonstration is foiled, for instance, when one of his ex-wife’s lovers emerges from prison to avenge his wrongful imprisonment. These are villains that belong in a Coen brothers movie, not an Ian McEwan novel.
Saturday made me think that Mr. McEwan may be one of those writers who is better dealing with the past than the present. Modern-day characters and events don’t play to his style, which, at its best, is epic and gauzy.
Solar has me convinced of it. This novelist has no business playing with the tawdry and the everyday. He’s built to think bigger than that.