Five years ago, Ian McEwan published Saturday, a novel in which a man of science is made to symbolize everything that is noble and worth defending about our civilization. Henry Perowne, the main character, is not only a brilliant neurosurgeon but a doting husband and father and a man of honor. In the novel's climactic scene—a classic example of McEwan's manipulative horror—he must defend his home and family against a criminal who is suffering from a degenerative brain disease. It is a fable of reason against unreason, written at a time when London was still reeling from an attack by religious fanatics, and McEwan allows his hero to triumph, with strength but also with compassion. (Having subdued the intruder, Perowne goes to the hospital to perform a life-saving operation on him.) If the West can produce a man like Henry Perowne, McEwan seems to say, there is hope for us yet.
What are we to make, then, of a civilization that can produce Michael Beard, the scientist at the center of McEwan's new novel, Solar? Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who has devoted his middle age to solving the climate change crisis by inventing a new form of artificial photosynthesis—in short, a hero for our times. He is also, as McEwan delights in showing us, a total bastard: a liar, adulterer, thief, bad citizen, bad father, and to top things off, a compulsive eater of salt-and-vinegar potato chips:
"The trick," he explains, "was to set the fragment on the centre of the tongue and, after a moment's spreading sensation, push the potato up hard to shatter against the roof of the mouth. His theory was that the rigid irregular surface caused tiny abrasions in the soft flesh into which salt and chemicals poured, creating a mild and distinctive pleasure-pain."
This is a very scientific way to eat chips (or crisps), and a very McEwan-like way to write about it. Martin Amis' antiheroes are as devoted to junk food, and sex and alcohol, as Beard. But for Amis, all these vices are the occasion for grotesque, Hogarthian satire. McEwan, on the other hand, has always been a cool, clinical writer. When Beard, just before delivering a talk, wolfs down nine smoked-salmon sandwiches ("he was not at the moment truly hungry, but he was, in his own term, pre-hungry") and then spends the whole speech struggling with the urge to vomit, McEwan seems to be setting up a pretty broad and familiar kind of joke. But when he writes of the "stagnant estuary, decaying gaseously in his gut," the "bloated carcass within his own … odiously stirring," the "fishy reflex rising from his gorge, like salted anchovies, with a dash of bile," it is not laughter the reader fights to keep down, but a sympathetic gag reflex.
Throughout Solar, Beard inspires this same unsettling mixture of humor and disgust. When the novel opens, in the year 2000, he seems a pitiable figure. It has been decades since he won the Nobel, for something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation, and at age 53 he has settled into the routine life of a scientific administrator. He can hardly be bothered to feign interest in the work of the Centre for Renewable Energy, of which he is the nominal chief. All his own energy goes into the debacle of his fifth marriage: His wife Patrice is openly having an affair with a builder named Tarpin in retaliation for Beard's prolific womanizing.
The clearest sign of Beard's cynicism is the way he refuses to listen to Tom Aldous, a young postdoc at the Centre with all the passion and brilliance he himself has lost. Aldous is convinced that, using Beard's Conflation (which McEwan, wisely, does not attempt to explain), he can devise a way of producing cheap, unlimited solar power. The friendlier and more idealistic Aldous seems, however, the more he disgusts Beard:
"There were novels Aldous wanted him to read—novels!—and developments in contemporary music he thought Beard should be aware of, and movies that were of particular relevance, documentaries about climate change which Aldous had seen at least twice but would happily see again if there was a chance of making the Chief sit through them too."
It is a sign of McEwan's comic skill that he makes us sympathize with Beard's irritation at the very idea of reading a novel, while we are—of course—reading a novel. McEwan has always declared, no doubt a little mischievously, his preference for the sciences over the humanities. Later in Solar, a flashback shows us Beard at college, wooing his first wife by faking an interest in Milton and discovering how much easier it is to bullshit about literature than about physics:
"The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half an intelligence could not understand. … And yet they passed themselves off as his intellectual superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him. No longer … he was intellectually free."
It takes a careful reader to detect McEwan's irony inside Beard's irony, to remember that this tirade against literature is delivered by a character who is himself, the reader comes to learn, an intellectual fraud. It would spoil the book to reveal any of McEwan's carefully plotted twists—how Beard wriggles free of the personal and professional traps that surround him only to find himself, in the end, on the brink of even worse calamities. Longtime readers of McEwan know how skilled he is at producing disasters from the ordinary, the way a magician pulls a bunny from a hat. They will recognize that when McEwan casually mentions a slippery rug in the first few pages of Solar, it is the equivalent of Chekhov's loaded gun in the first act.