Much of Ian McEwan’s accomplished fiction hinges on the damage caused by misperceptions: the false accusation at the center of Atonement, the unspoken anxieties that doom the newlyweds in On Chesil Beach. In his engrossing dark comedy, Solar, these destructive misperceptions take the form of a chronic case of selfdelusion on the part of its central character, Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a remarkably messy personal life.
When Solar opens in the year 2000, Beard is mired in an obsessive attempt to lure his fifth wife, Patrice, back into his good graces—and his bed. A serial philanderer who freely admits he has engaged in 11 affairs during this five-year marriage, Beard professes his enduring love for his wife, although it seems more a case of sexual desire. In retaliation, Patrice has taken her own lover, a loutish house contractor named Tarpin, who is physically abusive and dangerously possessive.
Beard is so preoccupied by his marital troubles that he neglects his professional commitments at the National Centre for Renewable Energy, a government research facility that places great value in having Britain’s renowned Nobel Laureate on its letterhead. In fact, since winning the prize two decades before, Beard has coasted on his early fame and made no significant contribution to his field. He has grown complacent and arrogant with age, his intellectual torpor matched by his increasing physical corpulence.
With typical condescension, Beard offhandedly dismisses the professional overtures of a young associate, Tom Aldous, who believes the Beard-Einstein Conflation can be pushed further, leading to a radical new way of creating energy from water. Beard refuses even to look at the younger scientist’s calculations. When he later returns early from a week-long trip he has taken to the Arctic in order to witness the effects of global warming firsthand—a mishap-filled adventure that provides some of the best comic fodder in the book—Beard discovers that Aldous has become Patrice’s newest lover. Their confrontation goes terribly wrong, but Beard artfully manipulates a bad situation to his professional and personal advantage.
Fast forward five years, and Beard has risen to new professional heights. Having deigned at last to look at Aldous’ calculations, he discovers the brilliance of the younger man’s ideas. Appropriating them as his own, Beard now claims ownership of a trove of valuable patents that might form the basis of a new energy source that could save the world. The aging scientist, now almost 60, is also involved in a new love affair, with a 40-year-old woman who loves him unconditionally—a state of affairs that he himself finds somewhat inexplicable. Melissa wants to have a baby, an untenable situation that Beard laments will bring their affair to an end. Four years later, in 2009, things have not turned out as he envisaged, and Beard has been forced to integrate new, somewhat discomforting matters of the heart into his self-centered existence. Still, a newfound domesticity does not preclude Beard’s continuing misbehavior and pattern of infidelities. His latest conquest is a middle-aged waitress—outsized in every way—in the small New Mexico town where he will launch his revolutionary solar power system. But Beard’s snowballing self-deceptions are about to catch up with him, as all of the elements of his disorderly life, transgressions past and present, converge in the desert, and conspire to finally knock him off his self-erected throne of entitlement.
There is an implicit irony in Beard’s chosen specialization, an irony underscored by the title of the novel. For just as the sun is central to Earth’s survival—and here provides the solution to its current and future problems—so too does Beard, in his own mind, sit at the center of the only world that matters: his own. He remains unmoved by the unfortunate deaths, broken hearts, ruined careers and destroyed lives that lie in the wake of his life’s path. With his customary clarity of perception and adeptness at the well-constructed plot, Ian McEwan invites us to contemplate a man who could save the world, and yet cannot make right his own life. In our age of self-deceiving celebrities and politicians, it is not so hard to imagine.