Thursday, March 3, 2011

SOLAR by Ian McEwan

Michael Beard is middle-aged and overweight, has a Nobel Prize, and shouldn't have to be an Einstein to figure out that he has no business spending a week in the Arctic. However, he needs a boondoggle that will help him recover from the cuckolding he has received from wife #5, and a global warming expedition sounds like just the ticket. Two hilarious episodes follow and almost make this book a worthwhile read, but it peaks too early. Then we're saddled with witnessing more of Beard's incredibly bad and selfish decisions, even as he becomes more seriously involved in the development of solar power using simulated photosynthesis. His goal, though, is not saving the planet but rather restoring his hallowed position in the annals of science. If he has to plagiarize an underling's work and frame his wife's lover for murder to get there, then so be it. Truth and integrity have to take a back seat to his ambition. He's able to rationalize his behavior because the people he's burned are either pretty despicable themselves, and, in Beard's mind, deserving of their fate, or dead. As a reader, I like to see an unlikable character like Beard either reformed or crushed by the consequences of his actions. In this case, his house of cards collapses just as he's on the brink of achieving the success and recognition that he craves. I'd actually prefer to be uplifted by some sort of hope for this sad specimen of a man, especially since his work is vital to our survival, and there's only the palest glimmer of too-late redemption in the final sentence. Whether or not the planet will ultimately be preserved is still an open question, and if our salvation is in the hands of the Michael Beards of the world, the outcome does not look promising at all.

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