There’s a great novella hiding inside Ian McEwan’s 11th novel, Solar. Delivered in three acts—demarcated by the years 2000, 2005, and 2009—Solar spans this century’s first decade under the flabby wing of its Nobel Prize-winning wannabe-hero, Michael Beard. Beard is a glommer, a consumer, a microcosmic stand-in for modern humanity, with his greatest achievement (the Prize) awarded to him for a kind of hybrid re-appropriation of a half-idea left behind by Albert Einstein. (His sole triumph is, in fact, a hyphenate called the Beard-Einstein Conflation.) He’s a multiple offender in pursuits as various as cuisine, romance, and physical fitness. He’s fat, sexist, and self-involved, a globe unto himself, with energy and goodwill in steep decline, and by the end of the novel, entirely exasperating.
That great potential novella is spread across parts one and two of the novel as it stands. Beard’s snowmobile jaunt in the Arctic Circle to meet up with various “climate-change artists” to drink vast amounts of Libyan wine and mingle with penguin sculptors is epically staged. Scenes of Beard en route in fogged-up goggles and countless layers of thermal outerwear attempting to unwrap himself for a simple piss in the wind, or trying to fight off the anarchic boot-room bathed in slush and compromised by secret thieves, are simply hilarious and artful. Part two adds a lengthy episode involving a snack-sized bag of salt-and-vinegar chips and a train ride that somehow evokes both Proust’s famed madeleine and Seinfeld’s George Costanza. In these moments, McEwan is on a roll. Beard is equal parts Mr. Hulot and Inspector Clouseau, a Nobel-lauded bumbler we can root for.
In his earlier novel Saturday, McEwan whittled events down to a single day, yet infused the proceedings with thoroughly researched ruminations on neuroscience that never entirely interrupted the momentum of what was, at heart, a domestic thriller. By contrast, Solar is McEwan’s big-issue book tackling our collective fate at the turn of the century, not in a day but sprawled over a decade, and with an odd, comic wink—a kind of climatologist’s Confederacy Of Dunces with its own chubby scheming genius at the center. Yet the comic and the cosmic never fuse properly in Solar. It congeals, like leftover portions of the exhaustively described meals Beard consumes page after page.
In the end, readers are left waiting for the redemption of the unredeemable, with Beard literally picking over yet another breaded meat on a pale plate in an anonymous restaurant in New Mexico, his past about to converge to consume him. The jokes have run out, and Earth’s fate hangs in the balance. Somehow feeling simultaneously stuffed and hungry, the novel ends with all the satisfaction of waiting around for a check that never comes.