Solar

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

304 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Robert Rorke


Imagine the late British comedian Benny Hill as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and you have Michael Beard, the protagonist of Ian McEwan's novel

Solar

.

A roly-poly Romeo with five failed marriages - they failed because of Beard's infidelities - Michael is the sort of narcissist who ranks his wives like steaks he might have ordered and consumed, even though he's in such bad shape that he hasn't been able to touch his toes in eight years.

Patrice, he remembers, was "the only beautiful wife he had ever had. The other four had missed beauty by millimeters - a nose too narrow, a mouth too wide, a minimally defective or recessive chin or forehead - and they had appealed, these lesser wives, only from a particular perspective, or by an effort of will or imagination."

It is one of the peculiar (and not believable) conceits of Solar that its female characters, whether university-educated or waiting tables in the New Mexico desert, keep hurling themselves like Frisbees at this corpulent Casanova. McEwan establishes Beard as an anti-stud on page one: "He belonged to that class of men . . . who were unaccountably attracted to certain beautiful women. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue."

These days, many men writing novels and films (e.g., Judd Apatow) try their damnedest to sell the burned-out blob or male jalopy as a sex/love object. Jeff Bridges just won an Oscar for his work in Crazy Heart, in which he played a grizzled, guitar-playing wreck whom gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal chose over all other men.

The difference is that Bridges' country-western crooner had a heart. Michael Beard has none. In the first third of the novel, we realize he is amoral and cowardly. He can sleep at night for decades even though he has willingly let an innocent man go to jail for a murder he didn't commit. We expect his comeuppance to be mighty, final, blistering.

You will have to set your snooze alarm waiting for it, though.

There is enough wind blowing through McEwan's elliptical and elegantly constructed paragraphs, with their glittering subordinate clauses, to power the turbines that his global-warming geeks think will save the planet. You can see McEwan stalling, as if he knows he hasn't got quite enough plot for his story. He doesn't let the novel fall apart entirely - the end is very satisfying - but much of it is turgid and shows that technique can never replace a good narrative engine.

Solar takes place over nine years, and although McEwan loyalists may cry heresy, it's fair to say the story is dull. Beard, who readily admits his best years are behind him, enjoys the worship of colleagues who write him big checks to show up and be himself at conferences and other professional appearances. "Some twenty-five years ago, I received the Nobel Prize for modifying Einstein's photovoltaics," he explains.

But he doesn't even believe in his own glory. He wonders: "Must he give forever the same lecture series about his one small contribution, sit on committees, be a Presence?" To save himself from himself, he hops on the solar-energy bandwagon and lobbies to get big business to finance artificial photosynthesis as a means of creating fuel. There is much eye-glazing talk of fossil fuels and climate change, a fair amount of speechifying by satirical figures from the environmental movement, and a conference in the Arctic.

McEwan maintains an intentionally amused distance from his characters, but only when he celebrates Beard's buffoonery is this novel, advertised as "comic," at all funny. A hilarious moment finds Beard relieving himself in the subzero Arctic and watching, horror-struck, as his penis becomes affixed to his ice-cold zipper. When he feels something snap off inside his cold-weather gear, Beard is understandably more panicked than your average Joe.

Ian McEwan has written many fine novels, such as the suspenseful Enduring Love and the macabre The Comfort of Strangers, in which the reader is seduced into believing strange situations that might, in the hands of a less confident storyteller, not quite add up. And he could retire on the strength of Atonement and still be considered Britain's top contemporary novelist. His legion of admirers has been waiting for another book as resonant and heartbreaking as that one.

Next time, McEwan should write about something he really cares about, instead of tossing off literary exercises such as Solar.

Robert Rorke (plaza39@mac.com) is a writer living in New York.