Vintage, £7.99, 283pp from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Solar, By Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan is not generally known as a writer of laugh-out-loud fiction, but his new novel - inspired by the uncomic subject of climate change - is just that. Eclipsing every other character in the book is his anti-hero, Michael Beard, an exquisitely drawn philanderer who belongs "to that class of men - vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever - who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women." A Nobel- winning physicist who achieved distinction in his youth, Beard has coasted ever since, trailing honorary degrees and prestigious committee appointments in his increasingly rotund wake.
When the novel opens, Beard's fifth marriage is on the rocks. He has had 11 affairs in five years and his beautiful wife, Patrice, has finally gone off with the builder in retaliation. In a bid to woo her back, one night Beard takes to pretending that he too is entertaining a new lover: " He went to the bathroom, ran a tap, flushed the lavatory and laughed out loud. Patrice should know that his lover was a wit." Beard's ego needs stoking on a daily basis, and the loss of any one of his female satellites cuts to the quick.
Serving to distract Beard from his farcical love life is a government appointment to oversee a climate change centre just outside Reading. Renewable energy isn't his field, but it's a fashionable brief. Sent on a research trip to the Arctic to "see global warming for himself", Beard's uncomfortable sojourn with earnest greens yields one of the best jokes of the book - largely involving the Laureate's inability to keep his pants up even in sub-zero conditions.
Unlike his fellow boffins, Beard is weary of worrying about the future of the planet: "A childless man of a certain age at the end of his fifth marriage could afford a touch of nihilism." But, as feckless with his body as mankind is about the planet, his errant behaviour leads him inadvertently to father a child with his new girlfriend, the lovely Melissa. The fact that he's also bedding an American waitress as gloriously greedy as himself adds grist to the novel's abrupt and dramatic end in the New Mexico desert. In previous novels, there has been an artificiality about McEwan's characters that can distance, but Beard and his women are instantly recognisable types - their conversation, love making and meals served up perfectly to the point. Off-puttingly billed as an eco-satire, Solar comes to the rescue of a world over-shadowed by notions of environmental apocolypse. As McEwan shows, living at the end of our days can be an interesting place to be.
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