Switch On The Sun

A bald man of a conspicuous girth, squeezed into a short frame, with an embarrassing craving for marriages, lovers, and artery-clogging food (especially, salty crisps in packets), sounds like an improbable philanderer—let alone a distinguished man of science, who can tweak an Einstein formulation.

In his latest book “Solar,” Ian McEwen follows the life of four times married and divorced, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard. Tired of his perennial womanizing, his beautiful and much younger wife No. 5 is brazenly cheating on him.

His days of scientific glory behind him, he has turned into a sloppy technocrat, who finds it easier to sign files and to talk from podiums, than work out abstruse equations in isolation.

An opportunity for breakthrough research opens up when the British government invites him to head a green-energy think-tank.

A reluctant believer in renewable energy, he nonetheless, takes it up willingly. To make a show of his colossal concern for global warming, he undertakes an Arctic expedition.

One among a small group of artists, all card-carrying members of the climate change club, he is bored stiff in their company as the only person, who secretly, still casts his lot with oil and coal.

Scuffling with heavy duty winter gear, banging his helmeted head against a column in a hotel lobby, emptying his bladder on the frigid walls of a Norwegian ice canyon, mistaking his chapstick for his frozen member, this man could pass off as a lumbering, mirthless clown.

McEwan caricatures his protagonist, at times, in an impoverished way. But his point may be to prove that Nobel Laureates are just as human as any other, complex and flawed; not paragons of pure reason.

Back from the fruitless trip, Beard discovers an underling, in a romantic entanglement with his spouse. A rude shock turns to a histrionics-free verbal exchange, which culminates in a freak carpet accident that kills the brilliant young postdoctoral fellow.

A gifted raconteur, with a knack for injecting surprising plot turns that McEwan is, he does so, here, again.

The incident alters the trajectory of both Beard’s personal and professional lives. It unlocks his wedlock, lifts his stagnating career out of a morass, and hurtles him along a new primrose path of fresh success.

When one has comfortably settled into forming an impression of Beard as a human walrus, lethargic and harmless, an anhedonic spectator, the curtain lifts to reveal his other, sinister facet that exposes him to be a supreme opportunist, who will go to any length to renew his fame—even steal.

A brew of foggy suspense, a dash of photovoltaic theories, moments of a light thriller, unfurled in a rich narrative, “Solar” is more gripping than the last two McEwan bestsellers, “Saturday” and “On Chesil Beach.”

Dropping a clanger before a committee earns him a dirty moniker, a plump tomato from an angry demonstrator, and a brief episode with a pair of handcuffs.

His elevated stature gets him off the hook with both the cops and the court. But his fate couldn’t care less.

Hours ahead of when he’s about to flip on a solar switch, as it were, in a small desert town in New Mexico, in full view of an electrified audience of members of the press, investors, dignitaries, citizenry, and usher civilization into an era of sustainable fuel source, Beard, the holder of 300 patents, is busted for intellectual thievery.

Like most McEwan novels, this one too, spirals down up to an unexpected denouement.

For a man who banqueted with the king of Sweden for his remarkable work in the area of light, the future is oddly dark. His yesterday strides up to his today, and demolishes his tomorrow, with a hammer and a lawsuit.


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