In contrast to the politics of global warming, for example, the science can't easily be debated dramatically without giving undue weight to the denialist camp, which he's unwilling to do. On the other hand, apocalyptic urgency, which shadows so much of the rhetoric around the issue, is equally unattractive to McEwan, a long-term fan of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. Finally, and maybe most intractably, there's the problem of response-fatigue. Pressing invitations to think about global warming aren't thin on the ground. McEwan's solution is both elegant and surprising: instead of applying doom and gloom, he reaches for a lighter, more comic mode than usual.
Beard, a short, fat, philandering physicist, serves as the novel's scientifically informed focal consciousness and as a quasi-allegorical figure. In this, he resembles Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon at the heart of Saturday (2005). But here too comedy gets McEwan round a problem. The earlier novel's unironic stance towards its central figure, along with its vanilla-flavoured politics, grated badly on many readers, who saw it – whatever its technical merits – as a novel about a smug, rich man who's almost proud of his inability to decide if invading Iraq is a good idea. Beard shares Perowne's distaste for zeal: though never in doubt about the basic science of global warming, he begins the novel suspicious of the "Old Testament ring" to environmentalists' forewarnings. This time, however, it's made clear from the start that we won't be asked to admire this mildly preposterous character, a generator of ironies as much as an observer of them.
The first of the book's three sections begins in 2000. Beard is 53, his best days long behind him. A Nobel laureate for his early theoretical work ("the Beard-Einstein Conflation") on the photoelectric effect, he sits on committees, lends his name and prestige to institutional letterheads, and fills the role of "Chief" at a research centre outside Reading that has been set up to allow the Blair government to be seen as doing something to combat climate change. For Beard, this phenomenon is merely "one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action . . . But he himself had other things to think about." The most insistent of these things is his fifth wife Patrice's affair with the builder who did up their house in Belsize Park, an affair she's embarked on in a mood of buoyant vengefulness after coming across evidence of Beard's numerous infidelities.
In order to escape Patrice's icy good cheer, and the attentions of a young physicist at the centre, Tom Aldous, who keeps trying to interest him in artificial photosynthesis, Beard signs up for a trip to the Arctic. This entirely selfish decision is greeted as a great step forward by the centre's idealists and its time-serving co-boss. Beard heads north in the company of various arts-world luminaries. "Everyone but Beard was worried about global warming and was merry"; only the semi-sceptical physicist is appropriately sombre. There's an echo of Perowne's somewhat priggish disapproval of the anti-war protesters' levity in Saturday, but Beard's moroseness springs less from intellectual consistency than the fact that he has nearly frozen off his penis by emptying his bladder in subzero temperatures. This uncomfortable episode, and the journey it takes place on, is the first of McEwan's customary set-pieces in the book, and it's as though he's decided to give full rein to the comic overtones held back in 2007's On Chesil Beach.
Returning to London, Beard is quickly embroiled in more of McEwan's traditional tropes – a life-altering accident and a suspenseful sequence, again given a comic spin. Then a new section starts, set in 2005. Divorced and even fatter, Beard has reinvented himself as a clean-energy entrepreneur. He has, it turns out, been sacked from the centre after making some off-the-cuff remarks on the low numbers of women in high-level physics jobs. McEwan draws fruitfully on his own experiences with the press here and has some satiric fun at the expense of arts academics, though Beard's troubles, modelled on Larry Summers's at Harvard, aren't quite believable in an English setting. The physicist has also acquired a new girlfriend and an addiction to salt and vinegar crisps; weirdly, McEwan uses these last items to have him experience a well known anecdote – another set-piece – and then has an irritating know-all pop up to explain what a well known anecdote it is.
Beard's main business, however, is to lecture a group of institutional investors on alternative energy. The novel carefully undercuts both his virtue and his dignity: he spends his time at the podium trying not to vomit, having eaten a dodgy smoked salmon sandwich, and parts of his pitch are either plagiarised or hypocritical fabrications. All the same, his actual arguments are compelling, and it's hard not to root for him as, in the final section, he prepares to throw the switch on a prototype array of next-generation solar panels in New Mexico. It's now 2009, and Beard, fatter still and trying to ignore a worrying melanoma, has further romantic entanglements and professional complications on his plate. As various chickens from the first two sections start coming home to roost, still in comic mode, McEwan builds up considerable suspense about the fate of Beard's enterprise, a revolutionary technology that, you end up half-believing, might save the world.
In the course of his trip to the Arctic circle, Beard hears some unfamiliar guitar music, "reflective, with a touch of lightness and precision, like something of Mozart's". Solar seems to aim for something similar and, as you'd expect, precision isn't a problem in its brisk tour d'horizon of the ironies arising from climate change. McEwan swiftly persuades the reader that he can write authoritatively not only about science but the culture of scientific institutions, too. He also revels in clever, sometimes over-neat reversals. At one point, Beard's business partner starts to worry that the climate might not be changing after all. "It's a catastrophe," Beard assures him. "Relax!"
Lightness, however, comes less easily to McEwan, whose style depends on deliberateness and a certain ponderousness. The ominous lining up of causes and effects and the patient tweaking of narrative tension don't always mesh well with the aimed-for quickness and brio. Some of the humour is quite broad: there's a rather clunking motif concerning polar bears, and Beard gets involved with a stereotypical Southern waitress who's called, in the way of trailer-trash types, Darlene. He emerges as a figure of some comic dynamism, but the pages on his childhood and youth, though brilliantly done, articulate poorly with the knockabout parts of the plot. Once it became clear that the book's world is comic, I also found myself wondering if it wouldn't have benefited from being more loosely assembled, with shorter, discontinuous episodes and Beard functioning along the lines of Updike's Bech, Nabokov's Pnin or the consciousness in Calvino's Cosmicomics.
At the same time, the overarching plot pulls off a clinching novelistic coup, using comedy to sneak grimmer matters past the reader's defences. Beard's argument about the correct response to climate change, an argument that McEwan has also made, is that we have no choice but to hope that technological ingenuity, enlightened self-interest and the market's allocation of resources can get us off the hook; personal virtue counts for little. For a while it seems as though the slobbish, self-centred Beard might actually bring about such an outcome, and the reader starts to hope he'll manage it. But Beard – self-deluding, a serial breaker of resolutions, hopelessly addicted to overconsumption – also stands for humanity in general. When he gets his comeuppance, it's a powerful reminder that reality isn't a comic novel, and in its deepest implications, this book isn't one either.