sábado, 14 de agosto de 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Usually – if such a word can be applied to rare events – Nobel Laureates are recognised towards the end of a lifetime’s achievement. The true significance of work has to be established before it can be recognised. Michael Beard, modifier of Einstein’s photovoltaics, producer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation, or should that have been the Einstein-Beard Conflation, seemed to receive his ultimate recognition a tad early in life. Surely it would have been the proposed grand application of his work that swayed the judges rather than the mere realisation of theory. So if there is to be a criticism of Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar, it is precisely this. But then Michael Beard always was a precocious winner, after coming first in a beautiful baby award. So there.

This is my only criticism of Solar. I thought that Ian McEwan would never write anything to challenge the intensity, complexity, ease of expression and irony of Saturday. But Solar achieves all of this and much more.

In his professional life, Michael Beard is a scientist, a physicist with an interest in light. Energy becomes his focus and, via his photovoltaic conflation, he begins to address energy production for a warming planet. Or does he? Does he receive rather than initiate? And does he acknowledge?

Both meticulous and precise in his professional guise, Michael Beard is a sybaritic, lecherous slob in the private domain. We meet him first upon his fifth wife, Patrice. With her he has at last found happiness – at least when they are together. Periods apart find him pursuing anything available before or after a half a bottle of Scotch. Unknown to him, Patrice is doing precisely the same, but remaining sober. From Michael Beard’s conventionally misogynist standpoint, this seems unfair and he calls foul.

Aldous is just the sort of bloke that – all things being equal (which of course they are not!) – Michael Beard would both ignore and avoid. He’s big, hefty, wears sandals and a pony tail. His apparently laid back approach to life is surely anathema to Michael Beard’s internally perceived order. After all, didn’t a youthful Beard sport a jacket and tie with pens in the top pocket right through the 1960s? How times change, he might reflect, on pushing aside a pile of unwashed dishes mixed with general detritus in his London flat. But besides threatening, Aldous is also brilliant. He is a young post-doc recruited to assist Michael’s research. And then there’s Tarpin, a builder decidedly not of the same social class as the venerable academic. Things come together at the end of the book’s first part. Suffice it to say that Michael Beard’s involuntary circumcision at the hands of frost while taking a leak somewhere near Spitzbergen might just have been Mother Nature getting her own back, her feminist equaliser before the stronger opposition has even scored.

Unfortunately for Michael Beard, however, his tendency to spread himself too thinly provokes the termination of his Government-sponsored energy research. The director, Braby, sacks him, an act that injures pride. Michael internalises the rejection not as a failure but as an opportunity, given his multiple avenues of interest. How can it offend him? He’s won a Nobel Prize. Can’t he do precisely what he wants, even beyond criticism?

Beard is confronted with alternative views of both life and the universe. Everything follows. Later he is apparently committed to just one woman, Melissa, but without marriage, mutually-agreed. But he is constantly pulled elsewhere. His logical-positivist assumptions are questioned, both at home and abroad. People can lie, deconstruct, reconstruct. So can he. The only consistency in his personal life is its inconsistency, constantly inconsistent. But his professional assumptions are questioned by social constructivism, by phenomenological attack on the universality he assumes. The consequence is an irrational but wholly real reconstruction of a reality he thought he had both defined and described. His method of coping is enigmatic and inventive, but its public expression is totally uncontrolled, misconceived.

Michael’s research points to a breakthrough in energy production. He can split water using sunlight and catalysts that promote artificial photosynthesis. He can truly harness the sun. Perhaps it vies for the centre of his universe. The results can burn carbon-free to power the world. His new daughter calls him a saviour. But his business brain shares his scientific nodes. He has patents. He hires Hammer to deal with detail, a task he accomplishes supremely until just before the scheduled switch on of the prototype in the New Mexico desert. The rest is history.

Solar presents a multiplicity of themes. But I think its main plank is an age-old conundrum. In an address presenting the Nobel Prize to Beard, a professor refers to Feynman’s illustration of the elegance of Beard’s Conflation. Tangled, knotted strings that dancers further complicate can, under the right conditions, with the right foresight, fall to a simple untangled simplicity with a single tug. Thus Beard had taken a knotted intellectual theory and let it fall free of its complications.

In his private life, however, Beard truly found complication. What was simple he knotted by quirk, by over-indulgence, by ill-discipline and by visceral opportunity. If the beautiful but independently-minded Melissa was temporarily unavailable across an ocean that provided the vacuum, then the fiftyish, flabby Darlene, a waitress in a New Mexico diner, provided the pressure. But she took her temporary role seriously, an attitude that Michael Beard never expected.

No matter how complicated our lives become, no matter how intertwined, no matter how independently we present identity, career, research or discovery, ultimately they all reduce to a simple cocktail of body fluids, desires – usually only partly fulfilled - and ultimately a resort to self-preservation, a fundamental state that can be obscured by our relentless pursuit of receding detail. Thus Ian McEwan presents a contrast between potentially enduring rationality that seeks out permanence and base, immediate desire driven by instincts we cannot even recognise, let alone control. At the last, it is illusory permanence that presents the true delusion. And what about constancy and the enduringly rational? Ask me tomorrow.

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