You are going to remember Michael Beard.
<-- Protagonist of Ian McEwan’s latest absorbing novel, Michael Beard, by his own admission is "greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious."
Accurate descriptions all, to which might be added -- womanizing, fat, and a plagiaristic thief of intellectual property.
If this doesn’t sound like the kind of character you would normally find yourself sympathetically attracted to, let me add one thing more: Michael Beard is lost.
And it's this lostness that drives the book’s central theme and allows him a firm place in the reader’s heart.
Centering on the life of fictional Nobel laureate Michael Beard, the novel outlines, details, and over a period of nine years, sometimes mercilessly dissects Beard’s disintegrating life. Beard, a willing participant in a long slate of unhealthy indulgences, is now -- years after winning the prize for his work on the Einstein-Beard Conflation – filled with middle-aged angst, and resting comfortably on his oversized laureate laurels.
As the book opens, Beard, working through his fifth floundering marriage and involved in numerous affairs, is baffled to find himself on the other end of the cheater roster as his wife Patrice threatens to leave him for a younger lover. It is this capsizing that starts the plot’s exploration of the downward plunge that Michael Beard faces. Or - perhaps more accurately and tragically – refuses to face. A master in the art of self-deception, Beard works to keep his frailties at bay until a smoothly executed McEwan plot forces him to a place where there is no longer any place to hide from himself.
Flawed, yet needing to maintain an illusion of worth and dignity, Beard is a character who seems to represent both the best and the worst that Man can be.
Readers may recognize in Beard qualities typically found in the classic tragic hero: a man who has potential for greatness yet who falls short of fulfilling it. Sometimes battered buffoon, sometimes scientific genius, Beard ambles through this brilliantly crafted plot. Slipped into exquisite character study is a subplot of murder, as well as thoughts on global warming, political correctness in academia, and the fixes that a hedonist middle-aged man can find himself thrown into.
It is McEwan's grace and ease in presenting meticulously drawn out, precisely chiseled description that makes him one of Britain’s most readable literary authors... skill that is much in evidence in Solar.
Those familiar with McEwan’s repeated themes will find in this novel his affection for playing with how misperceptions may have far reaching consequences - both in his protagonists and in the reader who is carried along by them. His predilection for the misperceived – and thus illusory - is here presented with both tragic as well as humorous implications. Long adept at utilizing illusions that his protagonists cling to, McEwan places us at the mercy of a narrative voice that is seeing the events from a limited point of view, a solipsistic view that readily and with utter misdirected certainty leaps to conclusions – conclusions that are often ruinously wrong.
In Atonement, McEwan used a character’s illusory view to bring tragic consequences to several characters; in the intense and compact On Chesil Beach, illusion breaks apart a relationship in the havoc of one brief honeymoon night.
In Solar, McEwan handles the havoc that illusion produces with a lighter hand. Two scenes -- one involving confusion over a bag of potato chips and one that involves maneuvering a zipper during an urgent call of nature in the Arctic Circle -- will have book clubs talking - and laughing - long into the night. Appropriately humorous, yet at the same time, they point to an underlying theme of how our lingering illusions of self and others often result in our later undoing.
Beard is the archetypical McEwan character who often wants a thing to be a certain way [through what is said or believed] whether that thing is true in actuality or not. Throughout the book, for instance, Beard, who has a suspicious spot on his hand, does not want to go to the doctor -- he would rather believe the story he tells himself [about his physical condition] than hear a doctor's pronouncement of existing problems. He says, "A diagnosis is kind of a modern curse. If you didn't go and see these people, you wouldn't get whatever it is they want you to have."
Solar is no one thing.
It is not just a novel making sense of our problems in handling climate control.
Nor is it simply a caustic satire on how cynical sellouts for personal gain trump idealism.
It's not just a story of a floundering, yet gifted, man whose flaws and evasions doggedly pursue him.
Nor merely another bright showcase for the radiant McEwan style.
It is all of these.
But perhaps more to the heart of the matter, Solar gives us a bit of an Everyman theme in Beard, a man who does not, will not, or cannot own up to his shortcomings. He is a once brilliant scientist, full of potential, who now plods along piecing unsatisfying relationships together and doing just enough to get by while pursuing his own hedonistic pleasures.
In the end, the saving grace is that Beard has just enough conscience, just enough discontent with his life to make him aware that he doesn’t measure up even to his own lowered standards. But there is no given resolve. No one flying off on the back of a flap-eared elephant. Solar is more like a minor chord struck, and an unrelenting right foot heavy on that third pedal of the piano.
McEwan’s portrayal of Beard works because it can make the reader want to look away, even while seeing some small part of ourselves in him. He is a man pushing life-issues to the back burner, but there is only so much room left on that stovetop. The reader realizes this, and upon shutting the back cover, wonders whether Michael Beard will ever know it.
I encourage you to --> GET A COPY.