” Beard comfortably shared all of humanity’s faults, and here he was, a monster of insincerity, cradling tenderly on his arm a woman he thought he might leave one day soon, listening to her with sensitive expression in the expectation that soon he would have to do some talking himself, when all he wanted was to make love to her without preliminaries, eat the meal she had cooked, drink a bottle of wine, and then sleep—without blame, without guilt. ” (172-3)
The protagonist in Solar, a fat, middle-aged Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Michael Beard, is the most despicable character I’ve ever encountered in literature. He is more than disreputable—a pig, a dick. In the course of the book he will not only cheat on five wives and innumerable girlfriends and frame another man who has made him a cuckold for murder in order be rid of him. Solar spans almost 10 years in the first decade of the new millennium and Beard has only coasted on his reputation. His research has run dry, to the extent that he steals another scientist’s plans for cultivating global warming and tries to cash in with his idea.
This was what women had marched for, birth as well as abortion. Perhaps there was nothing he could do. She was absolving him of responsibility, but this was not how it would unfold, this was not how it would unfold, this was not how she would feel when their lives had been transformed, when they repeated the tired, angry scenes, with shouting, the baby wailing, a slamming door . . . (180)
In between speeches and conferences he is wallowed in a dozen of affairs that none of which, to his relief, have produced in a child, until a girlfriend decides to have one without asking for child support. The rest of the book indulges in harping on Beard’s gluttonous habits and sexual promiscuity, while he’s kicking into motion a money-making machine. The writing is above par, and the book is actually intermittently amusing, but ultimately Solar is a repulsive story that showcases McEwan’s cleverness but seems empty at its core. Beard’s central conceit and self-deception are tiresome, and the contrived notion that he is some kind of irresistible hot-shot babe magnet is just ludicrous.
287 pp. Doubleday. Hardcover. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]