First Impression of Ian McEwan's Solar

Ian McEwan may have been living out a fantasy in Solar, one that had him playing the part of a very different type of man, a natural. Michael Beard, though intelligent, is not at all self-conscious, and nothing resembling guilt exists in his mind. The glaring detail is not that Beard, as the novel opens, has cheated on his fifth wife eleven times, but that such an overweight, slovenly, and inconsiderate man could find eleven women to cheat with in the span of just a few years. McEwan, I imagine, is more like Saturday's Henry Perowne, so monogamously tied to his wife that he worries about the implications for his manhood.

Ah, but Beard isn’t the typical simple-minded lout. He’s a Nobel Laureate. To me this was difficult to square—wouldn’t such a smart man have better impulse control, not eat to excess, drink to excess, fornicate to excess. But of course intelligence isn’t such a straight-forward issue, and we’re to take Beard as more than a little narcissistic, i.e. entitled. Plus, he usually manages to evade the severest of the consequences he has rightly coming to him. It’s the consequences he doesn’t deserve that plague him the most.

There’s a touch of Coetzee’s Disgrace to Solar: the academic who does and says the wrong things but continues to say, "What of it? Take me as I am." He’s put upon in all the ways well-to-do white men from privileged countries tend to be. I can’t help but sympathize. And since the narration is so close to him, and his own malfeasances and deceptions have such little importance to his mind, I’m never sure how much weight I should be giving them. I see trouble brewing for him but I take no joy in anticipating it. I even wonder if maybe he’ll weasel out of it all somehow—wouldn’t that be something?

On the surface this is a story about comeuppance—which never fully occurs—but really it’s about the tricky nature of sympathy. Beard is all too human, prideful, vengeful, at times almost loving, but not quite. You want to hate him. But you recognize at least of little of him in you.