Ian McEwan is undoubtedly a great writer. Few would argue with this assertion. He is also a great thinker and is wont to research the topic of his novels to virtually PhD level. In this one he is a physicist, in Saturday he is a neurosurgeon, in Amsterdam a musicologist and in Enduring Love, a micro-biologist. It must be exhausting! I mean, writing a novel is hard enough. Writing a novel which sometimes reads like a thesis on opaque material, is another thing altogether!
Many of the reviews say that the main character of the novel, Michael Beard – a Nobel Prize winner in Physics – is dislikable. And of course, that he is. He has lived for years in the glow of one solitary achievement. Indeed, his entire career has been based on that one event. He is uncaring. He is selfish. He is entirely unfaithful. He steals ideas. He eats too much and he drinks too much. He uses his intellect to put people down and intimidate them. He is, truly, a dislikable character.
But at the same time, he is pretty much the victim of his own circumstance. The death of his student, whom he discovers cheating with his fifth wife, is not his fault. He sees it as an opportunity, however, to settle scores and does so with precision and clinical care. He simply makes the best of a bad situation, instead of doing the honest thing and suffering the consequences.
As in all McEwan’s novels, there is a singular event, which sets in motion the course of the rest of the story. This is the event, and there are, of course, consequences. And the consequences play themselves out. But in this one, I could not but help remembering an event in my childhood. The consequences were not the same, but the feeling of powerlessness was.
I cannot remember how old I was, but probably a teenager, living with a brother who was 10 years older than me. He was tidy. I was not. He would empty his rubbish into my room. I would just accept it.
One day, however, I came home to find my mother looking very serious. She held up part of a book (a book which had obviously fallen into pieces) and asked me if I knew what it was. I said it was part of a book. Which book? She wanted to know. I said I had no idea. But this she would not believe. It was a “dirty” book, she said, and of course I knew what it was because it was found in my room. It didn’t matter how much I denied it. I was guilty. And the guilty party – to save his own skin – stood by silently, accepting nothing. I was powerless. The evidence was clear.
Now, Professor Michael Beard, the Nobel laureate of the book, was equally not guilty. But he then makes himself guilty, of other crimes. Of covering up. Of being a coward, a liar, a cheat. These are things he has control over. These are things he could have done differently, and morally and without damage and hurt to others. But he chooses not to. And the position of privilege he has always enjoyed, allows him to make those negative choices.
So, he forges ahead on his stolen idea, buoyed by his previous easy history, with no fears for his future. And of course, this is the point. His work is now in climate change. It is about creating new ways of creating and harnessing and deploying energy. He is, in himself, the very image of the human species – arrogant, bloated, self-satisfied, armed with a little knowledge. Instead of choosing the ethical route, it creates ways of justifying its present destructive position.
And my view is that you cannot read this book and not see yourself in there somewhere. Somewhere in his “dislikeable” and unpleasant character lies the you and the me. And that is what makes the book so extraordinarily readable – despite is sometimes fairly dense scientific passages.
McEwan has that most admirable quality in a writer – the ability to observe and document human nature, in all its bewildering perplexity and contradiction. And so, yes, it is true, Professor Michael Beard is a horrible person. But if you cannot see yourself in some measure, in that really unpleasant character, you are, I would suggest, deluded.
Solar by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, London, 2010