“An evil mind is a constant solace.”–Unknown

Have you ever watched an anti-hero, whom you know to be an anti-hero if not an outright villain, get away with murder in a novel, and find yourself hoping that he will continue to do so for the pure (or not so pure) comic pleasure it gives you to see him go from incident to incident, triumphant but flawed?  And of course, because he is so flawed you can laugh at him freely, and not invest real sympathy in his travails the way you would for a noble hero or heroine.  In this case, the reader himself or herself becomes a receptacle of a certain sort of selfishness in allowing such sympathy to exist:  that is, while you don’t give the character any true respect or empathy, you can still enjoy the course of his actions and, if and when he meets his inevitable nemesis, have nothing to mourn for except perhaps in having to stop following an enjoyable read.  It is in this sense alone that the reader imitates sympathetically the character Michael Beard’s “evil mind,” a “constant solace” to Beard and one unknown to the other characters, whose misunderstandings of his actions are all fairly humorous.

Michael Beard is the anti-hero of Ian McEwan’s 2010 book Solar, and a literal murder is exactly what it looks like he will get away with, though his tribulations mount up in a very funny way as if he is being punished by fate.  Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist past his prime, is making a living through public speaking engagements, through a remote sort of participation in some corporations as an advisor, and lackadaisically through working along with a government project on global warming.  On the home front, Beard has freed himself time after time from his entanglements with women, until he one day wakes up to the fact that his latest wife has in fact turned the tables on him in this regard.  With murder in his heart Beard approaches the situation, only to be relieved of responsibility through a bizarre accident, for which the wrong man is later blamed and arrested.

It would appear through most of the novel that Beard has what is known as “the devil’s own luck”; all he has to do is resent someone or something, and bad things happen, but not to him.  And to counterpoint his involvement with the “dark side,” Beard has the satirical version of “the mark of the beast” on him, a melanoma on his hand that, were he sincerely concerned with solar problems and global warming and its after-effects, would have been dealt with safely.  Yet, he is also a figure of fun, just as the devil(s) in medieval morality plays often were:  for example, when Beard participates in a polar expedition to view a glacier, he makes a hilarious mistake.  Badly needing to pee while he is out on the iceberg on a snowmobile, Beard makes his typical error of being badly adjusted to his circumstances on earth by peeing in a sub-zero temperature, with comically disastrous results.  For as the saying goes among men, “it’s cold enough to freeze your pecker off.”

A more serious challenge to the comic devil known as Beard is the fact that he takes little care of his health in general and is obviously living on borrowed time, not only because of the events due to his bad actions, which are snowballing behind him, but due also to a mounting stress and heart condition resulting from the fact that he is monumentally selfish, even to himself.

The one love of Beard’s life is his little daughter, Catriona, who stands alone as a challenge to all that Beard is and has done wrongly.  Will Beard free himself from a life-long habit of cynicism and casual indifference to the rights of others, or will he get his just deserts just when he is close to redemption?  To some extent, the reader must figure this out.  One thing is certain:  Solar is a wonderful satirical masterpiece, and Beard is the traditional “satyr” at its center.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

7 responses to ““An evil mind is a constant solace.”–Unknown

  1. I wanted to read most of McEwan’s novels but stopped after The Comfort of Strangers. It’s rare a book disturbs me like that but it did. His depiction of Venice however was spot on. I always found it weird how people only see the romantic side. The city is quite gloomy and you get easily lost. Plus it’s sinking.
    Beard sounds like a great character. I like this type of anti-hero, I know exactly what you mean. I’m reading Maupassant’s Bel-Ami at the moment and it’s similar. He’s a total fraud but to some extent I can understand him.
    I’m still not decided which book will be my re-entry point to McEwan. On Chesil Beach maybe.


    • I’ll have to look at “The Comfort of Strangers” and Maupassant’s “Bel-Ami,” sort of doing backgrounding for what little I know of him from “Solar.” The only other one I was familiar with was “Atonement,” and though it was powerful and poignant, I just happen to have a soft spot in my no-doubt cankered old heart for satires and parodies. “Solar” just struck me as about one of the most beautiful–if one can use that word–satires I’ve ever read. I do think he’s a superb stylist and so much better than so many others I could be reading.


      • Iloved Atonement and then decided i want to read all of him. Unfortunately The Comfort of Strangers really disturbed me. I did review it.
        I’m quite curious to read Solar too now. I don’t think I have vere read a beautiful satire.


      • Caroline, see my response to your comment, above on my site. For some reason there was no “reply” listed on what you said. Cheers!


  2. I think I’ll have a look at The Comfort of Strangers and see if it bothers me too. I’ve had literary experiences like that. For example, with Mary Doria Russell’s book “The Sparrow,” which has occasioned much recent discussion on the site Shelf Love in the last week. It has a sequel “Children of God,” which I’m going to follow up on, hoping, I suppose, that it has some remaining comfort in it. By “beautiful” satire, I guess I meant beautifully written, and pointed and sly (all beautiful things if you’re actually writing one!)


  3. I seem to root for the anti-hero as a matter of course! I know it’s not in a book, and I don’t watch much TV (in fact I haven’t had cable except for my two (2) years in prison in the last, oh, 6 years!), but the writing on the show is spectacular; Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad is to me the quintessential “bad good guy”–one of the most interesting and complex characters you’ll come across. I’ll put some thought into a literary equivalent and hopefully get back to you.

    Nice blog, I’m *following* it now! =)

    –Love and Liberation–

    Jan @ TheRewildWest


  4. If you can find out what studio filmed your favorite show, you can write to them over the Internet and they will send you info free of charge (I believe in most cases, anyway) about who wrote the script, if it came originally from a book idea, etc. Quite frankly, though I realize that “Breaking Bad” was highly acclaimed, the subject matter was a little too edgy for my tastes. But there’s clearly some latitude in ideas of quality, or the critics who gave it applause wouldn’t have. I just didn’t care for the premise of the film. Thanks for the “follow” and the comment.


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