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.