Existential emptiness; the tragi-comedy of McEwan’s Solar.

You see people like Michael Baird all the time at scientific conferences; pudgy, balding, slightly unkempt,  full of their own self importance.  But Baird, like many academics, was a lazy man; a one discovery wonder.  As an Oxford post-doc, he revised  one of Einstein’s theories, an achievement of brilliance that won him the nomination for a Nobel Prize some 20 years later.  Since that time, he had relaxed and reaped the rewards of his eminence, delivering lectures, giving out prizes, opening  research institutes, and offering his support to worthy causes and his name to organisations.   Maybe his prize had given him a sense of entitlement; maybe he had always had it.  But Baird believed he deserved the trappings of eminence.  And, if he wanted something, he was quite entitled to go out and get it?  Sex, food, devotion, recognition, it was all the same to him.  They were his just deserts. 

There was something decadent about Michael Baird.  He didn’t look after himself.  He lived amid his own rubbish in a run-down apartment in Paddington.  He was overweight; he ate all the wrong food.  He ignored his doctor’s warnings.  He just didn’t seem to care. He had been married 5 times; each marriage only lasted a few years and was childless.  He didn’t work at a relationship; he took from it and then destroyed each of his marriages by other affairs, often with quite unsuitable people. 

It was as if he didn’t value himself very much or could only be valued in the eyes of somebody else. Yet, why was he so attractive to some women?  Is it that they saw somebody worthy of rescue?  Does his fame, his celebrity, the semblance of power, have something to do with that? 

Michael was a chubby baby and at the age of six months, he won the local bouncing baby competition.  He was all dimples and smiles, he couldn’t fail.  He never looked back.  His mother, trapped in a loveless marriage devoted all her attention on him, fed him the most tasty dishes, and  even when he was older and at university, she went on a cordon bleu cookery course so that she could cook him food he would enjoy. His father, meanwhile, fostered Michael’s interest in electronics, mechanics; the ways things worked. Michael was a special little boy.  He was clever and got a place to Oxford.

As Michael grew up, his mother needed more excitement.  She 17 love affairs in 11 years and exhausted, died of breast cancer when Michael was about 23.  Michael never talked to his father about this and forgave his the tragic lack of meaning of her life.  He had, after all, inherited it, but in a different way.  Despite the nobel prize, Michael’s life always threatened to gravitate to meaninglessness.   He inhabited an existential vacuum, sustained by food, sex and the admiration of others.    

The scene was set.  The accident had to happen.  Michael was appointed the nominal head of a climate research institute near Reading.  He wasn’t really interested in the job, but it had a certain amount of kudos and a reasonable government salary.  Besides, he didn’t have to do very much.   Tom Aldous was a young clever post-doc who had read all of Michael’s work and realised that the Baird Einstein conflation held the secret for not only artificial photosynthesis but also the utilisation of the suns energy to split water, releasing oxygen and also hydrogen which could be used as a fuel.  Michael wasn’t really interested, he just wanted a quiet life with plenty of food and plenty of sex.  Aldous’ enthusiasm was an embarrassing irritant. 

Patrice, Michael’s fifth wife had discovered Michael’s latest affair and with it a string of other extramarital liaisons, so she embarked on a relationship with their builder Rodney Tarpin just to show him, but Tarpin became violent.

While Michael was away on a somewhat bizarre polar conference on a boat in a field in Spitzbergan, Patrice also took Aldous as a lover.  Michael came home early and discovered Aldous in the sitting room in his dressing gown.  Aldous, fearful that he would lose his job, ran towards Baird but slipped on the polar bear rug, banged his head on the corner of the glass table and died instantly. 

Michael assessed the situation instantly.  Nobody would believe he hadn’t killed Aldous. He found Tarpin’s box of tools in the cupboard and smeared the hammer with Aldous’ blood, wiped Tarpin’s hairs from a comb on Aldous’ hand and then left.  He got away with it.  Tarpin was convicted and went to prison, but Baird lost his position in Reading. 

Things started to unravel when he used Aldous’ work to set up a company to investigate artificial photosynthesis with an American collaborator.   His old institute accused him of plagiarism, his collaborator started to pull out and his current girlfriend Melissa, who had had their child, came to Texas only to discover that Michael was having a torrid sexual liaison with Darlene, a local waitress.  Tarpin was out of prison and in America looking for him.

It was as if Baird had carried a dark shadow with him all his life.  No matter what good happened, his work, his fame, his marriages, it would always destroy them and eventually it would eventually destroy him. But why?   Was he brought up with few scruples and the conviction he could get away with anything?  Could he not bear the burden of a greatness he felt he didn’t really deserve?  Was he just so frightened of exposure that he would lie, cheat, steal, deceive; do anything to avoid it?   Life held no meaning for Baird; things had come too easy.  Apart from rare bursts of enthusiasm, he never worked very hard, so nothing had any value.  He just existed, took the easy path and came to despise the man he had become.  In a way, one feels, he welcomed the whirlwind about to envelope him.  It would either kill him or give him a reason to survive.    


Solar is Ian McEwan’s latest novel, published last month.  He has taken  on the difficult modern phenomenon  of narcissism entitlement and ennui and has created an unlikeable character and a disturbing novel, in which moments of farce merely serve to emphasise the essential darkness.