Ian McEwan is seriously interested in the problem and subject of climate change and has written a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes humorous novel couched in the subject. His brilliant, flawed, womanizing anti-hero is Michael Beard. Beard is a Nobel laureate, having earlier in his career, discovered a synthesis between his own work and Albert Einstein’s. His eureka moment produced something called the Beard-Einstein Conflation. This was the pinnacle moment of his career, and he would never produce such original thoughts again.
While his fifth marriage flounders, he becomes interested in climate change – both as a way to keep or gain credibility in the scientific community – and to reap financial rewards as well. The novel progresses linearly through three parts (2000, 2005, and 2009). There are flashbacks to other periods as Beard recalls earlier events. McEwan is quite adept at drawing full figured characters in this way. We have a fairly good idea as to what makes Michael Beard tick, when all is said and done.
Part One sets up most everything that follows, and is in some parts a very funny novel. The very first lines are our first glimpse of Michael Beard.
He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so.
His fifth wife is having an affair with their builder/contractor, Rodney Tarpin. This is only to punish him (or so he likes to think) since he is, and has been throughout his adult life, a serial cheater. The affair becomes a triangle when a young physicist under Beard’s wing becomes involved – with tragic consequences. The unformed ideas of the young physicist (Tom Aldous), and the tragic consequences of his involvement all are revealed in the plot packed first part. Parts Two and Three all stem from the consequences of Part One. So the latter two thirds of the novel seem less brisk in comparison. Nevertheless, McEwan never fails to generate the question that all readers ask themselves as they read: what will happen next? Mostly, if the question is not asked, the novel has only limited appeal, if any. Not only does McEwan have his readers ask themselves this question, but getting at the answer is so compelling that it’s a book that is not as easily put down as some others. In this, McEwan is a compelling storyteller, as well as a man of ideas, and a gifted stylist. A hard combination to beat..
McEwan can be a seductively simple writer. A writer who can toss off descriptions with ease, so that they many times go unnoticed for their astute observations. Here, Beard makes this observation of Tom Aldous, which is as much a comment about Beard himself, as it is a descriptor of Aldous.
He distrusted anyone off a baseball field in a baseball cap, whichever way round it was worn.
There is a trip to the North Pole on snow mobiles that surely is as funny as anything that McEwan has ever written. Let’s just say, the temperatures are sub freezing, the wind is biting cold, and Beard has to pee. What happens next is as excruciating as it is excruciatingly funny.
We don’t just learn about Michael Beard all in one shot. As late as Part Three, McEwan is delving into Beard and his relationship with his mother that tells much of what you need to know about Beard’s attitudes towards women, his inability to feel compassion for the needs of others. Beard is constantly described as bald and fat – and his increasing girth and doubling and trebling of chins progresses as the novel wears on.
It surprised no one to learn that Michael Beard had been an only child, and he would have been the first to concede that he had never quite got the hang of brotherly feeling. His mother, Angela, was an angular beauty who doted on him, and the medium of her love was food…She lived for her son, and her legacy was clear: a fat man who restlessly craved the attention of beautiful women who could cook.
Michael’s relationship with his father is also telling. There is a description of their relationship which neatly captures the post-war moment and the gap between the generations that so defined the early post was years. Forty-one years after the fact, Michael is thinking of the marriage to his first wife. A marriage he never even told his parents about until after his (first) divorce.
He was thinking how he never took Maisie to meet his father and never invited the old man to stay at the handsome rectory in Sussex, just left him to his sorrow while the new age dawned and the arrogant, shameless, spoiled generation turned its back on the fathers who fought the war, dismissing them for their short hair and tidy ways and indifference to rock and roll.
The subject, the theme (climate change) and the many ways of tackling the problem are, in the novel, as well as in the here and now, a source of debate. McEwan does about a good a job as can be expected to make sense out of it all. I’m not sure if another writer living could have made it all sound so interesting, and given us a human drama as well.