Michael Beard is a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work he did while in his early 20s, developing the Beard-Einstein Conflation, an extension of Einstein’s work. When we first meet him at the age of 53 in 2000, he has already spent decades living off the avails of that award: honorary (but paying) university positions, memberships on Royal Commissions, consulting editor to numerous publications, paid conference appearances where he delivers the same speech, etc., etc. — it is a long list. While he has niggling concerns about effectively deserting his field, his major current worry is far different — his fifth marriage is disintegrating and, for the first time, it is his wife (Patrice) who is driving the process.
He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleano, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his marriages had lasted more than six years and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented and they protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for something that he was still on speaking terms with his exes.
Needless to say all these wives, except for the first, were younger and the age gap has grown with each succeeding marriage (this latest one is about two decades). Patrice’s lover is a builder who renovated their Belsize Park flat — younger, taller, less fat and with more hair than Michael.
On the professional front, Beard has a new and attractive scam. He is the head (they call him “Chief”) of the National Centre for Renewable Energy in Reading, a Blair government initiative to show concern about climate change and also to one-up the Americans. It is not Beard’s field of expertise and he is a climate change sceptic at best, but the time investment is only one day a week, it is an easy train ride from London and the pay is good since the government needs someone like a Nobel Prize winner to show its commitment. Beard does make a useless, indeed project-killing, suggestion for the invention and development of WUDU (a Wind turbine for Urban Domestic Use, to be mounted like television aerials of the past on rooftops) that completely preoccupies the Centre.
The post-docs who are the scientists of the project (and much more in touch with contemporary science than Beard) are an idealistic, committed bunch (many with ponytails, all in denims). Much of the Centre’s time is taking up by responding to nutbar suggestions from the public, since the Minister has said every idea sent to the Centre would get a response — one post-doc suggests they be sorted into three piles according to their denial of the First or Second Laws of Thermodynamics, or both. That kind of satire is often where McEwan is at his best, but they really are throwaway lines.
This paragraph is a spoiler, in a way, but it is essential to the set up of the book and, honest, takes you no more than a quarter of the way into it. One of the ponytails, Tom Aldous, adopts the Chief as his mentor. Aldous is convinced that the breakthrough answer is a version of photosynthesis, using solar energy to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen, just as plants have been doing for millenia to make the planet habitable. In order to set up the novel, McEwan:
— has Aldous become Patrice’s lover.
— die in circumstances that could cast Beard as a murderer
— except perhaps Beard could frame her previous lover
— oh, and Aldous leaves Beard a 300-plus page file on his photosynthesis ideas
If you have ever read any Ian McEwan novel, you will understand why any further plot references in this review are going to be sketchy — it is one thing to outline the set-up, it is truly spoiling to go much further. McEwan’s best novels (Atonement and Enduring Love are at the top of my list) do have a consistent trait. More than 90 per cent of what he describes is very realistic and it is in these parts where the author offers very perceptive observations on modern foibles, usually totally unrelated to the plot. Here is one, somewhat extended, example from an incident at a press conference where Beard is introducing yet another government committee he heads, this one on how to encourage more young people to take up the sciences. It leads to Beard being scandalized in the popular press as the “neo-Nazi professor”:
Then a woman from a mid-market tabloid asked a question, also routine, something of an old chestnut, and Beard replied, as he thought, blandly. It was true, women were under-represented in physics and always had been. The problem had often been discussed, and (he was mindful of Professor Temple as he said it) certainly his committee would be looking at it again to see if there were new ways of encouraging more girls into the subject. He believed there were no longer any institutional barriers or prejudices. There were other branches of science where women were well represented, and some where they predominated. And then, because he was boring himself, he added that it might have to be accepted one day that a ceiling had been reached. Although there were many gifted women physicists, it was at least conceivable that they would always remain in a minority, albeit a substantial one, in this particular field. There might always be more men than women who wanted to work in physics. There was a concensus in cognitive psychology, based on a wide range of experimental work, that in statistical terms the brains of men and women were significantly different. This was emphatically not a question of gender superiority, nor was it a matter of social conditioning, though of course it played a reinforcing role. These were widely observed innate differences in cognitive ability.
I have quoted only half the paragraph but I am sure you get the gist. In my days in the newspaper business, there was a phrase that described such incidents (and you would be amazed how often they occur): “Meant it when he said it, not when he read it”. McEwan milks it for several, very funny pages.
Then there is the other 10 per cent of McEwan, where reality is suspended and an unreal, unbelievable world intoduced. In his good books, it is as though the author says “grant me this licence, believe it to be true and I will deliver a result”. In the bad ones, it produces the reader response of “oh, come on, Ian”. Alas, there is far more of the latter than the former in this book. Although there is a hilarious set-piece where Beard heads off to a climate change symposium located on a ship frozen in the winter ice off Spitsbergen. He is the only scientist of the more than 20 participants literally stuck in the middle of frozen nowhere — the rest are all artists of one sort or another, bringing their creative talents to bear on highlighting the issue of climate change. The fact that it works (McEwan in his acknowledgements says he got the idea for this book from a trip with Cape Farewell to Spitsbergen in 2005) is proof that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Unfortunately, the success of this particular section serves all too much as a reminder of the failure of others in this novel.
While Beard gives up marriage after his fifth dissolves, he does not give up women — the tensions created by that, mixed with the plot line I introduced in the mini-spoiler, drive the bulk of the book. He is an unattractive enough character that one would love to be cheering for the women but they are all drawn in a curiously flat fashion (I’d be interested in comments from women readers on what I at least perceive to be a major shortfall).
Okay, back to comparisons with Amis. The narrators of both books are men in their early 60s, realizing that sex (which has played such a large part of their lives) is entering a diminishing phase at best. Amis sets most of his narrative in the past when his character was 20 and discovering his lifelong obsession — he brings the story into the present in the Coda that I did not like at all. McEwan places his character pretty much in the present (the three sections of the book are set in 2000, 2005 and 2009) but he spends a lot of his time contemplating just what produced his current circumstances. For this reader, the two pretty much look at the same lump of coal, but from two quite different perspectives. For my money, while neither is successful, Amis comes closer to hitting a reader-friendly mark. McEwan’s introduction of the Nobel Prize winner and climate change angles sets the bar for success pretty high (if you are going to use those kind of high level plot gimmicks you have a duty to deliver at an equally high level) and they just don’t work at all. There is enough science to be annoying, not enough to learn much and it mainly ends up getting in the way of what could have been a rather good story.
But then I think that is a characteristic that is true of recent McEwan fiction — Saturday in particular comes to mind. If you liked that novel (I didn’t — the medicine was as distracting as the science is here, the story as thin), I think you would quite like this one. Indeed if you have read a lot of McEwan and liked him (I have read all of his books and for a while would have called him my favorite contemporary author), this book is definitely worth the investment, despite its shortcomings. He is a highly readable author and, if he isn’t annoying you, there are some quite good moments.
On the other hand, if you think he has been slipping badly in recent books (as many McEwan readers do), this one is probably going to confirm that opinion. And if you have only read one or two, my advice would be to go back to the earlier works. For me, at least, McEwan, like his central character Michael Beard, seems to be guilty of living off his past laurels rather than his current achievement.