Reading this on the train, I found myself laughing out loud – the first time I’ve said that about an Ian McEwan novel I think! Whether I was meant to be laughing is another question, of course. This novel reverberated with me on so many different levels: its main character is a not exactly likeable and corrupt scientist, Michael Beard, who works on the boundaries of energy and science policy. He’s on his fifth marriage as the book opens, and living on the strength of a Nobel prize gained for work he did in his early 20s. He has an obsession with food, and his interest in saving the planet from the perils of climate change doesn’t extend to saving himself from an unhealthy emotional and physical lifestyle.
A newspaper reviewer compared this to a West End farce, and that is what it’s like in many respects – characters come to grief on a polar bear shaped rug (ironic as climate change is a major theme); have comic mix ups over bags of salt and vinegar crisps on the Heathrow Express; and have embarrassing experiences in sub zero temperatures!!
I guess we could call this novel a postmodern romp. There are familiar McEwan traits here: again, we have a deeply unlikeable character; the novel is compressed into a few key days, with the character’s fate shaped by key events. It’s split into three parts, spread over ten years, and all parts are essentially tragic-comic leadups to realisations or events that will change his life. Action is played out against a wider landscape of memories and reminiscences. There’s even a false imprisonment, but no burning desire to atone for it.
There’s a great deal of poking fun at the relationship between the arts/social sciences and the natural sciences, while literature (and the study of it) comes in for a great deal of satirising. Postmodern attitudes are themselves lampooned, as Beard struggles to convince investors and social scientists of the reality of climate change and his solution for that and a looming energy crisis. I guess that lampooning of his own craft makes this novel postmodern in its own right.
We get pathos too – the looming energy crisis is matched by Beard disintegrating before our eyes. This is firmly a novel of its time, not only because of the emphasis on climate change, but it positions itself in a world shaped by financial crisis and MP expenses scandals.