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Messy, but readable
on 18 March 2011
I didn't dislike this book; it's topical and funny. Ian McEwan has been criticised for taking a lot of artistic licence with the scientific theory, but I think that's fine. It's a work of fiction, after all, not a doctoral thesis. Beard is a strong enough central character and although the plot is lacking, the pace is good. But it does read like a series of metaphors in search of a story.
After many marital infidelities Beard is about to divorce his fifth wife. But on discovering that she doesn't appear to care and is, in fact, having an affair of her own, he develops an obsession with her and changes his mind. A Nobel Laureate, he hasn't done any serious science since winning his prize, but his name still spells fund money in the scientific world and he is not short of lucrative offers of one sort or another. He takes a high profile assignment with a government funded initiative committed to enlisting the public in the search for ideas to combat global warming.
He continues to obsess about his wife, but he lacks the emotional depth necessary to win her back. In a final bid to rid himself of his fixation he accepts an offer to join a group of climate change activists on an expedition to the Arctic Circle. He is ill-equipped, being fat, alcoholic, anti-social and completely uninterested in climate-change. He finds himself the only scientist in a group of artists, no climate changing ideas are forthcoming and everyone mislays their arctic outdoor gear, and so steals other people's, on a daily basis. Yes, you've guessed, it's a metaphor for global warming and the way in which we fail to take care of the resources which are most important to us. Very heavy handed on the metaphor front, but still a funny piece of prose.
On Beard's return, a sequence of events leads him to a decision to resurrect his career and he begins work on clean energy research in a cynical attempt to appeal to the zeitgeist. The rest of the book deals with the vain, greedy, self-obsessed, emotionally sterile and opportunistic Beard as he attempts to gain new recognition and corporate investment. On the way he continues to betray his women, gobble his food, drink more, grow fatter and avoid responsibility for all of it. He has enough insight to know he's on a destructive path, but insufficient self-control to put a stop to it. Yes, he's a metaphor too. Eventually, all the individual strands of his greedy, lascivious, self-serving and badly constructed life converge. Is it too late for redemption? Well, I don't want to give the ending away.
The book is readable, but the writing is messy and undisciplined. It needs a much tighter structure to elevate it from merely readable to a good novel.