Overall Grade: A-
Another instant masterpiece by Ian McEwan as he dissects the science and skepticism of climate change with use of his trademark allegory. Having read several reviews of this novel, my guess is that McEwan may be the most misunderstood of today's great writers.
The protagonist, Professor Michael Beard, is a corpulent middle-aged Nobel laureate resting on his academic accolades and running roughshod over relationships, colleagues, his career and his own health. A wastrel, Beard steals ideas from his post-doc student, eats himself into a coma on a daily basis, eschews his physician's advice, ignores his lover's affection and the baby girl who represents pure goodness, and fucks anyone and everyone who will have him. Wasting his talents, conceding that his most productive years are behind him and his future heading quickly to devastation, he's the perfect allegory for modern Western civilization.
The plot intricately weaves through Beard's life over a ten-year span that begins two decades after he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for an extension of Einstein's unified field theory. Beard by this time has not accomplished anything further in his scientific field and is on his way to dissolving his fifth marriage. Throughout the novel, Beard continues to gain weight from his profligate ways and, as the story develops, he collects avoidable legal battles, treatable skin cancer, dangerous enemies and alarming physical symptoms, all which he systematically ignores to his impending doom and, by extension, the possible doom of the entire planet.
Professor Beard is working on an artificial photosynthetic process that will mimic plants' ability to convert water into compressed hydrogen using only the sun's energy and producing innocuous water as the only by-product. The promise is that such a process will release civilization from the shackles of fossil fuel usage which carries all the negative externalities of global warming, peak oil and global security concerns. Beard, analogous to modern society, is so close to the solution, yet he is blinded by his limbic urges, and is tripped up his self-destructive tendencies toward sex, gluttony and greed, all things that we have in overabundance already.
We root for Beard to turn his ship of doom around, which seemingly can be done at any time. McEwan is the master of character development and in this short novel he creates a despicable protagonist who can still garner empathy; we want him to succeed, if for no other reason that the sustainability of our lifestyle is dependent on his genius. We want him to come clean about the intellectual rights to the idea that will save the world, go on a diet, get the small skin cancer excised, hug his little daughter and tell her he loves her, in short, we want him to cherish the blessings in his life and save the world, too. The novel comes to a rousing climax with all the threads coming together on the eve of the huge public demonstration of his photosynthetic process.
The reader sees that our very existence is tied to this weak and flawed ass of a man, and he represents so much of who we are communally. We know that our lifestyle is not sustainable for so many reasons, and we know that the answers are available, yet we ignore the obvious solutions right before our eyes because of the sacrifice, however minute, they will entail. We take for granted the deep joys in our lives in order to metaphorically get a quicky from the cocktail waitress.
I feel compelled to write since many other reviews seem to have missed the glaring correlation of the Beard character to our current global predicament. The misinterpretation of McEwan's elegant plot by the literary elite is perhaps the loudest statement regarding our lack of insight into the dangers we face.