The main character is one Michael Beard, who once won the Nobel Prize in physics. The book starts out with Beard's current trouble in his fifth marriage, and his own growing realization that over the last 20 years he has been fresh out of original ideas and that he no longer had the "will, the material,...the spark" he once had in the scientific field. Now he's content to accept money for serving on this or that committee, or to make speeches, or lend his name -- basically to live off of his Nobel Prize fame. Ever in search of the stipend his name would bring him, he signs on with the Centre, an institution largely created by the government to make it seem as though Britain cared more than just rhetorically about environmental change and the search for new and renewable energy sources. Personally, Beard didn't believe in the "air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs" hysteria regarding global warming and its dire consequences, but he took the position anyway. It is here that he meets Tom Aldous, a young scientist, whose entanglement in Beard's life will have some rather bizarre consequences that culminate in the desert of New Mexico.
Beard's character is very unsympathetic and definitely anti-heroic. He does "not believe in profound inner change," makes the same mistakes over and over again with women, and is balding, fat, and generally prone to letting himself go. From the very beginning you get the sense that nothing good could ever happen to this guy.
I enjoyed discovering McEwan's satirical & comic side -- especially as he was describing the various groups with whom Beard interacted throughout the novel. For example, in speaking about how "climate change was consuming Tom Aldous," the author explained that what Beard "disliked about political people" was that "injustice and calamity animated them, it was their milk, their lifeblood, it pleasured them." Everyone knows someone like this. And there were also the trendy artists who get together to figure out what they can do to help save the world, while all of the time they're doing absolutely nothing. Then there's Beard's interactions with the academic community, the scientific community, governments, the world of finance -- nothing and no one is sacred here. It's almost like everyone talks a good game about stopping global warming and finding new and renewable sources of energy, but actually doing is a different matter.
This book may not be representative of the work with which McEwan's readers are familiar, but it's still good. It's definitely satirical, sometimes very funny, but yet at the same time, serious when it needs to be. It isn't as tightly woven as his other work, and I thought the ending was a bit on the farcical side, but overall, I would highly recommend it. You should know ahead of time that you're not getting something along the lines of say, Atonement, but you're getting an entirely different side of this author that you haven't seen before. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
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