I'm still wiggling on the fence between a hug or an enthusiastic wet kiss. Loved passages and some few hundred of McEwan's sentences, appreciated its whole-hearted embrace of its central cad, smitten by its over-arching conceit (see below), but felt slightly let down by the way that conceit constrains the working of plot so that the novel, by Act Three, chugs less energetically toward its pre-destined conclusion.
But that conceit--whoa. So let's say you're horrifed by the threat of climate change, a determined rationalist yet also a novelist peculiarly attentive to the decadent vice of human passions. All this astounding and terrifying science, captured evocatively and passionately by so much great nonfiction, yet the fuckwitted mainstream narrative remains pundit-bound, holding debates on the deck of the Titanic
about whether you could really be certain that was an iceberg, and damn I'm not feeling wet so let's make fun of the chicken-littles, eh? Yet how strange to imagine that--fact seemingly without sway--"it was art in its highest forms, poetry, sculpture, dance, abstract music, conceptual art, that would lift climate change as a subject, gild it, palpate it, reveal all the horror and lost beauty and awesome threat, and inspire the public to take thought, take action, or demand it of others." McEwan's protagonist Michael Beard, a Nobel-prize-winning priapic prat with even more delusions about his own motivations than unchecked appetites, sits through an Arctic seminar, the lone scientist among a slew of artists, "in silent wonder. Idealism was so alien to his nature. . . ."
Ah, ah, ah--perfect. Idealistic art, lofty tragedies, sweeping sombre atonal work meant to shame the already shame-prone crowd into further paroxysms of worry and fear. So what's McEwan do? He gives voice to that dismissal, and tacks against the prevailing winds, in one of Beard's speeches: "How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. . . . This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it's a weak force."
Beard is here preaching self-interest to a group (posse? murder?) of industrial capitalists, looking to prime the fiscal pump for a hot new green-tech venture, and there's something deeply ironic here and throughout the novel: McEwan's most intelligent claims and criticisms regarding how we approach (or fail to approach) climate change come in a voice of delusional arrogance, of windy self-importance, of crass avaricious need--his Beard for his argument is repellent, a petri dish for vice both bacterial and grand in scope, and wonderfully exaggeratedly so.
I think I just talked myself into that wet kiss. The novel has its flaws, but ambition isn't lacking, and it is relentlessly funny in that casually vicious British style. I think it's damned interesting to pitch an argument about global warming and human self-destruction using an individual racing toward his own immolation. And lest this seem all bleak and good-for-you in a not-really-fun-for-you way, it is full of laughs, a nasty farce full of some amazingly precise comic acrobatics.
... did this convince you at all?
(Note: I find it interesting that Kim Stanley Robinson, in his trilogy about climate change, also took a comic-melodramatic stance, turning a more realist and more humanist eye on the subject, yet working the same comic vein--hints of farce and foolishness.)