NOTE: If you intend to read this book do not read what follows because it may spoil your enjoyment.
For quite a lot of this book I wondered what it was about. It isn’t usually a wonder I have about novels, because I read them primarily as entertainment. Perhaps it wasn’t the ‘about’ I was worried by, but my inability quite to recognize its genre (I know that’s a horrible film-studies type word, but I am trying to figure out what bothered me). It was only after finishing the book that I realised it was tragedy. Perhaps tragic-comedy. It is about the fall, through time, of a great man. It even finishes not far from a place called Shakespeare. It actually concludes in a place called Lordsburg. Roughly translated this could mean Heaven, couldn’t it? City of God at least. And Michael Beard, our anti-hero, is a sort of pre-Christian St Augustine. He is gluttonous, lecherous, slothful, greedy, proud and wrathful. He doesn’t appear to be all that envious (and yet his downfall hinges on ideas stolen from another and passed off as his own – and he is certainly capable of jealousy).
In a sort of riff on the theme of Amadeus, this monstrous creature is given the opportunity and has the talent, the brain, to save the world from environmental disaster. As in Saturday McEwan weaves the private and the public together in a Feynman’s Plaid (you’ll have to read the book). Unlike Amis, the most indiscreet of authors, McEwan is invisible. The problem is, despite his great technical abilities, he very rarely moves his reader. And although this is a much better book than Martin Amis’s perhaps it is the Amis I’ll remember longer. Odd.