“He had it coming,” we read on the second page of Ian McEwan’s new novel. This is the character’s line of thought, a self-accusation, not an authorial verdict, and he returns to it eagerly a little later. “Yes, yes, he had been a lying womanizer, he had had it coming.” This is the least of what he has been, and at the end of the novel he still has it coming, it’s almost upon him, in the shape of two women about to tear him apart, a dangerous melanoma on his wrist, and what promises to be a series of lawsuits that will last his lifetime.
But this is only the most recent in a line of comeuppances—our man earns comeuppance the way other people earn heaven—and it hasn’t quite come yet. It’s not entirely impossible that he will survive what looks like a terminal disaster. As we are told just before the end, “Everything was terrible, but he was not feeling so bad.” Is this denial? It sounds like it but it’s really something quite different, a special, ultimately comic gift: the ability to turn one’s vices into comforts. Give this man just the thought of a stiff drink or a large meal or an hour in bed with a willing woman, and his mood lifts. Even as he says to himself that he has it coming, he has started on the road to easy absolution. “What was he to do, beyond taking his punishment? To which god was he supposed to offer his apologies?” He’s no worse than the next man. In fact, he is the next man, or so he says:
He thought he was an average type, no crueler, no better or worse than most. If he was sometimes greedy, selfish, calculating, mendacious, when to be otherwise would embarrass him, then so was everyone else. Human imperfection was a large subject.
Very large. In fact, he is considerably understating the scope of his adventures in immorality, which are much grander and more baroque than this humble bit of cynicism suggests, and which are the chief reason for our pleasure in reading about him.
Our man is Michael Beard, fifty-three years old when we first meet him, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist now resting on his laurels, or rather getting his laurels to work for him in the procurement of sinecures and means of passing the time. He has a university post that requires no work, he speaks on the radio, sits on commissions, awards prizes, picks up honorary degrees, gives after-dinner speeches, and makes “eulogies for retiring or about-to-be-cremated colleagues.” We see him at three moments of his increasingly disordered life—in 2000, 2005, and 2009—and we might, given Beard’s addiction to booze, food, sex, cheating, and intricate malevolence, think of the whole novel as a shaggy hog story, an adventure that can’t end because it never began. Beard and his life are always in a messy version of medias res, and his Nobel Prize…
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