He belonged to that class of novelist - vaguely unprepossessing, earnest, left-liberal, often sexually obsessed - who were unaccountably attractive to the editor of the Guardian Saturday Review and the judges of literary prizes. But the Ian McEwan of this time was a man of deeply depressed sensibilities, chthonic, limitrophic, and prone to use words whose meanings many of his readers would find themselves forced to look up in dictionaries. He did not know how to write a novel that did not depend for its effects on vast amounts of background research, or wholly implausible moments of lurid drama, and the discovery produced in himself, among an array of contending emotions, intense moments of shame and longing.
Apparently there was a certain kind of novelist - in furtive, emulative moments he had read about them in the pages of high-brow literary reviews - who was able to write convincing panoramas of the world which he and his fellow-citizens might be thought to inhabit: authentic, untrammelled, indisputably his own man (he had been a feminist once, and the phrase still filled him with disquiet). But he himself was reduced to writing immensely stagy productions set on the day of the anti-Iraq war protest march, in which brain surgeons exchanged dialogue filched out of medical textbooks, or laboured accounts of the sexual incompatibility of honeymooning couples on the south coast.
What did Ian do to quench this unyielding desire to be echt, to be original, to write the kind of book that would not have the knowing young critics roll their eyes with boredom? Did he write a novel about one or two ordinary people living more or less believable lives far beyond the glare of the media or the international body politic? No, he decided to write a novel about climate change featuring a much-married Nobel Prize winner whose best days are behind him. He knew, as he set about the task, that he should not have done it. At the same time the lure was irresistible. Waterstone's, he believed, would make it their book of the month. He would be able to reuse all the material brought back from the trip to the Arctic Circle in 200S, and with luck no one would remember that an account of this voyage had already appeared in the Guardian. He would employ that puzzling, ineluctable garnish so tantalisingly absent from his work - humour. And he would be able to read a great many books - already the prospect brought a bulge to his gleaming, Gollum-like eyes - about Einstein and string theory.
But there was one thing, he told himself, as the novel took shape beneath his fond yet exacting gaze, as he despatched countless emails to members of the scientific community at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Centre for Quantum Computation at the University of Cambridge, and tried to think of some jokes - jokes, alas, were really not his thing. He would not put in one of those jaw-dropping coincidental tragedies that upstart reviewers were sometimes prone to mock. But then, unaccountably, unforeseeably, as his hero walked into the room where the research assistant who had been sleeping with his wife sat on the sofa, an unconquerable urge took hold of him and, with a swift, unregretful stroke of the pen, he had the man lose his footing on the carpet and smash open his skull on the table-edge. When Ian had committed this act he sat for a moment before the laptop, broken, disillusioned, almost weeping at his lack of self-control.
But it was no good. There it was. 'No breathing. No pulse. There was a halo of blood under his head about nine inches across, and for some reason it did not grow larger.' Then he gave a sigh of relief. A writer must be true to his inner nature. It was all he could do. Emboldened he picked up the copy of Quantum Physics for Beginners and began once more to rifle through its dog-eared pages. Outside the sun slid like a bloody disk over the weary horizon of the ground-down earth ... [continues].
D J Taylor