2000 He belonged to that Salman class of short, fat, ugly, clever men who were unaccountably attractive to women. But Michael Beard was anhedonic; his fifth marriage was disintegrating and he should have known how to behave as his philandering had ended the previous four. This time, though, it was his wife, Patrice, who was having an affair with Tarpin, a horny-handed Essex builder who knew nothing about cavity-wall insulation.
Beard waited for Aldous to collect him. Gosh, how he hated the polar bear rug in the hall. Still, everyone would soon have one, he supposed, if the polar ice-cap continued to melt. Not that Beard was yet wholly committed to the climate- change agenda, but having won the Nobel prize for his Beard-Einstein Conflation on Photovoltaics, an idea he was very thankful he was never asked to fully explain, he had been happy to head the New Labour Climate Change Laboratory.
"I'm afraid it's not a Prius," Aldous said. "I'm not surprised, as they were only sold outside Japan in 2001," Beard replied. Aldous was one of his pony-tailed post-docs who was being forced into working on the New Labour cul-de sac of wind turbine energy. Beard nodded off. He was very familiar with the McEwan Conflation of cramming loads of dull facts about climate change into a book and calling it fiction.
"Tarpin hit me," said Patrice. "He hit me too," Beard replied as he went off to visit an endangered glacier in the Arctic for 30 pages. He returned to find Aldous in his flat. "I admit I'm having an affair with your wife," said Aldous, "but I've worked out that your Conflation can satisfy the world's energy needs." At which, Aldous slipped on the polar bear rug and died, a victim of climate change.
"I could make it look like Tarpin did it," McEwan thought. He had no real experience of writing comedy and the gags creaked as much as the plot. But it was an improvement on his previous books, so the judge mercifully sent Tarpin to prison.
2005 As his plane stacked over New Mexico, Beard passed the time unnecessarily recalling his childhood before patting his gut. He had put on 35lb. He couldn't stop consuming; it was almost as if his size was a metaphor for the world's greed for natural resources. Still, there had been something in Aldous's calculations after all, and he was looking forward to seeing the photovoltaic laboratory the Americans had built for him.
Back in England, Beard looked angrily at the man who was helping himself to his crisps and snatched them away. Only later did he realise they were actually the other man's crisps! "That's the oldest comedy plot twist in the repertoire," said Melissa, his new girlfriend. "I know," Beard shrugged, "But Ian thinks that, like climate change, it may be old but it doesn't mean it can't happen." "Really," Melissa yawned.
Beard reckoned it was time to move to the safer ground of rehashing large chunks of climate-change data and inventing an unlikely intellectual disagreement. "I don't think the serious climate-change sceptics are fighting over feminism and postmodern relativism," Melissa said. "By the way, I'm pregnant."
2009 Beard had put on another 90lb and his belly was as over-extended as the metaphor. Worse still, the plot was falling to pieces. One of his American lovers, Darlene, had rung Melissa to say they were getting married, and Tarpin had been let out of jail.
"I took the rap for Patrice," Tarpin said. "I know she killed Aldous because he was beating her up." Beard looked quizzically at McEwan. "I'm sorry," Ian said. "I'm OK on the climate-change stuff, but I don't really understand human psychology or comedy. Do you mind if Tarpin smashes up all your solar panels?"
"We've had enough," said the New Mexicans. "We don't mind you being sued for stealing Aldous's ideas, it's just we think David Lodge does this kind of story so much better."
"Oh dear," Beard said. "Maybe I should go back to climate change. Perhaps nuclear power is the answer. Or how about a bit of pathos with my daughter?" "Enough trees have died for this already," Melissa sighed.
Digested read, digested: Solar Power: No Thanks.