In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose advocates reading books slowly. Savor the turns of phrase, the language chosen, even how the paragraphs break down. With that in mind, here’s an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s latest book, Solar:
But, thought [Michael] Beard, he must not be too hard on himself. He was the one who was keeping alive the spirit of that young man. Four years ago, in the rented basement flat he now irresponsibly owned, stretched out on the stinking sofa, which was still there, smelling no better, he had seen in ways that no one else could the true value of Tom [Aldous’s] work, which in turn was built on Beard’s, as his was on Einstein’s. And since that time he had sweated, he had done and was still doing the hard work. He was securing patents, assembling a consortium; he had progressed the lab work, involved some venture capital; and when it all came together, the world would be a better place. All Beard asked, beyond a reasonable return, was sole attribution. For what could precedence or originality mean to the dead? And details of surnames were hardly relevant when the issue was so urgent. In the only sense that mattered, the essence of Aldous would endure.
At first glance, the text reveals a past his prime scientist who builds on a dead colleague’s work and sees it as a chance to claim some glory for himself. But closer reading tells one all they need to know about Michael Beard’s repulsive and spectacular selfishness.
That first sentence makes it clear how quickly Beard can slide into modes of self-justification. A sentence starts with “but” when it tries to justify or rationalize something that on first glance seems wrong and unjustifiable. The paragraph does not start with the reasons he should be hard on himself. The reader by this point knows the myriad reasons why. However, this particular paragraph focuses on how he should not be hard himself about Tom Aldous. A man dead for some time who came up with the idea that is now prompting Beard to do “the hard work.” Ideas that by the end of the paragraph, Beard seems hellbent on stealing. It’s ok though, “the essence of Aldous” will endure, nameless but vitally important.*
What is the hard work Beard is doing? He’s “securing patents, assembling a consortium**[…]progressed the lab work, involved some venture capital,” etc. The only thing in the list that indicates that Beard did anything pertaining to the hard science that was going to save the world is “progressed the lab work.” Not “performed the lab work” or “did the lab work,” but “progressed” it. The definition of “progress” as a verb as per Merriam-Webster:
There are many ways to “move forward” or “develop to a higher, better, or more advanced stage” lab work. In addition to actually performing lab work, there’s securing money, getting intellectual property protections, talking about the lab at conferences, getting a “consortium” together (even if you do meaningfully take part in the consortium). These are things that Michael Beard has already acknowledged in his list of things performed to keep the “spirit of Aldous” alive. He can get the money. Get people’s opinions. Exclude others from making using or selling the technology with patent protection. But actually performing the lab work, the nitty gritty calculations and experiments–this is something that Beard cannot admit to himself. He progresses the lab work because it’s his contribution that is truly important.
Beard further diminishes Aldous’s contribution with verb construction. To wit:
he had seen in ways that no one else could the true value of Tom work, which in turn was built on Beard’s, as his was on Einstein’s. And since that time he had sweated, he had done and was still doing the hard work.
Tom’s contribution is only referred to once in these lines. His contribution “was built on” Beard’s. Tom didn’t “build on Beard’s work,” which implies active agency by Tom. Instead, the work “was built on” what Beard had discovered in by some vague third party, working through Tom. Beard thinks about Tom’s contribution in a passive voice and only mentions it once. Beard’s thinks about his contributions in an active voice and uses both the past pluperfect tense (“had done,” “had sweated”) and past imperfect (“was still doing”). Not only is he the agent of these important, yet vague sounding actions (done what? sweated why?), but he’s been doing them for a longer period of time and is still doing them. What better way to make yourself grander in the context of your fallen colleague than reducing him to the one time vessel of inspiration that you spent massive amounts of time bringing to life. With sweat.
However, even in this morass of shrinking Tom’s work and glorifying his own, Beard cannot escape contradictions. Within three lines of claiming that all he asked for was “sole attribution,” he minimizes the importance of surnames and in that wonderfully wordy phrase of self justification, claims that “only sense that mattered, the essence of Aldous would endure.”
Only sense that mattered? What sense is that? The great contribution to the world where the need was so “urgent” (climate change in the book).*** Then why is Beard so insistent on “sole attribution” if surnames are so trivial and that the only sense that mattered was the contribution to the greater good? Notice how quickly though, Beard’s thoughts go from “sole attribution” to “details of surnames” and “only sense that mattered.” While he wants the credit, if he allowed himself a second to think that surnames were more than “details,” he would have to admit to himself the truth: he stole Aldous’s work. If surnames are important, than the surname “Aldous” is important. And if the surname “Aldous” was important, he would have to justify to himself why he deserves “sole attribution,” which is something that Beard cannot do.
There are other parts of this passage that further reveal Beard’s character. So closely juxtaposing his name next to Einstein’s, implying that he’s on the same plane as the great genius, further distancing Tom Aldous’s one time “passive” contribution to science. The repetitive sibilant sounds in the description of his squalid flat not only indicate his slovenliness, but a snakelike nature–full of deception and sneakiness.
However, the frightening part of all this is that these linguistic tricks show just how deep in denial he is about himself. He feels justified in asking “only for” a “reasonable return” and “sole attribution.” Look at all the sweat and work he had done, while working in such squalid conditions. He actively built on Einstein’s work while the dead Tom Aldous only conveyed something that “was built on” his. And being dead, it’s easier for Beard to render him irrelevant. Beard isn’t a cackling villain devising how to steal the glory of the dearly departed Tom Aldous;**** Tom Aldous is not even a person. He was a thing with an idea. He’s dead. He served his purpose. It was Beard that is now responsible for getting the work off the ground (what Aldous could have found had he lived is a nonissue in Beard’s mind–note how he does not waste a moment mourning the loss of the man with such a brilliant idea). Why shouldn’t the active agent of this scientific discovery get the glory?
This paragraph is one of many that adds texture to McEwan’s novel about a narcissistic scientist so preoccupied with his own needs that he renders everyone else around him irrelevant and small to justify the horrible things he does to them. By the time one gets to this passage in the book (p. 188 of the hardcover), there is such ample evidence of Beard’s character that one does not need to look too closely at this passage. But the paragraphing, the juxtaposition of words and thoughts, even the verb voice add extra layers to the descriptions and ideas conveyed at first pass.
* “The essence of” is a construction that uses a “hidden verb”–a verb disguised as a noun. By reducing Aldous’s work to “the essence of Aldous” he is again depriving the dead man of his agency and credit. By saying “Aldous’s work” lived on, Beard would have to acknowledge that Aldous did the work, which would break down all his rationalizations about what he contributed and what was contributed through Aldous.
** Note that the only things he’s doing in the present tense are “securing patents” and “assembling consortiums.” While I would be the last person to denigrate teamwork or intellectual property protections, I think it’s telling that all Beard is still doing is getting other people together to do work and using the law to keep others from using the technology to solve this “urgent need” that would “make the world a better place.”
*** You have to love that banal justification that “the world would be a better place,” reminiscent of elementary school Earth Day celebrations and charity songs that used plaintive song collaborations to end famine in Africa. All these years working on this great project and he cannot even use concrete examples of how the world would be better in his own internal monologue.
**** By this point, the reader is perfectly aware of the sordid circumstances of Tom’s death, which adds another layer to Beard’s self-justification.