The de facto “national author” of England has set himself a daunting challenge, said Daniel Zalewski in The New Yorker. Admitting that he finds most novels “incredibly boring,” 60-year-old Ian McEwan keeps on writing the darn things anyway. He’s even steering more directly into “old-fashioned realism” as he worries that the form has grown impossibly wearisome. The novel that the author of Atonement is currently working on features a physicist who just might solve global warming if his character flaws don’t “get in the way.” The book promises to advance McEwan’s recent project of using fiction to explore the evolutionary aspects of human psychology. Clearly, an interest in science sets McEwan’s mind “at play.” In effect, he’s guiding the Western novel away from Freud, toward Darwin.

McEwan seems conscious of his flag bearer’s role. In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, he proposed that the literary world is now coming to the end of a “golden age” of fiction crowned by the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Commenting on Updike’s recent death, he proposed that the spark behind the novelist’s greatest work arose from a tension between Updike’s interest in science and his resistance to making the “leap” into a faith-free vision of the world. McEwan is, by contrast, a champion of science and what it can accomplish. Ever since 9/11, he says, “the powers of sweet reason” have looked “a lot more attractive than the beckonings of faith.”