Friday, July 20, 2007

Being Ian

I am a big fan of the British writer Ian McEwan and particularly loved his previous books The Cement Garden (1978), his first novel, and Atonement (2001). Both knocked me out in a way that his newest novel On Chesil Beach decidedly does not. Of course he deals with fairly sensational topics in both of the earlier books: the death of a mother and the hiding of her corpse by the children in the first novel; love, and the betrayal of that loved one, in a WWII setting, in the latter book.

His last book, Saturday (2005), the novel immediately before On Chesil Beach, was disappointing. It felt like an exercise in writerly conceits. One small example: McEwan loves and regularly plays squash (by his own admission) and he has a long excruciatingly detailed scene of a competitive squash match in the book which is of no interest to the non-enthusiast. He obviously wanted to depict his hero, the London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, in an authentic manner (as every good novelist should), yet bores, rather than engages, us with all the little details of the trade that prove he did his research as a writer. And the soap opera ending! Dr. Perowne is forced to operate on one of the villains who torments him and almost kills him during the course of the novel. It was like a bad B movie ending.

I did feel a pang of sympathy last year when reading about the accusations that McEwan had lifted passages from a wartime memoir, No Time for Romance, by the now deceased Lucilla Andrews for the WWII sections of Atonement which I loved. This 2006 Times article cites three distinct passages which are too similar to be dismissed. McEwan claims that he used Andrews' book for research only and is adamant that he is not a plagiarist; if so, he was too sloppy in utilizing her work and reworking it for his own purposes as these quoted passages demonstrate.

However, I do know as a fiction writer that I have "lifted" certain images and passages that I thought I had created wholesale out of my own head and imported them into my fiction and only realized it after I reread certain favourite books. One was a scene from a book by A.S. Byatt and the other was a bit of dialogue from an F. Scott Fitzgerald book (and those are the two that I've caught so far!). Only steal from the best, that's my motto.

However, on to McEwan's latest book On Chesil Beach. Does this slight novella set in the 1960s merit the 160 odd pages to explain why the sheltered, middle class 20-something virgins Edward Mayhew and his new bride Florence Ponting are unable to copulate in their hotel room on Chesil Beach in southern England on their honeymoon night? No, it does not. Their sexual inhibitions do not intrigue; they make the reader yawn.

The two are pleasant enough: educated, smart, funny, kind, politically aware. Edward's background is more humble with a brain damaged mother and a self-sacrificing father. He is a bit rough edged. In fact, one of the few moments of drama is Edward's rememberance of punching a man full in the face after he struck his smaller, nebbishy school chum on the street without provocation. Edward flushes with shame at the thought, thinking himself an uncouth ruffian who embarrassed his friend. Me? I was praying for a few more shows of similar violence to end my ennui while reading this tedious book.

Florence's family is more cerebral and bohemian with a slightly sinister businessman for a father and a haughty academic mother. She is musical and a bit dictatorial with the classical group that she plays with. She dreads the honeymoon night and recalls Edward's physical advances with horror, almost palpable nausea, at the smells and feel of physical intimacy. Their brief courtship and attraction is recorded; the emotional tumult before the wedding duly noted.

This does not suffice for the basis of a novel that engages on any level. Perhaps I enjoy McEwan when he is being more lurid? Perhaps I miss what the writer Colm Tóibín has called the "delicious cruelties" of his earlier books in this London Review of Books review?

There may be some merit in trying to imagine how sexually repressed and unknowledgable the young were in 1962. Is there? To what end I wonder? Colm Tóibín also points out in the same article cited above how similar the two main characters are to those in the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch, a script written by McEwan in the 1980s.

Thinking I might be a bit off on my assessment of the book, I started checking other reviews ... Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it "small, sullen, unsatisfying". The Guardian claims that McEwan is "word-perfect at handling the awkward comedy of this relationship" in a very favourable review. The Washington Post said "Tension and surprise are constants in McEwan's fiction, and never more so than in On Chesil Beach. Suffice it to say that the turns taken are at once surprising and totally true to human nature." So it appears to be a mixed bag critically.

Edward acts on his sexual impulses at Florence's timid instigation on their wedding night; Florence is repulsed, more than repulsed, at the result, and issues an edict that Edward cannot live with. Of course it ends in tears or what would be the point of this exercise? And I believe none of it.

If one bad sexual experience was all it took to put humans off intercourse, even in the pre-hippie era of 1962 Britain, most of us would never do it again, ever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great job!

love j