Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fear and the Cataclysmic Imagination

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1997) 245 pp.

Shout out to friend MF for mentioning this book. I will cheerfully read anything that McEwan writes. Ian McEwan intrigues me because I often find that I am either completely blown away by his work such as The Cement Garden (1978) or Atonement (2001) or bored blind in novels such as Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2006) and now Enduring Love (1997). Oftentimes, these slight novels, such as the three that I mentioned above, feel like longish short stories which have been padded to novel length much to the detriment of the story.

His novels often centre around romantic or familial love being threatened by an outside malevolent force: the lovers in Atonement are threatened by Briony Tallis' lies; the Perowne family in Saturday are literally threatened by violent thugs; the newly married couple in On Chesil Beach whose relationship is destroyed by their own sexual innocence and a coital "mishap"; Jack and his orphaned siblings when fate leaves them to fend for themselves when both parents die ... this book is similarly in that vein. McEwan, I think, mines his own fears about the destruction of love and family and his cataclysmic imagination to tackle such subjects.

In Enduring Love, Joe, a science writer, and Clarissa, a Keats scholar, are two longtime lovers, torn apart by the traumatic witnessing of a death (I won't reveal the details here but McEwan has ingenious ways of finishing off people in his novels sometimes). There are other witnesses to the accident, one of whom, Jed Parry, becomes obsessed with Joe and begins a sort of stalkerish lovesick pursuit of him.

Jed's obsession with colourless Joe is odd and unfathomable. It's not that these things don't happen, they do, it's that McEwan doesn't give the reader enough insight as to what is happening and why. It does not make sense to me that traumatic event would generate such an intense response in Jed.

Additionally, Clarissa's hostility towards Joe and her inability to sympathize with this nightmarish scenario is bizarre. Intelligent, sensitive Clarissa, inexplicably, becomes suspicious of Joe, wondering what he has done to create this scenario, suspecting him of some past involvement with Jed which he is unable to convince her this is not so. She implies that Jed's handwriting is similar to Joe's, that he has fabricated this crisis (to what end?). Is this the first thing a wife imagines when her husband is being pursued by a mentally unstable, religious fanatic who calls repeatedly, dogs your husband's steps and sends beseeching letters? I think not.

Jed's beseeching, religiously themed pleas for love in the letters are particularly uninteresting (perhaps it is my anti-religious bias).

McEwan, like all writers I presume, becomes utterly fascinated with certain topics and tends to dump his (to him fascinating) research like a lump of cold unpalatable food into our plates as readers.

In Saturday, for instance, his obsessions appear to be the detailed account of along, boring squash game (which McEwan is said to love) and enough bits about neurosurgery to convince the reader that, yes indeed, McEwan truly knows a great deal about neurosurgery.

In Enduring Love, his pet research projects are genetics and the poet Keats. Joe, the male protagonist is a science writer. Clarissa, his partner, is a Keats scholar. Now, admittedly, I am spectacularly uninterested in the former and fascinated by the latter so that discussions about DNA have me falling asleep and little tidbits about the long dead poet captivate me.

It is not until the final one third of the book that the reader starts to perk up and get excited by the permutations of this odd plot. A scene in a restaurant which demonstrates the extent of Jed's obsession shocks me back into my awareness of why McEwan is one of my favourite authors. There is usually at least one scene in each novel which is so shocking that I can't help wondering, in admiration, from whence the ideas come.

But the B movie ending disappoints and stretches credulity.

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