Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wednesday Review: Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH; LBC S&V Excitement Begins

Time for one o' them book reviews.

by Ian McEwan
(Nan A. Talese, June 2007)

I'm embarassed to say that I initially registered my opinions on this book before I'd really read it. My bookstore is signed up to be the New York City host of Powell's Out Of The Book project, a 23-minute documentary on McEwan and On Chesil Beach created by Powell's that will be shown at indie bookstores around the country in June and accompanied by panels, music, dramatic readings, and other shenanigans. That sneaky Dave Weich of Powell'swas in town filming some bits for the film at the Random House offices, and asked me if I'd like to be involved; being the ham I am (why do you think I host events??), I agreed.

I neglected to mention that I was only halfway through the book, had never read any McEwan before, and that my sole experience with this literary celebrity was an interview he did with Zadie Smith in The Believer (and if she likes him, I thought, he can't be all bad.) My comments on camera consisted of some vague speculation on the differences between McEwan and Updike, some confessions about sexual misinformation passed along by camp counselors, and a guess that probably more men than women buy McEwan's books (which I don't think is actually true). I sincerely hope that most of that ends up on the cutting room floor (though it would be fun if they could actually air my opinion that John Updike is unaware that women have thoughts).

I finished reading On Chesil Beach the day after the film shoot, and wished fervently I had done so beforehand, as I found it actually inspired any number of thoughts and desire for conversation about writing, about relationships, about cultural evolution or cycles, about how a writer earns a reader's belief, about men and women and ritual and physicality and all the stuff that a good book makes you think about. So here I am again, and hopefully I can redeem myself a tiny bit, though here time is my enemy rather than ignorance.

The plot of On Chesil Beach (which at 197 mass-market-size pages is really more of a novella than a novel) is strikingly simple, almost simplistic: on their wedding night in 1962 at their honeymoon suite in Chesil Beach, Edward and Florence have a misunderstanding about sex. All of the action takes place on that one evening, though the narrative ranges far into the characters' past and well into their future to explain its significance. Without giving too much away (though the causes and trajectory you might be able to guess), Florence is anxious and a little grossed out by the thought of consumation, while Edward is looking forward to it a great deal indeed. Oh, and they're both virgins, which in 1962 (remember Philip Larkin says sexual intercourse didn't begin until the following year) is entirely plausible.

Despite this all being laid out on the back cover, it took me a minute to get my bearing in the story; when McEwan talks about the transitional age the lovers find themselves in, for a few pages I thought we were talking about the transfer from the Victorian Age to the Edwardian, so clasically English is the setting, the conversation, even the food, and of course the issues involved. The book is in some way a long disintegration of the horrible tradition of "lie back and think of England" -- Florence finds herself unable to do so, and the reasons, while there is a hint (never confirmed) that they are primarily based in personal experience, are also cultural. Who would she talk to about sex, how to do it, how to enjoy it, how to express her thoughts and desires about it? And how would Edward (who ends up making the bigger fool of himself) know how to talk to her about it, how to respond to her, when men's and women's circles of discourse about the subject were so entirely separate?

McEwan's greatest feat in this book -- a pure expression of the novel's unique gifts -- is building up the reader's understanding of these characters even as they fail to understand each other. For we, the reader, can see under the surface of each silence and failed joke, to both the affection and the anxiety underneath. We can go back to the memories associated with each word or moment that affect their meaning in Edward's and Florence's mind, though the other cannot share that understanding. The heartbreak of the book comes from this dramatic irony, as we come to realize how hard each is trying to reach the other, and how they come to fail. These two have not married for convenience or propriety, or out of ignorance -- they love each other with idealism and sympathy and affection and a desire to do good for the other, which is why it's so awful that they can't get this one thing right. McEwan, as opposed to Updike, is very aware of women's thoughts, and (though Florence gets short shrift in the aftermath of the story, which focuses on Edward) each half of the couple is presented fully rounded, entirely present, painted so skilfully with just a few details of background and behavior that the reader, from her privileged perspective, can understand this misunderstanding.

My only disappointment was with the last ten pages, when I feel McEwan's gift of telegraphing internal life fails him, or at least he shoves it off to the side. The aftermath of the fateful night feels unearned to me -- feels like a set of unjustified assumptions and sentimental (or cynical) baloney. Because in fact many couples, in the 1960s and back to pre-history, managed to get over the horror and absurdity of the first time, of their segregated cultural experience up to that point, and make a life together, and I'm not sure why this couple should be such a dramatic exception. Maybe it's because I'm about to get married myself, but I just wasn't sure why people who did seem to care for each other in real, if imperfect ways, should let their marriage go so easily.

I've given away far too much now, but it's hard to talk about the book (or, apparently, any McEwan) without obsessing about the major plot twist that turns the story. I don't know that I'll be reading any of his others soon; this one, for all its skillfulness, left me a bit nauseated with its seemingly avoidable tragedy (you know I have a low tolerance for unhappiness) and I don't think I'll be ready for more of it for a while. But I did find McEwan's small jewel of a novella fascinating, and worth talking about, both for the questions it sparks about male and female culture surrounding marriage and for the quality of the characterization and the beauty of the writing. I'm looking forward to the conversations that the Out of the Book project will inspire, and more than willing to have anyone talk me out of my aversion to the ending. But maybe that's just because I'm a girl...

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In other news (and on a book that I enjoyed all the way through), you can see my introduction to the discussion of Mark Binelli's Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! on the Litblog Co-Op today. Alan DeNiro's short story collection Skinny Dipping In The Lake Of The Dead may have won the Read This! nod (and he certainly deserves the recognition, as does the publisher, Small Beer), but I stand by my slapstick alternate histories when I can, and I'll be looking forward to conversation about comedy, anarchy, and absurdity in S&V starting next week. Hope to see you there (oh, there WILL be giveaways)...


Anonymous said...

I started reading your description of the book and thought I was going insane with deja vu until I realized that I think McEwan published a short version - or the beginning - of this novel in the New Yorker last summer or autumn sometime, since I've definitely read the first 10 pages or so of the storyline.

Glad I'm not going crazy - looking forward to seeing the full story.

Anonymous said...

Really excellent review this time around. And don't worry about giving away plot twists; I think good reviews almost demand it, despite Updike's rule to the contrary. Though it does contain a hearty dollop of (easily foreseeable, shout-at-the-screen anxiety inducing) tragedy you should really check out Atonement. I'm not a fan of reading Big Mainstream Literary Books in this vein either, but this book was a pleasure. Also, there's a precocious literary adolescent girl who I bet you'd love if your other reading tastes are any indication.

Now I have to watch that documentary, too, if only to see your bookseller's Bite-Sized Insights engine churn away.

Anonymous said...

Ah, interesting, Jessica. I read this over the weekend, and like you, I was pretty charmed. But, the end worked for me. If anything,though, I thought it was perhaps a bit preachy: It's the simple choices we refuse or fail to make that turn our lives in directions they should never go. The reason we were stuck with Edward at the end and little of Florence--I thought--was because it was his (failure/refusal)to get up and move that ended their marriage.
(and thanks for the public anti-Updike chatter).