Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

Early in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, there is a scene where a pair of newly-weds sit glumly working their way through an unappetizing English supper, keen to get on with their evening but feeling that certain proprieties must be met. It’s a feeling of being trapped by an unacknowledged rule that readers of McEwan’s new novel will find familiar, as they ask themselves why they’re bothering to go on reading this thing when they could be out enjoying the last of the Fall sunlight.

To put it mildly, On Chesil Beach is not McEwan’s most successful novel. In fact, it’s barely a novel at all, more like an insecure short story blustering its way into novel status by adding a lot of padding and pretending to be a lot more grown up and serious than it really is. The story revolves around Edward and Florence, two newly-weds who are, as the first line of the book informs us, “young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night”. The reference to the happy couple’s mutual virginity is not incidental, since losing this virginity is the nub of all future events. It’s a prospect that Florence views with apprehension bordering on disgust, while Edward, doing his part to live up to the gender stereotype, awaits with eagerness the prospect that “the most sensitive part of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman” – easily the most nauseating description of the sex act I’ve read all year (I mean really “naturally formed cavity” – what is she, a cave? a piece of missing tartar?). You have to feel sorry for a woman who’s married to a man who would put it like that[1], even to himself. At any rate, it’s no surprise that things go badly and the whole thing ends up being, both literally and figuratively, a mess.

The really sad part about On Chesil Beach is that the sequence of misunderstandings and thwarted communication that play out between these two silly young people would be deliciously funny (in a Stendhal kind of way) if the two lovebirds, and McEwan, weren’t so hell bent on taking it all seriously. McEwan seems to have decided that the best way to get the maximum mileage out of this book is to combine the story of Edward and Florence with a socio-cultural visit to the sexual mores ( sexual lesses?) of England in the early-60s, a subject which is even more dreary now than it must have been then. It’s almost as though McEwan, like a self-important grandfather taking pride in the hard old days wanted to show you just how bad things were when he was growing up.

The worst part of this is that his development of this theme is excruciatingly heavy-handed, so that we get a lot of lines of the ‘they were listening to Macmillan on the radio because, you know, MacMillan was in power then and we used to sit around in the evenings listening to him on the radio’ variety, and time and time again McEwan steps out of the narrative to point out that ‘things were different then’, as if we, living in the first decade of the 21st century, could not possibly notice the difference for ourselves. In places the book itself reads more like an outline of a potential novel than a novel itself, with the points to be made simply written down on paper, without any real attempt to weave them into the story.

If all this weren’t bad enough, McEwan also decides to interfere with the clean, simple plot to add long chapters giving us the back-story on each of his characters – back-stories that do little but destroy entirely the fledgling comic possibilities of the book and make the eventual denouement seem even more grotesquely unlikely than it would anyway. What McEwan is after, I suspect, is providing us with a clear portrait (or rather two clear portraits) of what life was like a for a particular generation of people growing up in post-war England, showing us the typical experiences that shaped and defined the values and beliefs of an entire class of people. At the same time, though, he cannot resist the temptation to dramatize, to make his characters more ‘fictional’, more interesting, and this leaves us with large sections of prose that are, like the people they describe, pleasantly dull.

When the action finally returns to the bridal suite it moves swiftly enough, though in a manner that is so un-sexy as to be almost mechanical. If McEwan’s aim here is to convey awkwardness and lack of skill, he does so admirably, but the overall effect is like reading something written by the illegitimate love-child of Iris Murdoch and D.H. Lawrence. Once we get past the sexual situation and enter the realm of the purely emotional / psychological, McEwan finds his rhythm again, and the final encounter between Edward and Florence is the first exchange between them that feels real. After that point, the book winds quickly and tidily to its end, in prose that is skilled and surefooted, but by then the book, like Edward and Florence’s marriage, is already beyond saving.

As Julian Gough points out in his piece in the Guardian, On Chesil Beach is the latest variation on a familiar McEwan theme: the idea that a random event – a chance meeting, an accidental misunderstanding, an unlikely error – can change the course of your life forever. This ‘great event’ theory of our personal histories (most effectively demonstrated, perhaps, in Atonement) is not without its problems – the most obvious being that it requires McEwan to consistently invent the most outrageously improbable scenarios and make us believe them, convincing us that a combination of pride, small-mindedness and insecurity can make rational, reasonable human beings magnify an insignificant incident so out of proportion that it will come to blight the rest of their lives. McEwan’s gift lies precisely in the fact that he can pull this off – that at his best he can turn out prose so mesmerizing, dialog and action so authentic, that we never stop to think about the gaping inconsistencies in the logic, never notice how ridiculous the whole premise is.

Where he doesn’t succeed, however, we are left with the inexplicable prospect of people acting in ways that are so ludicrous as to be comical, and the sympathy McEwan is trying to make us feel turns to mockery. And that, I think, is the problem with On Chesil Beach. Because we never really develop an authentic connection with either Edward or Florence, because their sexual anxieties take up too much of the stage to allow us to develop a larger sense of their character, because they seem more like personifications of the attitudes of their time than real people, because it seems impossible to believe that two people could love each other deeply, could enter upon the massive enterprise that is marriage – clearly aware of the sacrifices and compromises this would entail – and then let it all fall apart on the basis of one quarrel, because McEwan neither manages to convincingly portray the love between these two people or clarify the reasons for their lasting division, On Chesil Beach is, ultimately, an unconvincing book.

I will say this, though: of the books on the Booker shortlist that I’ve read (and I’ve now read all except Darkmans), On Chesil Beach would be my second favorite pick after Animal’s People. That isn’t necessarily a compliment to McEwan’s novel though, it’s more a reflection of how disappointing this year’s Booker shortlist has turned out to be.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; cross-posted on 2x3x7]

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