Monday, October 1, 2007


Listening to Bruce Springsteen's new "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" whilst finishing Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach revealed the differences between aging boomers dealing with the recent past. I retract what I said to friends about the lecherous intentions in Broose's song; in comparing Springsteen to the Robert Palmer of "Some Like It Hot," I confused one paunchy men showing his age and weakness for windbag romantic poesy with another paunchy man showing his age and dick.

Anyway, the lovers in On Chesil Beach discover that their genuine love isn't enough to overcome how little their upbringing prepared them for the mystery of sex. Set on the couple's honeymoon night in 1963, with explanatory flashbacks, the novella deconstructs Frederica's self-sufficiency while affirming its/her dignity; while it's clearly a defensive gesture, McEwan doesn't treat her devotion to classical music condescendingly. The seaside milieu is well-drawn even though, from my vantage point, McEwan's skill could be fictive rather than mimetic for all I know about the English countryside (Christopher Hitchens testifies to the verisimilitude of McEwan's depiction of "the full gruesomeness" of this holiday).

Still, there's tension between the thin plot and the etiolated manner in which the narrator comments on it; we're reminded of those John Fowles or Milan Kundera novels whose authors can't leave well enough alone, even when their cultivation and delineating of their narratives' finely shaded ironies is a pleasure. Another pleasure: how McEwan has learned how to integrate a predilection for surprise endings and springing horrors on his characters. From the casual way in which Edward's mother suffered permanent "brain damage" after an exiting passenger slams a train door against her head, to how repulsively yet convincingly the wedding night descends into a comedic horror show, this is life observed with a watchful eye, careful not to confuse fidelity with realism. The McEwan novel I was most reminded of was Black Dogs, in which the author posits a future -- and a past -- for a couple as deeply in love as Edward and Frederica. But the spare, silvery grace of the earlier novel peters out in On Chesil Beach, which is at least ten pages longer than it needs to be, especially its pat ending. McEwan's narrator comes to resemble a dinner guest telling a story well past the moment at which the servants have begun to quietly blow out the candles and put away the decanter of brandy. The pathos threatens to harden into the grimmest sort of didacticism.

No comments: