Friday, May 25, 2007
On Chesil Beach
Our book today is "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan, but it's a 'book' only by odd fiat of its publishers, who've decided (no doubt for financial reasons) to characterize as a novel what is, in fact, a short story - if by 'short story' we mean what's usually meant, a tale without subplots, readable in one sitting.
In "Saturday," McEwan confined himself to the events of one day. In "On Chesil Beach," minus long flashbacks and adumbrations, it's one single evening. The evening in question is the wedding night of young Edward and Florence who, after a lovely ceremony, have removed themselves to Chesil Beach on the Dorset shore to celebrate the first night of their honeymoon. Edward is from solid working-class stock; Florence is from considerably more money and refinement. Both are virgins, and the problem with that is that the story takes place in 1962. McEwan makes it pretty clear that life in general - and sex in particular - generally stank before the successive waves of the 'sexual revolution' that wouldn't come along until after the night in question. Edward and Florence are basically still bumbling around in the '50s, which for McEwan might as well be the Victorian era.
Our young couple have a lovely supper (Edward takes in the fare with wonder - it's implied that he's never eaten anything except boiled potatoes and fish-n-chips in his whole life), and things are progressing well, and off in the background, like a romantic violinist playing just a trifle too loud, is McEwan trying to make his prose channel Henry James.
Whether or not he succeeds, every reader will judge for themselves. We here at Stevereads have never been great fans of McEwan's bland, wan prose in the past - and we've never really liked James' labored orotundities, either. The one trying to channel the other left us grumblingly scanning each page for a rare tossed scrap of dialogue. Florence will utter such a scrap - and then ruminate about it for four pages, and then those four pages will trigger a fourteen-page flashback, and by the time Edward's reply is given, the reader is halfway tempted to blurt out, "who's Edward again?"
Since flashbacks don't count as dramatic incident, it would be tempting to say this is a short story in which nothing happens. But that would be slightly wrong. And hoo-boy, WHAT a slightly.
Because when our young couple retire to their romantic four-poster bed for their first night of connubial bliss, something happens. We'll let McEwan describe it for himself. Those of you who enjoy the Discovery Channel should have your digital cameras ready:
She found his testicles first, and not at all afraid now, she curled her fingers softly around this extraordinary bristling item she had seen in different forms on dogs and horses, but had never quite believed could fit comfortably on adult humans. Drawing her fingers across its underside, she arrived at the base of his penis, which she held with extreme care, for she had no idea how sensitive or robust it was. She trailed her fingers along its length, noting with interest its silky texture, right to the tip, which she lightly stroked; and then, amazed by her own boldness, she moved back down a little, to take his penis firmly, about halfway along, and pulled it downward, a slight adjustment, until she felt it just touching her labia.
How could she have known what a terrible mistake she was making? Had she pulled on the thing wrong? Had she gripped it too tight? He gave out a wail, a complicated series of agonized, rising vowels, the sort of sound she had heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates.
In horror she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid.
Let's pause to collect ourselves.
The easy jokes come to mind in swarms, starting, we suppose, with a fairly urgent request from all our male readers to know exactly where Edward managed to find a virgin who could manage that first paragraph. But McEwan is a serious writer who's taking a chance here, so we won't stoop to easy jokes.
Exactly WHAT he's trying is, however, a bit obscure. The, er, climax above described happens just about dead-center in this short story - but only, er, physically. Its centrality in any other kind of way baffles the reader just a bit. After all, what's described is basically just a bit of bad timing - and yet it sends Florence running from the room. Running TWO MILES up the beach with Edward's "slime" hardening all over her. And when he catches up with her, she tells him that what happened was disgusting, and that although she's still happy to be married to him, she wants it never to happen again.
At which point McEwan DOESN'T have Edward say, "Fine! Come back with me and I'll show you how it's SUPPOSED to happen." Instead, she proposes that he leave her alone while they're married, even if it means he sleeps with other women to relieve his, um, urges.
He's shocked and appalled, and they split up, and that's pretty much the end of the story, and it seems damn unlikely. For starters, why would a young lady who could start the, ah, encounter in question with such Fatima Bush-style skill be so revolted by the, er, response her skill evoked? What did she THINK would happen? Even in 1962, we're pretty sure she didn't think Doctor Pepper would come seltzering out.
And what ultimate point is McEwan trying to make, setting the story in 1962 and then having the marriage end, as it were, with a bang? That it sucked to be a sexual being before Woodstock? Here at Stevereads, some of our best friends are women, and we feel fairly certain that even in our present-day age of sexual combustibility, most women would dislike being liberally spooged-upon (although we've heard rumors about one of the Megans in Accounts Payable ...). It's doubtful they much enjoyed it in the Middle Ages either, and yet here's the human race even so.
McEwan, having presented this conundrum to his readers, opts to solve it in the easiest, dumbest way possible: he makes Florence a frigid moron. Not only does the very idea of sexual intimacy revolt her (hard to believe Edward wouldn't have picked up on that during their year-long courtship), but in the short story's sparse oases of dialogue, she's forever thinking one thing and then - for reasons that are never disclosed - saying the exact opposite. No other character in the book is portrayed this way, and by the last page the reader thinks Edward well quit of her.
Hard to see what any of it is supposed to amount to, but we can't help but think that in McEwan's mind the date of 1962 is the key. Something about how times change, how attitudes toward sex change, even among the young. But the story never makes it clear, and the reader closes this inflated little book feeling like they've just wasted an hour that could have been better spent. Edward probably felt the same way.