Doomed from the Beginning: a review of On Chesil Beach (5/15/2007)

On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, 166 pp

Ian McEwan is the gothic poet of British class anxiety. Over an arc of novels including The Innocent, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Atonement, McEwan has polished a talent for giving his readers nasty and sometimes bloody surprises when the classes interact on too intimate a level. His most recent, On Chesil Beach, however, is both a perfect specimen of McEwan’s hardening suavity as a prose stylist and the latest example of an ongoing renunciation of his greater gift. As Saturday did before it, this novella-length book promises much, initially, but ends up being deeply unsatisfying before its conclusion. A necessary catharsis has been frustrated for the sake of a decorous treatise on the grim predestinies of class.

The book’s unhurried narrative anchors to the first few hours of a marriage between Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, shuttling between the “now” of their honeymoon supper (and its aftermath) and earlier points in their lives and their relationship. The presiding metaphor is on view from the French windows of their honeymoon suite: the “infinite shingle” of Chesil Beach, on which “thousands of years of pounding storms ha(ve) sifted and graded the size of pebbles…with the bigger stones at the eastern end.” Edward, a lower-class rustic educated above his station and faintly embarrassed about his background, is, in practically every way, Florence’s inferior. He’s even a chronic masturbator.

Florence’s upper-middle class parents are a neurasthenically haughty Oxford don and a prosperous businessman so competitive that he’s nearly an anachronism (or an American). Florence is a chaste, disciplined and accomplished violinist in possession of an IQ 17 points higher than Edward’s, as he discovers by having a “peep” into her school report folder; even this peep indicates a moral inferiority on Edward’s part. As if his congenital disadvantages weren’t enough, an accident during his childhood has left his mother brain-damaged and the Mayhew household dark and filthy as a consequence, in schematic contrast to the Ponting’s Victorian villa, sterile with the hard light of eminence. While Florence’s mother is friends with Iris Murdoch, Edward’s mother is friendless. Clearly, Edward and Florence are like the pebbles on Chesil Beach, widely separated by the work of thousands of years of merciless grading.

McEwan’s schematic stacks the deck with the force of stereotypes so entrenched they feel like empirical laws of a natural science. Making the upper class female love-object in this novel superior in almost every way may feel like an expression of the author’s (unconscious? Self-hating?) class prejudice, but it’s also the de rigeur chivalry of the post-feminist celebrity, as it would be difficult to imagine a writer with McEwan’s following getting away with making any of the males in his couples more intelligent than their invariably attractive wives or lovers. Hewing obediently to this unspoken stricture is a minor failure of nerve that doesn’t, on its own, threaten the integrity of the work. But as McEwan ages and his stature grows and he devolves towards the artistic cul-de-sac of Elder Statesmanship, other strictures…other obediences to the sensibilities of his auditors…undermine his mastery. A certain squeamishness sets in.

In the disappointing Saturday, the bloodletting centers on a broken nose for a prig and a tumble down stone stairsteps for a bad man of the lower class variety. Even in Enduring Love, the beginning of McEwan’s spiral descent from the previous heights of his Grand Guignol, the virtuoso set-piece is dispensed with in the first chapter of the book, as if to step clear of childish things before getting to the mature business of the rest of the story, which being a report on the dangerously unhinged behaviour of a lower-class person and the effect of said behaviour on his betters.

On Chesil Beach consists chiefly of interlocking character studies of fair nuance; as ever, with McEwan, we are privy not only to dossiers of the telling vignette for the folksier players on the page but rifle through papers written, curricula mastered, books planned and theories mused upon in the service of fleshing out the rich interiors of the brainier players as well. Edward’s and Florence’s story (and the story of their story) is about ideas when it isn’t about sex, and most of the sex is a phantom dreaded or a vision longed-for but not a physical fact. Tension accumulates as the mounting effect of preparatory exposition indicates the McEwanesque relief of a shocking twist, foreshadowed in carefully-seeded references to Edwards’s potential for violence.

The narrative tension created by putting this poorly-matched couple in the wedding night’s bed is further amplified by the tamped-down sexual hysteria of the era; it’s 1962, after all, and Kenneth Tynan hasn’t said “fuck” on television yet. The explosive pressure of the era’s sexual tension is recapitulated in Edward’s having “saved himself” for the big night by an unprecedented fortnight of autoerotic chastity. He’s fit to burst and, as it turns out, his brand new bride is frigid as a fjord. His legal right to Florence’s body can’t even guarantee him a sensual kiss, so something has to give.

In classic McEwan, the build-up always resolves to a horror, a corpse, some blood-letting…the uncanny moment around which the rest of the book swirls as towards a sucking drain. The horror revealed will be a set-piece of cinematic power; a short, sharp shock to cure the abiding malaise that has crept with the pace of a wasting disease into the mind of the reader for the duration of the book: the proletariat German corpse rolled up in a baklava of glue and carpet, then sliced, in The Innocent; the (perhaps apocryphal) rape of a French beauty by Nazi-trained Alsatiens in Black Dogs; the “head on a thickened stick” of the good samaritan who fell to his death in Enduring Love; the rotting extremities of parents exposed in their cracking tombs by the slack workmanship of their children in The Cement Garden.

With On Chesil Beach, however, we climax with an anti-climax…with nothing more shocking than a flesh-crawling joke as McEwan exerts his superb technique to alienate the reader from something only slightly more dramatic, and only slightly less common, than a sneeze.

In the perfectly functioning McEwan novel, the suffocating horror of class is just the beginning; we are made to suffer it to the limits of our readerly tolerance (knowing how far to stretch this limit, which veers dangerously near to boredom, is the mark of mastery), at which point McEwan saves the day by producing and then describing with rejuvenating relish a human corpse, for Death trumps class every time. There are no upper or lower class corpses. In On Chesil Beach, however, McEwan provides the reader with no such twist or violent redemption. McEwan’s novella reveals itself as a monograph on socio-economic kismet in the United Kingdom.

The final movement of this book is a queerly compressed postmortem that violates the pace of all that came before it; roughly ten pages for the next forty years of the life Edward has tossed away merely by blowing his chance to remain married to a disciplined, ambitious, upper class girl. Edward, it seems, was doomed from the beginning, but not in the way a loyal reader of McEwan’s might have hoped.

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