Oh boy. Here we go with the McEwan thing again.
Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this particular writer before… (checking checking checking) Nope, not a peep.
Okay, so here’s the back-story: I hate Ian McEwen. Hate Hate HATE! He’s a cheap soulless showboat of an old-fashioned patriarchal slug, and I hate him. That said, he is a monumental talent too skilled and influential to ignore completely. Kind of like a less shitty Philip Roth.
A while ago, back in the halcyon days of my higher education, I had a teacher waxing on about Enduring Love. I’d already suffered through three McEwan novels of dubious quality-
WE INTERUPT THIS REVIEW TO BRING YOU THREE IAN MCEWAN LIGHTNING REVIEWS! THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS: I HARDLY EVEN REMEMBER IT, BUT I THINK IT PROBABLY SUCKED! ATONMENT: I DIDN’T BOTHER FINISHING IT, BUT I THOUGHT IT WAS MANIPULATIVE CRAP! ON CHESIL BEACH: SEXIST GARBAGE ALMOST REDEAMED BY HOW WELL MADE IT WAS! AND NOW BACK TO YOUR REVIEW ALREADY IN PROGRESS!
-and wasn’t especially interested in picking up another. I happened to spot a lovely paperback copy of Enduring Love in a book-sale bargain bin and just couldn’t resist. I put it on my shelf and from my mind…
I’m looking for a book to read!
And then I spot it! Enduring Love, resting innocuously upon my bookshelf, nestled betwixt Don Delillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, looking like Woody Allen trapped in the subway with Gabrielle Sidibe and John Goodman. Oh why not, I says to myself as I pluck it from its perch, why not?
Why not indeed. Here are a few reasons:
INTERJECTION: But first, I should probably sum up what the thing is about. So there’s this guy, and he’s in the park. A hot air balloon drifts past, and disaster strikes. It shakes him up. One of the other people involved in the incident forms a bizarre attachment to our guy. Or does he? Could it all be in the guy’s head? And that is what it’s about.
Okay, so the first reason why not. It’s way overwritten.
McEwan is, like I said, a highly skilled craftsman. He knows exactly how to mold words to suite his desire, bending and shaping them with incredible skill. That should be a good thing, but it ends up actually being quite a strike against this novel, as McEwan seems unable to resist employing the most eloquent and impactful lines possible at all the wrong moments. This book was a bit like one of those unbelievably overwrought works of gothic architecture scarcely able to support its own weight.
The novel immediately gets off on the wrong foot when it describes the hot air balloon as being filled with gas, but not just any gas! Hydrogen! Forged from the elemental debris of the creation of the universe, star-fire caught and contained by human hands! I don’t remember the exact wording and no, I’m not going to bother looking it up, but it was ridiculous and overdone and totally out of place. He also makes sure to note that the balloon is, in fact, a literal balloon and not a cartoon character’s word bubble. Thanks, Ian, thanks for clearing that one up.
Reason number two. McEwan seems to lack empathy for his characters, making it difficult to become invested in their struggles.
Ian McEwan’s novels are not populated by people, but by cyphers and placeholders and lenses through which a broader point may be attacked. I could name dozens of examples if I could remember any of his characters, but I think it will suffice to flip on back to the post-text pages of Enduring Love and have a gander at what is written there. Class, follow along. Does everybody see it?
That’s right! What you see is a lengthy I-don’t-even-know-what-to-call-it. Disclaimer? Apology? Justification? It’s a rather sizable breakdown of the particular psychological disorder suffered by the man in the park which prompts his bizarre attachment to the main character. We also get a lovely bibliography of psychological and scientific journals. I’m not totally sure what McEwan intends by this section, but the way I see it, there are two options. One, the whole book was written to be about this particular disorder, and the characters are, in fact, extraneous to the whole thing. They exist only to tell the story, and have no life beyond that, like the cardboard cut-outs you’d find in a hard science fiction novel. Option two, McEwan himself found the whole thing so implausible that he felt the need to prop up the story with a bunch of scientific justification. Instead of conveying the story in such a way that the reader would believe it, he just hand-waves it away with a notice that, yeah it really happens, okay?
I find this all to be unspeakably lame. Like, what kind of book are you actually trying to write here? Am I suppose to believe in your characters just because you’ve shown your work? Or are you just looking for a pat on the back for plowing through some dry science journals. Like, we’re all supposed to marvel at your hard work? Fuck off, man.
And three. This book is sexist as hell.
Not especially surprising. After all, McEwan’s a sexist bastard. Irritatingly, he’s sexist in that horrid intellectual-progressive way. It’s all very rational and modern and oh come now. It sits in the shadows, spilling invisible poison. It would be easy to read a McEwan novel and think that it’s not so bad, heck, it’s actually pretty good! This fellow’s alright, he clearly knows a thing or two. His novels are polished and refined, so you overlook the ugly heart. You know, like Richard Dawkins. How could such a smart man with such a lovely accent possibly harbor any offensive beliefs? I’m sure it’s alright.
Well, I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, buddy, but it’s not alright. At the least, it must be taken into consideration.
Women, when they’re not actively ruining everything, exist in McEwan’s universe only to prop up and/or motivate male characters. They’re objects first, characters second. If you don’t believe me, well then. Let’s just take a look, shall we?
Okay, so here’s a rundown of all the female characters in Enduring Love. First, the requisite girlfriend. She’s intelligent, an academic of some distinction. Great! But what’s this? Her obvious positive qualities are overlooked in favor of saying that she’s “beautiful.” Astonishingly beautiful, rapturously beautiful! And sexual too, a real tiger in the sack! Oh boy! What a catch! She then spends the whole novel doubting the protagonist’s fully justified paranoia and basically being a shrill harpy whose advice, if it hadn’t been ignored, would have lead the main character to ruin. Next up is the wife the man killed in the balloon accident. A wrinkly old prune, bitterly spewing invective against the man she believes to have been unfaithful to her. And then, oops! Turns out that she was wrong, her wonderful heroic husband was innocent all along! How will she ever forgive herself for being so horrible as to impugn the honor of such a peerless gentleman? There can be no forgiveness, she concedes, properly hating herself. Lastly, completing the trifecta, we have the ditzy blonde bimbo who’s banging her professor and stands around chewing bubblegum like cud and generally being a useless piece of ass. But oh, what an ass, what a body!
So… that’s two counts of horrible doubting partners sabotaging their noble innocent men, and two counts of extremely sexy young women who just can’t get enough of stuffy old professorial types ones assumes are not entirely dissimilar to Ian McEwan himself. And our primary female character checks both boxes! Oh, there’s also a spacey old hippie lady who doesn’t really do much of anything. This is only looking at the broad strokes here, it gets worse when you consider the minutia.
It’s not all bad though, there’s some good stuff here too. Could a final redemption be in store for Enduring Love? Tune in next week to find out!
Or… I guess I could just tell you now. You know, if you want.
The writing is quite good, if you manage to ignore the overwrought flourishes. And there are several sustained scenes of tension and danger that feel really gripping in a way you might not expect from a novel like this. There’s an extended visit to a hippie drug-dealer’s house to buy a gun which is an absolute masterclass.
Sadly, these things were not enough to lift the final quality of the novel into the territory which would constitute a recommendation. Perhaps if I’d come into this willing to give McEwan a little more of benefit of the doubt, I may have thought more highly of it. Yes, I admit that I had very little faith going into Enduring Love, but I’m not made of stone here. I was willing to be turned around on McEwan. This book, however, didn’t do it. I found the overall plot to be dull and unengaging, with the exception of a few spikes of interest. The characters were bland and difficult to believe or become invested in.
Basically, I didn’t like it much. I won’t say that it was horrible, though. I can certainly see why this novel might resonate with certain readers. Just not with me.
God, I just read that back and I sound like a complete twat! A complete and utter twat! Whatever. Off to the printers and goodnight.