Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I'm not reading Chesil Beach

I think I've read almost everything of Ian MacEwan's, but (as I think I've posted before), Saturday was the end. I can't even bear to link to it. Anyway, even though I've gone back time and time again for another beating, I am finally through. I am not reading Chesil Beach.

I'm convinced it's actually worth explaining my reasoning at length. The thing is, MacEwan is an extraordinarily talented guy. He is so good sometimes at the little details of lived life that it makes you swoon. His problem, and I'm sorry if I seem a little obsessed with this, is his absolutely reliable need to undermine his best aesthetic choices with tidy, nervous middle class crap.

I guess I'm thinking mostly of the epilogue to Enduring Love, otherwise a wonderful book. The novel is about a stalker, and how the stalker's obsession causes the stalkee's girlfriend to doubt the stalkee's blamelessness. At its best, the book address the tricky question of whether we bring our misfortunes upon ourselves.

The ending basically answers the question. Nope, it says. This ending is a fake medical paper that not only "diagnoses" the stalker, thus snuffing out all of the book's psychological complexity, but coyly hints that the protagonist and his gf end up happily ever after.

I mean, gag me. Saturday is worse--I was willing to accept the scene where the heroic doctor protagonist (with his gorgeous poet daughter and brilliant white bluesman son) diagnoses (again!) the street thug, thus averting an attack--any novel deserves one outrageous implausibility, I suppose--but at the end, when a recitation of Matthew Arnold distracts the same guy, so that doc and bluesman get to tackle him on the stairs; and then doc later is forced to operate on the brain injuy the bad guy has just sustained--well, that was it for me.

Why do I hate this crap so much? It's because it's so goddam tidy--everything fits together in such a reassuring, life-affirming way; all doubt and enigma is erased, and God gets comfy again in His Heaven. It is, let me say again, drearily middle-class, this need to package the chaos of experience, to make things make so much freaking sense. Literature is not for explaining, it's for intensifying. It is a whetstone for experience, a tool to make things deadly sharp. MacEwan's narrative habits are like those of film director Robert Zemeckis, whose mysterious lost FedEx package leads Tom Hanks straight to middle-aged Second Love.

Yeah, yeah, but why do I hate it so much? I'll tell you why--because MacEwan's flaws are my flaws, almost to a T. It's why he drives me nuts, and why I keep going back. We like the people who remind us of our strengths, and we hate the ones who remind us of our faults, and MacEwan is both of those, for me. Like I was saying in the Organized Mind post, I need to get lost in the woods. I would love it if MacEwan got lost, too. But people who are praised so lavishly rarely do.


Anonymous said...


I almost threw Saturday at the wall. Sure, the writing is brilliant. But that plot was nuts. Everyone's afraid to call him on it because he's Ian.


No more for me.

rmellis said...

"Enduring Love" has one of the best first chapters I've ever read, but the most terrible ending. I *am* reading Chesil Beach, though. I think a tidy ending is in store -- I peeked.

Anonymous said...

Well you got guts pal. Anyways I read "On Chesil Beach" and yeah it has a somewhat tidy ending. But what's the problem with a tidy ending?

As for rmellis, the ending of "Enduring Love" was not as big of a let down as "Amsterdam" which was the crappiest ending in the history of man.