by Ian McEwan
Cape, £15.99, pp247
There's an odd moment in Ian McEwan's new novel, when the narrator, Joe Rose, is being interviewed by the police after a murder attempt in a restaurant. Asked what flavour of ice cream he was eating before the shooting, he replies: 'Apple'. It's not simply that this goes against the testimony of other witnesses, who remember the attack occurring fractionally earlier, the sorbets tainted with blood before they could reach the lunchers who had ordered them, but it contradicts the version we were given earlier, minimally detailed but easily remembered 10 pages later: 'The flavour of my sorbet was lime, just to the green side of white'.
Immediately before he lies to the police, or to himself, or merely the reader, Joe has been thinking about a truth free of self-interest, doubting whether a willed objectivity can save us from our engrained habits of mind, and has even asked explicitly, in a sentence standing alone as a paragraph: 'But exactly what interests of mine were served by my own account of the restaurant lunch?'
McEwan is anything but a crude writer, even when he chooses extreme subject matter, and such a sharp-elbowed nudge to the reader is out of character. To introduce at this late stage an unreliable narrator is perverse: it recapitulates on the level of gimmick, the novel's central theme, that unreliability is an ineradicable part of what we are.
Enduring Love starts with a set-piece, a ballooning accident whose most agonising aspect is that five men - Joe being one of them - are for a moment hanging by ropes from the wind-buffeted basket. If they all hold on, their combined weight will keep the basket's occupant, a 10-year-old boy, safely aground. But when one of them drops off, it rapidly becomes a race not to be the last one holding on, the one who will not have time to jump before the ascent of the balloon makes escape impossible.
It speaks well for Ian McEwan's descriptive powers and the fluency of his invention that this opening scene doesn't smell like essence of quandary, a carefully contrived human theorem, although his choice of profession for Joe a popularising science writer makes his mouthpiece almost too exquisitely adept at analysing its implications: 'This is our mammalian conflict what to give to others, and what to keep for yourself.' This, though, is the novel's painful point, as shown by the repercussions of the tragedy, that knowing more about the factors that determine your behaviour is not the same thing as becoming either freer or wiser.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Joe has a brief exchange with Jed Parry, one of the other helpers who was unable to keep the faith and hang on to the interests of the group. Jed subsequently develops an obsessive interest in Joe, an interest that is partly religious, partly sexual and wholly crazed. He waits outside Joe's flat in a state of transcendental infatuation, though he hides when Joe's girlfriend Clarissa comes into view.
Rationality is a precious and precarious construct in the novel, not an instinct but an achievement, a sandcastle no sooner built than washed away by the tides of the mind. The woman widowed in the accident turns out, when Joe contacts her (to exorcise his sense of guilt), to have an obsession of her own. She is convinced that her husband, a notably cautious man, must have been trying to impress someone and therefore, inevitably, a lover unseen by the others when he held on to the rope too fatally long.
Joe reacts reasonably, as he sees it, to Parry's loving persecution, but doesn't take Clarissa along with him. She begins to suspect Joe of collusion with Parry, and then of inventing Parry's obsession for reasons of his own. It's true that Parry sends ecstatic letters, but the handwriting is suspiciously similar to Joe's own.
The collapse of a couple under pressure is a recurrent McEwan theme, though he steers clear of the adulterous clichés. In The Comfort of Strangers the couple was vulnerable to destruction by reason of a sort of cosiness, an assumption of safety. In The Child In Time, it was unshareable grief that drove two people apart when they most needed each other. In The Innocent, an idyllic romance couldn't survive the impact of horror, although neither party was to blame for its eruption into their lives.
The couple is the smallest possible viable society; the breakdown between Joe and Clarissa is the subtlest variation yet on the theme. A lovingly maintained fabric that seemed to have no dangling threads unravels thoroughly.
This relationship is part of what is referred to in the title, but there is also 'enduring', in the sense of being on the receiving end of, as Joe is of Parry's mystical love. Joe makes sense of Parry's infatuation by classifying it as an instance of a pathological condition, 'de Clérambault's syndrome', one of whose peculiarities is, ironically, that it can last indefinitely, since it isn't dependent on reciprocation. 'Enduring love', with a vengeance. Joe wants to see this syndrome as 'a dark, distorting mirror that reflected and parodied a brighter world of lovers whose reckless abandon to their cause is sane', but his own experience calls into question any so confident a separation of healthy from diseased.
Previous McEwan novels have contained genre elements: The Cement Garden, The Comfort Of Strangers and The Innocent all shared a boundary with the horror story, and a few moments in the new novel demonstrate that he is not above raising the occasional goosebump ('six months later I came across a chip of bone under the sofa'). But a story that begins with a set piece builds to no comparable climax.
Obsessed young Jed Parry, with his ponytail and the sudden inheritance that gives him the leisure to collapse emotionally, is like a Ruth Rendell character, except that in a Ruth Rendell novel he would have more access to the point of view. It's disappointing that a book that begins so full-throatedly should end with stagy confrontation, then case history, references and appendices.
At one time, it would have seemed inconceivable for Ian McEwan to write a novel with a childless couple at its heart, so central did parenthood seem to his idea of human completeness. Clarissa is unable to conceive, and has adjusted to this condition with grace and warmth, by involving herself strongly with her many godchildren. Still, from time to time, 'the unconceived child' briefly stirs in her. The theme of parenting re-emerges near the end of the book, but Clarissa for all her grounded emotions and insights, has a lower status than, say, Julie in The Child In Time. McEwan's emotional engagement with feminism is less deferent than once it was.
Joe is a jack of all sciences, while Clarissa is an academic whose speciality is Keats. McEwan can't resist equipping Joe with a full expressive panoply of language. In theory, he and she occupy different worlds, in practice he inhabits both - one chapter is even done from his imagining of her point of view, with Joe presented in the third person. Yet this imbalance is compensated for by the complexity of Joe's viewpoint, which embodies McEwan's fascination with science.
Joe reveres the hard science which once seemed his destined career, but can no longer aspire to it. His attempts to analyse behaviour without distortion are always being undone by needs he can't acknowledge, and he's at his most romantic when his language claims a scientific objectivity. Feeling a lurch of surprised love whenever he sees Clarissa after an absence, he tries to reconcile a unique pang with the big picture: 'Perhaps such amnesia is functional those who could not wrench their hearts and minds from their loved ones were doomed to fail in life's struggles and leave no genetic footprints.'
McEwan's last novel, Black Dogs, was oddly schematic, a lifeless conflict between reductive and open ways of looking at the world. Enduring Love is much the better book, despite its inability fully to dramatise its themes, perhaps because McEwan himself is richly divided between Joe's rationalism and something else.
When Joe rails against the poor science holdings of the London Library, and the assumption that the world is best understood through humanist culture, he forgets that his own livelihood as a populariser depends on there being a gap for him to bridge. So too the future of fiction is assured as long as direct self-knowledge is unattainable, and human reliability is always the good news for novelists, as well as the bad.
Read the First Chapter
More on Ian McEwan, from The New York Times Archives
ow many times in my years of teaching have I stood before the blackboard guiding the abhorrent chalk carefully along a 30-degree incline to explain Freytag's triangle, that indispensable construct for mapping the ideal course of the classic novel: complications of character and situation creating a ''rising action'' that culminates in a climactic moment, which is followed in turn by the afterglow of denouement, the tying up of threads.
But other roads do diverge in the novel's yellow wood, one of them representing a structure quite different, in which the climactic event -- most often a tragedy -- takes place right at the outset, and the essential action can be described as ''falling.'' The interest lies, significantly, in watching how characters act and react when the ground of the familiar has been fissured all around them. Russell Banks's novel ''The Sweet Hereafter'' begins in this way, with the crash of a school bus; other novels cut to this pattern include Rosellen Brown's ''Before and After'' and Philip Roth's ''American Pastoral.''
Now, with ''Enduring Love,'' the British novelist and short-story writer Ian McEwan serves up a vibrant and unsettling version of the contra-Freytag formula, his purporting to be based on a psychiatric case history. McEwan (who first achieved renown with eerie imaginings like ''The Cement Garden,'' a novel in which four children try to conceal their mother's death by burying her in the backyard) has in recent years moved toward somewhat more conventional situations. But he has not lost his knack for intimating the unconventional -- his dark glance reminds us that normal behavior conceals but does not banish unsavory truths.
''Enduring Love'' begins with what its narrator, Joe Rose, calls a ''pinprick on the time map.'' Joe and his longtime lover, Clarissa, a Keats scholar just back from an extended research trip, are setting up a picnic under a turkey oak in the Chiltern Hills, an hour outside Heathrow. As Joe reaches for the wine bottle, they hear an alarmed shout. He hurries toward the sound, as do others in the vicinity. What they see in the center of an open field is a grounded hot-air balloon threatening to take off with a young boy trapped in the basket. ''We were running toward a catastrophe,'' Joe notes retrospectively, ''which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.''
This is dramatic, but not overstated. A group of men grab on to the available ropes, but their combined weight is still not enough. As the balloon rises, all but one, John Logan, let go. When Logan at last loses his grip, there is no hope for him. ''He fell as he had hung, a stiff little black stick.'' He dies on impact. As Joe rushes to Logan, he is accompanied by one of the other men, Jed Parry; confronting the lifeless body, Parry demands that Joe join him in prayer. Joe refuses. When Parry pushes, he retorts: ''My friend, no one's listening. There's no one up there.'' That same night, after Joe and Clarissa have gone over and over the day's events, when Joe is finally at the brink of sleep, Parry calls and professes his love.
This is a peculiar and -- if we read in a dutiful manner, not turning to the appendix -- an almost forbiddingly unlikely premise. But McEwan launches swiftly forth. Joe is all at once the object of Parry's intense fixation. The young man stands for hours on the curb outside Joe's apartment, leaves ardent messages on his machine and follows him in the street. He insists that Joe admit his own love for him. Joe, meanwhile, moves rapidly from annoyance to anxiety to rage; at the same time, his relationship with Clarissa makes abrupt unwanted swerves as she first mocks his preoccupation, then begins to suspect he may have conjured Parry up from some obsessive need of his own.
The whole unfolding situation, from the balloon accident to the stalking, has begun to thrust into relief the hitherto tolerable differences in their characters. Joe, a science writer -- a frustrated researcher become popularizer -- is a resolute nonbeliever. Clarissa, less inclined to be irritably reaching after fact, is open to implication. After the fateful afternoon, she asserts, ''It must mean something.'' Later she adds: ''You're such a dope. You're so rational sometimes you're like a child.''
Joe, meanwhile, finds himself vexed by a half-remembered image, something about moving curtains and ''a famous residence.'' It is when he goes to pay a visit to Logan's widow, while her children are playing with a curtain, that he suddenly makes the connection: ''It all came at once, and it seemed impossible that I could have forgotten. The palace was Buckingham Palace.'' Joe now recalls an account from his reading of a woman who, believing that King George V was in love with her, kept vigil outside the palace gates. Joe tracks down more information and learns of a mental condition called de Clerambault's syndrome, a variant of which the novel's appendix will introduce as ''a homoerotic obsession, with religious overtones.''
Rational action, alas, can scarcely solve the crises that develop -- either with Parry's mania or with Joe's now imperiled relationship with Clarissa. McEwan guides events to a second climactic moment -- a burst of public violence -- and a third, but these are peaks within the extended denouement. They are the brief explosions of action that will ''buckle'' the fates and identities into new shapes by the novel's end.
Unless the appendix is an elaborate fiction, like the foreword to ''Lolita'' by John Ray Jr., Ph.D., then we finally have to assume that McEwan is quoting an actual case history and modeling the events of the novel closely upon it. It is an impressive transformation, the rearing up of a fictional world around summary notations from the realm of the actual. Impressive, but also curiously ballasted, as if by hewing to the highly eccentric contours of what really happened, the novelist were tethered on some deeper level. Interesting and credible though Joe and Clarissa are, there is some way in which they don't seem thoroughly known, as if McEwan didn't trust that he had permission to imagine them all the way into existence. The same constraint is felt, at times, about the developing situation: it is so unusual that it seems to lack some of the hard granularity of true invention.
Though it is a tour de force, McEwan's feat of creation and interpretation is finally less memorable in any of its specifics than is the mystery of Jed Parry and his syndrome, and the unalleviated intensity with which Parry pursues his course. Joe's flat rejections seem to affect him not at all. ''I come bearing gifts,'' he proclaims, addressing Joe on the street one morning. ''The purpose is to bring you to the Christ that is in you and that is you. . . . It's really very simple.''
This devotion must be what the title refers to -- certainly the words ''enduring love'' have little bearing on Joe and Clarissa's frayed relationship. The appendix informs us, using initials, that even after his eventual psychiatric commitment, P was ''asserting as confidently as before his belief that R's love for him was undiminished and that through his suffering he would one day bring R to God.'' And: ''A review of the literature . . . suggests that this is indeed a most lasting form of love, often terminated only by the death of the patient.''
The reader may be struck, at this very late moment, by the wonder that attends the pathos -- this delusional young man waiting on the curb truly feels that he is a vessel for the breathtaking power of love. His very unlikeliness makes us consider the possibility. The deeper implications of McEwan's novel begin to reach us just when we want to believe that all erratic forms of behavior have been tagged and dealt with.
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