14 November 2011
…about a third of the book. I read it not long after it first came out, can remember being hugely impressed by the extraordinary kick-start of its opening chapter – and that ultimately I found it disappointing. I can remember precisely why, which is rare for me, but I’ll keep quiet about that for now. Anyway, this time I might be more convinced.
Enduring Love, as everyone knows who reads this sort of fiction, is the one that starts with the balloon accident. But what I find most interesting in Chapter 1 is not so much what happens as the way McEwan has his narrator tell it. When he isn’t omitting to tell us about himself – what he’s called, what does for a living that he finds so unsatisfactory – he hides behind words. However painstakingly precise he is, the thick screen of verbiage we get as a result is bound to make us wonder what he’s playing at. McEwan likes metafictional games, and since this man is one of his rare first-person narrators it’s bound to make us question how reliable he is.
He lets us know very early on, well before the accident, that he’s the rational observer: earlier that day he’s picked up his wife from the airport, and while there he couldn’t help people-watching – or, to avoid too glib a comparison with Desmond Morris, what he calls ‘observing human variety [and…] human sameness.’ He spends a whole page on a long riff about how people greeting one another at airports all use the same tune, whatever the language; it’s the ‘human dramas’ that offer variety. We know by the time he’s telling us this that something terrible is about to happen, and wonder if he’s getting his defences sorted out in advance. (In a later chapter, he mentions the latest fad in the science pages: everything is down to our genes. It’s another half-suppressed denial of guilt.)
When he gets to the actual incident, setting out his version of what happened as he perceived it moment by moment, he distances himself at the same time through constant references to mammalian instincts. What he’s really doing through this behaviourist narrative – and boy, isn’t he keen on narratives? – is subtly exonerating himself. Four people let go of the balloon, and he’s certain that he wasn’t the first one. Only one man kept a hold and, in one of the endless conversations with his wife afterwards, they decide that his being a father must have made him hang on that fatal second too long. Our man isn’t a father, because his wife can’t have children. And so on. All we know, because our man is narrating this long afterwards, is that there are uncomfortable questions to be answered, and that his life is never going to be the same.
His carefully rehearsed justifications count for nothing, of course. When he tells us again, in a much later chapter, that he remembers one of the other men dropping to the ground before he did we can make our own minds up – not that he’s lying, but that he isn’t as sure of his story as he’s pretending. He’s spent a lot of words persuading us to be on his side, to understand things from his point of view, and we think, yeh, maybe.
McEwan sets another hare running as soon as the accident has happened. Joe Rose – that’s our man’s name, although we still don’t know it yet – is in shock. He goes to see the body of the fallen man, to see if there’s anything he can do for him, which gives McEwan the opportunity to describe what a body can look like after a drop of several hundred feet. (Thank you, Ian, I’ve been thinking about that for three days now.) But the new element I’m talking about is Jed Parry, who arrives at the body soon after our man. He’s a creep, a born-again Christian, and he’s uncomfortably assertive. He really really wants them both to pray, won’t take no for an answer – and only the arrival of the police saves our man from the confused embarrassment he feels. Ok. But…
…I really don’t enjoy the way McEwan runs with this from now on. The pitch of intensity that we get in the first two chapters morphs into something different, and less interesting. McEwan feels the need to give us a lot of back-story: Joe’s wife – and don’t ask me why she’s been given the almost comedy cut-glass name of Clarissa – is a successful academic working on Keats and, aside from the problem of the operation that went wrong and left her unable to have children, she and Joe have what seems like the perfect marriage. Seems like. No comment, for now, because it’s likely that it’s being presented to us in an idealised way simply in order for McEwan to spend the next 200-odd pages fracturing it into little bits. Of course, we’re not sure who’s doing the idealising: McEwan for his own fell purposes? Or Joe, because he’s writing this after the further terrible things which, we suspect, are around the corner?
The main driver of the plot from now on is the stalking of our man by Jed Parry. McEwan never uses the word although, according to the OED, it had been in common use for ten years by the time he was writing. The concept seems to be completely outside Joe and Clarissa’s psychological universe – not that Joe tells her about it straight away. At first we get a couple of examples of that trope in which one character means to tell another about something important, but the moment doesn’t come. He pretends the first nocturnal phone call is a wrong number, doesn’t mention it next morning because… who knows why not? When he eventually does say something, after convincing himself (possibly correctly, but possibly not) that Parry had been following him all the previous day, she laughs.
I find it hard to be interested. Trying to work at home after telling Clarissa – our man is a successful writer of popular science books and media science pundit – he answers the phone. (McEwan doesn’t tell us when he put it back on the hook after leaving it off all night, or why he blithely answers it.) Guess who’s calling from the box outside their flat? Joe decides to nip this in the bud by going down to talk to Parry on the street and for reasons I don’t find terribly plausible gets drawn into conversation. It’s clear that Parry has convinced himself that he has fallen in love with him – and that he is just as convinced that it’s mutual. Whatever Joe says, Parry, er, parries it with the stock response that he is simply denying what is true. And…
…and so on. Joe goes into London, but Parry is still outside when he gets back. And by the end of this second day he feels besieged, having turned on his answering machine so he can try, unsuccessfully, to concentrate on his work. (He’s got a couple of pop-science ideas on the go, which I might come back to some time.) He checks the machine and discovers that Parry has called 28 times. What’s a man to do? He’s beginning to be a little scared and calls the police. No use: Parry isn’t doing anything illegal and isn’t posing any kind of threat. What is a man to do?
My problem with all this is that as these chapters have gone on, the question of Joe’s reliability – you know, the question of whether any of what he tells us about Parry is true – seems to have come to nothing. This is a shame, because that’s what I was finding most interesting. Now, the only question seems to concern just how weird Parry will turn out to be. I suppose there’s a chance that McEwan might start to make things look doubtful for Joe again – and, especially, Clarissa might begin to doubt him – but this has become a much more conventional story than the early chapters promised. Pity.
…approximately the middle third of the novel, and we’ve just had the biggest set-piece since the balloon accident that kick-started the whole thing. Two hit-men have attempted to kill someone in the same restaurant as our man, and the only viable interpretation of this – if we believe Joe is not a fantasist – is that Parry had sent them to shoot him and they made a mistake.
I have to say it feels a bit cheap to me, whatever the truth. It’s as though McEwan begins to wonder whether we might be getting a bit bored by the endless examination and re-examination of events – I know I was – and decides to throw us a titbit. In fact, he’s already done this once, to a lesser degree, in the form of the grieving widow of the man who died. McEwan seems unable or unwilling to focus on any process of grieving that we might recognise. Instead, not only does he have the widow almost obsessively focusing on her husband’s possible adultery – there was a woman with him, she declares – but he has our man beginning to investigate the possibility of this. Soon it’s a probability, and I’m wondering why on earth, to use a well-worn phrase I used earlier, he sets this new hare running. If it’s to draw our attention to the way in which even married couples can be strangers to one another – Joe and Clarissa’s marriage is shattering in exactly the way we might have predicted – it doesn’t work for me. It seems like an irrelevance.
But I was on the shooting in the restaurant, and whether or not Joe is a fantasist. During this middle third, McEwan has revived the question of whether any of what Joe is telling us about Parry is true. Clarissa, who noticed early on that Parry’s handwriting is rather similar to Joe’s, spells it out for him: she never sees Parry outside, she never heard those answering machine messages because Joe wiped them – and, basically, she’s decided that Joe is the one doing the writing. As far as Joe is concerned, Parry is showing the textbook symptoms of Clerambault’s Syndrome, first described following the case of a woman who was stalking George V. Her case is almost identical to Parry’s, right down to the ‘signals’ he reads in the twitching of the curtains in the early days of his obsession – a detail that snags something in Joe’s mind before he actually remembers it.
It’s a highly McEwanesque situation, no doubt based on the sort of research Joe himself goes in for in order to write his articles. (I might come back to the question of whether this is a metafictional joke in itself.) We have a character with, frankly, a sick psychological condition – compare Baxter’s Huntingdon’s disease in Saturday – being described, in this case, by a narrator whose own psychological condition is in doubt. If Parry is a real stalker, McEwan has made him plausible. If Joe is imagining all or most of it, well, Joe himself has made him plausible, based on the kind of stuff he has spent a lifetime mugging up on. Ok.
So what about this shooting? Either it’s exactly as Joe describes it – a case of mistaken identity, with himself as the intended victim – or it isn’t. Joe has told us that a man in the restaurant whom he mentions several times in the ten-page run-up to the shooting turns out to be Parry, so as far as he is concerned the truth is clear. If we are to believe otherwise – that the man with the hair cropped so short he was unrecognisable from the back isn’t Parry at all, and that he never paid for any murder – then… what? It’s too absurd, even in a credibility-stretching plot like this one, for it to be a coincidence. So it must have been set up by Joe himself. When? We don’t know – and neither does he. In order to believe this, we have to believe that Joe is totally delusional, that he is inventing conversations that are completely real to him and writes himself letters he genuinely believes are from another person. And now, unknown to himself – and McEwan has had fun with the recent popularity of consciousness in the science pages – he has set up a hit in which either – you choose – he, or in a different scenario someone near him, needs to be shot in a public place.
My problem is that I don’t believe any of it: Joe as truth-teller, perhaps rendered somewhat overwrought by the attentions of a nutcase; or Joe as automaton, doing things of which his higher consciousness has no knowledge. To me it’s a psychological thriller in which the psychology is just a gimmick to hang a plot on. This is McEwan-land, a place I’ve described elsewhere, where if things seem far-fetched the author cites verifiable research or spends a lot of time persuading us that, honest, this stuff really could happen. It is plausible, he seems to say, it is. I prefer an early novel like The Cement Garden in which he simply presents us with four siblings left without parents whose behaviour, unmoderated by authorial intrusions about how feasible it is, becomes more and more grotesque. We can take it or leave it.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the 19 years that separate that novel from this one is McEwan’s insistence on giving the plot little jolts from time to time, presumably in order to keep the reader interested. I’ve mentioned some of these, and there are others, like the psychological (or pseudo-psychological) crisis. We get them fairly regularly in the new twists to Parry’s obsession that we read about in his letters – I’ll come back to those – but we also have separate, but connected, crises for Joe and Clarissa. Joe’s are to do with his sense of uselessness: as an academic particle physicist – yes, really – he could have been a contender if he hadn’t lost his mojo in his early 20s and gone travelling. He has a fantasy of returning to it in his 40s, and is rudely disabused of this idea by the professor who tells him he clearly knows nothing of recent developments. (Maybe he was never good enough in the first place: we only have his word for it that he was, and McEwan has spent a lot of energy in this novel reminding us never to take anybody’s word.)
Clarissa’s crisis is different. At one point, after they have gone through an all too plausible period of marital difficulties following the trauma of the accident and seem to be coming back together again, she states, in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, that the marriage is obviously finished. Joe has crossed just too many lines… etc. What? What? She is supposed to be an intelligent woman, the marriage is supposed to have been a kind of idyll for seven years – I remember complaining about how smooth it all was early on – and she gives up after a month or so? Don’t tell me, please, that McEwan has been tricking us all along, that the marriage was never the endless honeymoon Joe has described – that it’s another of our man’s unreliable versions of things. (Sigh.) I suppose it could be. Or not, merely poor characterisation. I’m not really bothered because, as I’ve said, the psychology is little more than a gimmick to keep us turning the page.
Meanwhile, what else has happened? For a start, we get different points of view. Joe presents the genesis of Clarissa’s doubts in Chapter 9 by presenting the arrival of Parry’s first letter as she must have experienced it because it ‘would make more sense’. As if. What we get is this notoriously partial – or do I mean partisan? – narrator telling it as though he is a character in someone else’s story…. I said a long time ago that McEwan likes metafictional games. Later, we get separate chapters consisting entirely of Parry’s letters. We see his delusional mania in all its glory – and, presumably, we’re invited to judge whether Joe could have written them. (Of course he could: Parry’s use of high-flown metaphors like his vision of the fields of Paradise could be Joe’s… which proves nothing.)
And… other stuff, to do with how reliable Joe is in his presentation of himself. I’ve touched on how he might have been giving a false gloss to his role as loving husband of an equally loving wife in the early chapters. And his intellectual prowess, which he bigs up as a matter of course to a degree that turns out to be delusional. He is convinced he could have been an academic, and only went the commercial route of successful jobbing writer instead – albeit, he grudgingly admits, gaining himself a boring old high reputation that way – because he got a bit lost. Of course, it’s all paid for a flat he describes as though it’s nothing much really. Except, I’ve just remembered, he happens to mention how beautiful it is and how much it’s worth: half a million in 1997 puts it near the top of the range.
But this is unreliability on a fairly mundane level compared with Clarissa’s suspicions and, let’s face it, with what McEwan is inviting us to speculate on. Time to stop speculating – as if – and start reading again.
Chapter 20 to the end
Right at the start, I said that I was disappointed the first time I’d read this book. It’s happened again, for the same reason. When writing about Atonement some years ago I suggested that McEwan writes what are essentially thriller plots, and that’s how he structures this one. We have unexpected twists, shocking new incidents – and the feature that is my real complaint about Enduring Love, the endless red herrings. To be accurate, red herring, singular: is Parry the stalker a figment of Joe’s imagination?
No, he isn’t. The end.
You wish. Not only do we have to get another thriller element – xx long and would-be plausible pages on the acquisition of the gun – and xx chapters confirming that Joe was right all along; we also get appendices consisting of a mixture of quotations from genuine research papers, with details of Parry’s case shuffled in as though to prove how real it all could be, honest. What is McEwan thinking of? I said earlier how I preferred it in his earlier novels when he didn’t seem to feel the need to persuade us how plausible it all is, and I’ve already made most of the criticisms I might otherwise make about these final chapters. I’ll shut up about it.
He needs a third set-piece event, presumably to match the balloon accident and the restaurant shooting. So, after Joe has got the gun – what did Chekhov say about when a writer introduces a gun into the plot? – McEwan needs to have him use it. Parry is, essentially, holding Clarissa hostage at the flat. So Joe goes home and, after all the predictable stuff about how he’s never even held a gun before, never mind fired one, he shoots him. Parry is wounded and taken away in an ambulance, Joe is arrested and taken away in a police car. It’s no more believable than the restaurant shooting.
The rest of the novel is taken up with the aftermath (a word which, now I come to think of it, Joe gives us a whole riff on in the first chapter of the book, at the time when he is using verbiage as a kind of armour). He feels, naturally, that he is entirely vindicated. Earlier, we have had arguments in which he holds up for scrutiny the fragile notion of being right – and now, for the first time, he most definitely is. So why is Clarissa appalled? They continue to sleep in separate beds – I think I forgot to mention that – and then she moves out entirely. Which gives McEwan the opportunity to do another handbrake turn with the point of view. She writes him a letter and explains very succinctly and very plausibly why his actions have seemed like those of an obsessed loner ever since the balloon accident. He has simply shut her out – and, worse, has probably contributed to the escalation of Parry’s obsession.
McEwan does this in a later novel: used a letter to offer a critique of what we’ve read so far. In Atonement (yes, again) ‘CC’, the literary editor, offers Briony a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of her manuscript – i.e. of the first draft of what we’ve read so far of the finished novel. Ok. Clarissa’s letter is interesting, in a games-playing sort of way, and it adds something to the central theme that makes the novel more than the pot-boiler I’ve implied: McEwan’s exploration of the chasm that exists between different characters’ viewpoints. (After the restaurant shooting, when nobody believes Joe’s version, the police keep quoting what other people remember. Joe makes the point then, and probably elsewhere, that we construct our own version of reality and subconsciously choose the evidence that fits.)
And, essentially, that’s it. We’ve had Joe’s version, it’s been critiqued, and it doesn’t solve anything for him – or for Clarissa. Other people find it hard to reach any kind of resolution either: McEwan cobbles together a preposterous story to prove that the grieving widow is wrong to have suspected her husband of adultery, but now she feels terrible guilt that can’t be forgiven because the man she’s wronged is dead. Parry is stuck with his Clerambault’s Syndrome, possibly for life. And it seems that Joe and Clarissa will never regain the elysian fields of the old days of their marriage.
Except… unusually for him, McEwan throws us a couple of tiny sweeteners. In the report of Parry’s illness his victims are described as having ‘separated’ – but, in a much later section, they are back together and have adopted a child. Yay. Then, in a final handbrake turn that McEwan seems to do just for fun, we get Parry’s thousandth letter from the hospital – and his delusional state is presented in terms of a kind of heaven on earth. Bless.
I know what my problem with this novel is. I dismissed all the business about whether Parry poses a real threat as a red herring. It’s no such thing, of course. If there is a key issue in the novel it is the reliability of different characters’ interpretation of events, and the effect that their views have on the people around them. Parry’s belief that everything following the balloon accident proves Joe’s love for him is an extreme manifestation of the human desire to make sense of a chaotic world. Clarissa’s behaviour is the exact opposite of this: she relies on the common sense that has stood her and Joe in good stead for years, disbelieving anything that seems out of the ordinary until she gets some kind of proof. Joe is trying to do the same thing – make sense of chaotic events – but he is caught between the other two.
This makes complete sense – but the reader can’t take Joe’s word for anything, so the point is obscured. Early on, it seems likely that we shouldn’t trust this man who spends so much time persuading us of his honesty. That’s ok. Then it seems that we can trust him after all: he recognises Parry’s patterns of behaviour as something he can get a handle on, and it looks as though we can go with this. This is about one third of the way through, at which time I’d decided the question of Joe’s reliability had been put to one side. Then, in the middle third, it’s thrown into doubt again. Unfortunately, McEwan has to work so hard to make this seem plausible that, well, it simply doesn’t work. As I wrote at the time of reading that section, the psychology is nothing more than a gimmick. Everything feels forced because that’s what it is: McEwan is determined to undermine our certainties but he has to make the characters do ridiculously far-fetched things in order for it to work.
Then we get the shooting at the restaurant. The only credible explanation for this is Parry’s obsession, so McEwan has to invent absurdities in order for it not to be clear to the other characters. Parry has cut his hair, so Clarissa doesn’t recognise him in the restaurant. The man who is shot in error is a politician who has been the subject of a murder attempt in the past, so the police don’t believe the bullet was meant for anybody else. So Joe, by way of that truly awful section concerned with the acquisition of the gun, takes the law into his own hands.
At the start of all this I said I could remember exactly why I ultimately found this novel disappointing despite its superb start. My problem is that Joe’s interpretation of Parry’s behaviour in Chapter 4 or 5 is correct. The end. Joe knows almost from the start what’s going on, but is disbelieved for stupid reasons – including huge coincidences – that no amount of special pleading by McEwan can make plausible. He sets some interesting things going in the early chapters, but in the end it feels as though he’s wasted a lot of our time with what strikes me as rather pointless game. Reader, he seems to say, did you think I might be presenting you with an unreliable narrator? Fooled you.
I ABSOLUTELY agree.