Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On not understanding Ian McEwan's philosophy of life

(Spoiler alert, in case anyone actually wants to read this novel...)

I don't really grok Ian McEwan's view of life. Oh, he's a fine prose stylist, I grant that. But I read On Chesil Beach on the train back from Massachusetts yesterday and was reminded of this point. Like his Atonement, the novel centers around a single catastrophic incident that has tragic ramifications on the characters' lives for decades to come. Specifically, it's the tale of the love lives of young Edward and Florence, newlyweds ensconced in a lovely hotel on Chesil Beach on their wedding night in 1962.* We learn that they are both virgins and that Florence may be timid to the point of frigidity. There is a hint of incest in her past, like the NYT review says, but it's far from clear. Their first attempt goes badly, the two of them argue bitterly, and Florence packs up and goes home to her parents. They're divorced on grounds of non-consummation. Edward then drifts through life aimlessly, and he apparently never found a woman he loved as much as Florence. The End.

This would all be very moving, except that I do not find it convincing that such single catastrophic incidents ever have tragic implications for decades to come. I mean, Edward could have written Florence a letter. He could have gone to her and tried to talk to her. She could have talked to him. Florence's mother was an academic -- yes, a fairly conservative anti-Communist academic, but one suspects not a total Victorian either. Couldn't she have sat her daughter down that first night and been, like, yes, the first time is scary and weird for a lot of people, but you really can work through this if you really love the guy? Really, one wonders, do two people this lacking in basic communications skills (as therapeutic argot would have it) have any business trying to get married at all? This incident therefore really shouldn't be regarded as a tragedy, but a positive blessing -- it's hard to power through this sort of mess in the best of circumstances. And if things never worked out for Edward better, well, then it's because he was a callow loser.

See also my anti-Lori Gottlieb blogging. There was a chapter in her odious magnum opus where she quoted all of these sad women who kept reminiscing about the one perfect guy whom they let get away on their twenties, all because they were too damn picky. And I read it and was not very convinced. Like, they didn't really think that there weren't hundreds of times that they could have reached out to the guy and tried to do something about it? And that if they didn't, things were probably meant to happen that way? And, like, it also did not occur to them to shrug and say "Hindsight bias" in response to all of this maudlinness?

Perhaps it is only because I have been extraordinarily fortunate that I've never been able to sigh grandly and declare myself the victim of a single turn of fate. But I do not think so; it would have been fun to be an ill-used heroine at various points.

I am also trying to figure out if my unwillingness to believe in dramatic turns of fate has any particular left/right ideological valence. I don't think so, but I'd appreciate feedback.

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