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Peer Review: Sex on the Beach

By (July 1, 2007) No Comment

In this regular feature we review the reviewers who review new books

Literature has its classics, known, at least by name, to all. And then it has its hidden gems, known in large numbers only by English majors and loved all the more intensely because of their relative confidentiality. English majors feel a kind of curatorial devotion in preserving these lesser-known luminaries and have no purer delight than in divulging them to impressionable non-English major friends. Aphra Behn, Christopher Smart, John Clare, Elizabeth Bowen, William Maxwell, Breece D’J Pancake: these are only some of the names that fall today just outside the general public’s collective consciousness and therefore bring a sparkle to the eye of the cognoscenti.

Less famous than Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath, and arguably better than both, Philip Larkin remains, at least in America, peripheral enough to be the apple of all English majors’ eyes, especially by virtue of his most ribald, barroom-quotable poems “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad…”) and “Annus Mirabilis” (“Sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three…”). Among these furtive admirers are found, of course, novelists and critics, and whether or not Ian McEwan had “Annus Mirabilis” in mind as he wrote On Chesil Beach, his new book about a single incident of sexual miscarriage in early 1960s Great Britain, his reviewers have certainly made the association. Of the twelve reviews under consideration here, seven quote or mention Larkin’s poem.

Both Peter Kemp, in The London Times, and Natasha Walter, in The Guardian, mention it in their respective, and respectively good, reviews. Walter is afforded a far larger word count than is Kemp, but is not entirely sure what to do with the legroom and wastes too much of it on recapitulating the plot (which she admits is very slight), never luxuriating into a memorable analysis of either On Chesil Beach or McEwan’s career. Nevertheless, she gives us a lucid explanation of what makes the book, by her lights, a success, neatly integrating some arresting quotes into her breakdown:

This plot may sound inconsequential—bad sex in English hotel shock!—but McEwan manages to give it almost tragic impact. This is partly because we come to sympathise so intensely with Florence and Edward’s idealistic expectations of intimacy, in which sex becomes an “awesome experience that seemed as remote from daily life as a vision of religious ecstasy, or even death itself.” It is partly also because their unique tragedy is deliberately linked to wider forces; “What stood in their way?” asks the narrator, “Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself.”

But Kemp (who begins his review with the start of “Annus Mirabilis” as an epigraph) does more in less space, by studying with eagle eyes the telling word choice and imagery through which the bulk of the novel’s power is released. Kemp’s very point is that McEwan is trying in On Chesil Beach to squeeze a great deal of emotion from a bare minimum of pages: “Focusing with hyper-acute attentiveness on just two hours or so…, the book tightens even further McEwan’s consummate powers of close up. No nuance of body language, fluctuation of mood, tiny fluttering muscle or hair-triggered stirring of sexual arousal is missed. Every gradation of the couple’s external politeness and internal perturbation is registered.” Kemp then makes good on his premise by illustrating some of the subtle symbolic flourishes McEwan strews across his nuptial bed:

Now a four-poster with a taut white coverlet awaits them in the next room…. In this heightened atmosphere, things take on nearly hallucinatory suggestiveness. Dangling from his waistband when he gets up from the dinner table, Edward’s napkin suddenly looks like a loincloth to him. Plants with swollen stalks and thick-veined leaves loom through the sea mist in the hotel garden. Breezes waft in “an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space.”

Few reviews have the precision and heft of Kemp’s. Sharing duty in The London Times, Karl Miller turns in an airy panegyric that’s broad in its assertions but skimpy in its prima facie evidence. He writes, “This book…is more than an event. It is a masterpiece. The very idea that informs it, fascinating and unfamiliar, is masterly.” It’s not clear what Miller means here: is the idea of the book masterly, or is the masterliness in the execution of the idea? And what exactly is the idea? Unless it is “the plight of a severely bashful virgin”—which would be by itself neither fascinating nor unfamiliar—Miller never gets around to telling us. Such windifying is bad enough, but, as is perhaps inevitable, he soon becomes arrogant in the effort to keep erect his grand, cheaply built pronouncements:

On Chesil Beach achieves its overwhelming suspense without recourse to romantic fabulation, to mystery and imagination, and to brilliant tricks and turns. Those readers…who notice a difference between this book and some of McEwan’s earlier ones can hardly fail to see that it is richly preceded in them, and may feel that there is no need to talk of a regeneration, secured by a flight from romance.

In fact, readers might very well fail to see the connections Miller speaks of, because, in the fever of grandiloquence, he has failed to illustrate them. (And what can we think about the weird statement that McEwan wrote On Chesil Beach without recourse to “imagination”?)

Notwithstanding Miller’s self-inflating methods, though, the matter of where On Chesil Beach lies along the trajectory of McEwan’s prolific career is on many of our reviewers’ minds; their conclusions, however, tend to clash. Walter says the novel is of a “polished, civilized style, and very distant from the shock tactics of his early work.” In The Los Angeles Times, Sylvia Brownrigg agrees that the gruesome, shocking, “gothic element” of his early work has been put aside, and that a “gentler, more subtle McEwan is at work here.” There is surely merit in these observations, but we have reason to wonder if there’s really nothing meant to shock in the book when we come across this passage:

Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid.

Those who take a more calibrated approach to McEwan’s evolution, noting both his adaptations and repetitions, fare better. But such an investigation requires space, and most of our reviewers, hampered by their eight-hundred-word cap, can only give us generic, ignorable stuff: Lionel Shriver is amiable and glossy in The Telegraph; Gail Caldwell is vaporous and grandmotherly in The Boston Globe; John Cruickshank is vague and pretentious in The Chicago Sun-Times (McEwan, he intones, “is one of the few writers still committed to the modern project of deconstructing popular forms in pursuit of new truths—or the elimination of old untruths,” but what on earth this might mean, Cruickshank has no time to elaborate); and Sylvia Brownrigg, who says that the novel is “perfect” and then goes on to list its flaws, is inept and cheerleading, driving The Los Angeles Times’s downward spiral one revolution nearer to the drain.

It’s not, of course, the squibs that stand out. Ian McEwan is now well known to non-English majors from Portsmouth to Portland, so naturally most periodicals assigned their big guns to cover him. The New York Times turned loose Michiko Kakutani and The Washington Post rolled out Jonathan Yardley from the armory.

Sadly though, these guns haven’t been effective since the Mexican-American War. An oppressive sense of museum-piece pointlessness hangs over all the reviews of Kakutani and Yardley these days. How many presidents ago has it been since either enlightened us, revealed something hidden and important in literature, or crafted a memorable sentence? They have long ceased to be critics, who explore and shed light. Entrenched in their prestigious posts, they merely sit and pronounce judgment.

In this case, Kakutani hates On Chesil Beach, calling it a “smarmy portrait of two incomprehensible and unlikable people” (she also mentions “Annus Mirabilis,” with a sneer), and Yardley loves it, calling it “breathtaking” and “masterly” and slipping in embarrassing fortune-cookie platitudes such as “Love is rarely easy” and “People almost always have choices when they come to decisive moments in their lives.” But even though the two express diametrically opposite opinions, their reviews are the same. Both are more about the reviewer than the book; like the rusty carronade in the obsolete fort, neither Kakutani nor Yardley are expected to do their commissioned job any longer, but merely be peered and wondered at and found amusing or curious.

But The New York Times Book Review scores no higher with its young, cutting-edge commission, Jonathan Lethem, whose long review headlined the famous weekend insert. Lethem’s piece is an absolutely baffling thing, so pompous as to be comical, so badly written that reading it you worry you’re in the presence of hidden cameras. It begins with this bewildering peroration:

Among the encompassing definitions we could give “the novel” (“a mirror walking down a road,” “a narrative of a certain size with something wrong with it”) is this: a novel is a vast heap of sentences, like stones, arranged on a beach of time.

Gee, you think? Or we could define “the novel” as “a sock carefully pulled inside-out” or “the multifarious chromaticity of a duff of autumn leaves” as long as we’re just making crazy, pretentious crap up. And is “the novel” something distinct from, uh, a novel? Lethem continues:

Our appetite for Ian McEwan’s form of mastery is a measure of our pleasure in fiction’s parallax impact on our reading brains: his narratives hurry us feverishly forward, desperate for the revelation of (imaginary) secrets, and yet his sentences stop us cold to savor the air of another human being’s (imaginary) consciousness.

The idea seems to be that the reader is at once moved along by the thrust of the story and also brought to a pause by the beauty of the insight, but why has Lethem, who has written perfectly competent nonfiction in the past, opted to make this simple point in such turgid, overcooked language? And why the parenthetical insertions of the word “imaginary”? Of course it’s all imaginary. Does Lethem think his readers don’t understand what fiction is? And the beat goes on!

If McEwan’s first chapters generally ought to be sent, like Albert Pujols’s bats, to the Hall of Fame, then we may agree that in this instance his first sentence is a first chapter of its own, as well as doing extra duty as its host book’s perfect piece of ad copy.

If they ought to be sent to the Hall of Fame? If they generally ought to be sent there? Then we may agree? At this point, New York Times editors start to come under indictment. For reasons passing understanding, Lethem has written this review in the guise of a stuffy, jargon-choked dissertation, the kind that nobody, not even the members of the dissertation board, are ever supposed to read. Now he seems to be aping the wordy politesse of McEwan’s style, the “slow reserve, the low half-tones” of the British voice, in Virginia Woolf’s description. The hybrid is excruciating.

But as awful as the prose becomes, it’s the exclusionary academic argot with which Lethem does the most damage, as in this (one final) passage:

Similarly, in Atonement, McEwan showed a capacity for writing in a more pressured modernist style and then, in the metafictional postlude, to gently amplify it with an air of sympathetic diagnosis. It was as if to say: We want to feel our reading minds bear down on character and consciousness with the intensity of Joyce or Woolf, those stream-of-conscious titans, but we also want access to the retrospective embrace of our more forgiving and homely hearts.

This review must be a nightmare for McEwan: it’s complimentary of On Chesil Beach in such a way that it actually discourages people from reading it. All the academic bushwah cocoons the poor novel in its sticky theory and jargon, so that it metamorphoses from a book to a text, something only to be read by English majors. (Lethem doesn’t mention Larkin, but he does drop the name Alain Robbe-Grillet.)

Fortunately, sunnier prospects await our postlude—er, ending—with Christopher Hitchens’s review in The Atlantic and Colm Tóibín’s in The London Review of Books; although even here a certain amount of suspicion attends the pieces.

Tóibín’s review is the stronger of the two, and indeed is the best yet written on On Chesil Beach. Thorough, fluent, and erudite, it touches all the themes only glanced or oracularly hinted at in so many other reviews. (One indication of its intelligence, for example, is that it only alludes to “Annus Mirabilis” in passing, giving the reader credit for already knowing how it goes, whereas Hitchens quotes the poem nearly in its entirety.) We’ve seen others gropingly locate On Chesil Beach on the continuum of McEwan’s work, but here Tóibín does so with unparalleled exactitude:

The relationship between the characters in On Chesil Beach is very close to the relationships between the people in The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), the script for which was written by McEwan. In both cases, a young man from a class background about which he is very uneasy, who has an ailing mother, an interest in history, and wishes to write a book, falls for a girl from an upper-middle-class, bohemian family, only to find that she will not sleep with him. The girl’s mother is, in both cases, an academic with many opinions married to a successful businessman…. Both stories are set at a very precise date, with debates about socialism, Britain’s decline as a world power, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

From this the reader certainly can’t fail to see how On Chesil Beach is preceded in McEwan’s early work, and also is given some surprising food for thought on the extent to which the author is repeating himself. Tóibín goes on, “Both works exude a sense, alive in McEwan’s work since The Child in Time (1987), of Britain itself, its recent history and its public life, as an anchor in the narrative,” and here is where the complication sets in, because this idea, with a few too many others, is echoed in Hitchens’s piece, which was published almost two months later (Tóibín’s appeared on April 25 and Hitchens’s in the July/August Atlantic).

Hitchen’s argument, summed up rather opaquely in his last line (“It would be less interesting to term this a generational achievement than a national one”), is that McEwan is foundationally a “national” writer, whose work is inextricably wedded to the history and people of England:

In what sense other than the Larkinesque does this brief fiction express anything “national”? There is, first, that even more awkwardly English question of class. Florence’s family is richer than Edward’s and has paid for the wedding and much besides, and at the critical moment she is not above reminding him of this. Nothing in England can ever quite be separated from the inescapable question of one’s “background,” and in the early ‘60s the codes of stratification were still quite intact.

This is good, seemingly personalized analysis, but it must be said that it has a precedent in Tóibín’s piece, which reads, “[On Chesil Beach] is also a novel about sex and class in England, riffing gently on the work of Lawrence and Forster, suggesting that Florence’s frigidity is partly a function of her class and is shared by her parents.”

Surely just happenstance, the natural perspective of fellow Europeans? Late in his review, discussing McEwan’s prose, Tóibín says, “The writing also shares the almost stilted diction of McEwan’s novel Atonement, a diction used with immense care to create distance and irony, without creating too much of either.” Troublingly, Hitchens mirrors the claim, writing, “McEwan’s opening sentence is almost deliberately awkward,” and going on to say, “The slight clumsiness makes a good beginning by provoking a faint embarrassment in the reader.” It’s strange enough for one reviewer to approve of stilted prose, but a second doing so seems exceedingly improbable (the repetition of the word “almost” is especially damning). When a teacher collects a test and finds that only two students have answered the final question in a clever and unusual way, and that those students happen to sit next to one another…and when one of those students is always in a rush to finish a half-dozen other tests before deadline…and happens to have a widely publicized drinking problem…well, it sets off sensors.

Nevertheless, none of this diminishes Tóibín’s excellent review, and Hitchens’s is finally just heartfelt enough to allow us to look past any potential pickpocketing. The most we’ll say of the coincidence, then, is that it’s almost awkward.

When all these reviews are added together, the total might very well surpass the length of On Chesil Beach. That alone is testament to McEwan’s present-day fame, and probably speaks more eloquently in support of his sales than any single review could. On Chesil Beach is so short, in fact, and McEwan is so consistently industrious, that we can easily expect another book from him in 2008. He’ll have the full attention of the reviewing world, from the big guns to the peashooters, and we’ll do it all again.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.