By Ian McEwan
Doubleday; 263 pages; $23.95
Bad things happen to the ordinary people in Ian McEwan’s novels–things that initially seem bizarrely, even comically, out of proportion with their lives. In The Innocent (1989), a newly engaged couple comes home from a party and goes to bed to make love, only to discover that there is an intruder asleep in their wardrobe. Panic-stricken, unsure of how best to get rid of him, they begin to argue. The woman is smoking a cigarette, and she accidentally sets herself on fire. The intruder wakes up. A terrible fight breaks out. Bones are broken, testicles are crushed, one man bites through another man’s cheek. And then things get a whole lot worse.
The scene is vintage McEwan–in its suspense, its violence, and the sickening swiftness with which it unfolds. But perhaps its most emblematic characteristic is its ability to provoke a flustered and ambivalent response in the reader, a horrified sympathy that alternates with a deep desire to distance oneself from the nightmare at hand. Could this grisly encounter have been prevented? Was it merely bad luck, or did the couple somehow bring it on themselves? And–most important–could anything like this ever happen to me? McEwan is a Freudian with an Orwellian sense of decency, and his novels often trigger this sort of unsettling examination of both one’s unconscious and one’s conscience. He’s also fascinated by the infectious nature of calamity: The success with which he simultaneously analyzes and communicates its uneasy intimacy is his genius. Thomas Hardy was another great master of morality, psychology, and circumstance, but his tragedies never make you nervous. McEwan makes you nervous.
In his latest book, Enduring Love, this struggle to make sense of misfortune is an explicit enterprise, a contentious necessity for the novel’s three main characters. The worst, one senses, has already happened, and the narrator, Joe Rose, is returning to his story’s beginning, just as a reader might, in order to understand what went wrong. Joe is a science writer who has made a successful career of elucidating complex phenomena (black holes, chaos theory) for the general reader. His common-law wife is Clarissa Mellon, a beautiful Keats scholar with whom he lives in North London. Then, one afternoon, during a celebratory picnic in the countryside near Oxford, they hear a shout of distress: A middle-aged man is entangled in one of the anchoring lines of an enormous hot-air balloon while his passenger, a terrified child, is unsuccessfully attempting to escape from the basket.
Joe instinctively sprints to the balloonist’s aid, as do four other men who happen to witness the event: two farm laborers; a motorist named John Logan; and Jed Parry, a day-tripper from London. In hindsight, Joe’s description of his actions signals the undertow of bewildered culpability that will run throughout the novel: “We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it.” As it turns out, this altruistic instinct proves fatal not for the narrator but for one of the other rescuers. After a hair-raising and chaotic collective attempt to retrieve the boy, a sudden gust of wind lifts the men into the air; the others drop away, but Logan, a local doctor and father of two, holds on as the unburdened balloon shoots suddenly skyward. A few moments later, he falls to his death as the others look on, guilt-stricken and disbelieving. Which of the survivors let go first, thereby causing the rest to follow suit? How could they have managed it differently?
When Joe and Clarissa return to their apartment in London they find themselves obsessively reiterating the afternoon’s events in an attempt to contain and absorb them. “We were prisoners in a cell,” Joe remembers, “running at the walls, beating them back with our heads. Slowly our prison grew larger.” They sit at the kitchen table for hours, “grinding the jagged edge of memories, hammering the unspeakable into forms of words.” By the time they turn in for the night they have already forgotten Parry, the awkward young hiker who had wanted Joe to pray with him over Logan’s shattered body: He has been relegated to an anecdote and dismissed. But Parry, as it turns out, has not forgotten Joe. Quite the opposite, and just as the couple is drifting off to sleep, he phones Joe to declare his undying love. (“I just wanted you to know, I understand what you’re feeling. I feel it too.”) Rattled and disbelieving, Joe hangs up on Parry and tells Clarissa it’s a wrong number. And from that moment on, their interpretations of events diverge, and their relationship begins to crumble.
In the days that follow, Parry’s fixation intensifies, Joe’s paranoia correspondingly deepens, and Clarissa becomes increasingly alienated. Joe has done nothing to encourage Parry’s attentions, and yet, even before he realizes that Parry is stalking him, he feels apprehensive, hunted. It is almost as if Joe’s guilt over Logan’s death has brought Parry into being. Why doesn’t Clarissa ever see Parry, if he is stalking Joe daily, and why did Joe erase all Parry’s messages on the answering machine, instead of saving them as evidence? Before long, the apartment is awash in Parry’s letters and Clarissa has moved into the spare bedroom. And as Clarissa’s support for Joe is withdrawn, we, too, begin to have our misgivings. To be sure, Joe’s narrative is intelligent and persuasive, but then again, so are Parry’s letters–two of which are included in the text for our inspection–and we know that he’s insane. Baffled and disoriented, we pick our way among these versions of the truth, straining for a synthesis that would permit some hope for the couple’s future. Meanwhile, Joe lurches from one unnerving mission to the next: a trip to Oxford to meet Logan’s furious widow; a Kafkaesque visit to the local police station; a sinister expedition to buy a gun from some aging hippies. And there is an expensive birthday lunch with Clarissa and her godfather, which begins with a lively discussion of DNA and Keats and ends in a fine spray of blood.
One of the initial frustrations of Enduring Love is the eclipse of the balloon accident. Parry’s fixation feels like a blunt instrument in comparison, and one begins to long for the delicate moral complexity of the tragedy that produced him in the first place: Five strangers converging in the center of a field to save a child, and killing a man instead. But that sort of balletic patterning is precisely what McEwan is calling into question. At one point, Joe muses that Dirac’s early theory of quantum electrodynamics was slow to gain acceptance because it was aesthetically unappealing–“Acceptance withheld on grounds of ugliness”–and this phrase could well serve as the novel’s ironic motto, for its plot is littered with examples of this prejudice. When the balloonist yells perfectly reasonable instructions to his would-be helpers in the field, they all ignore him because he appears incompetent. The police dismiss Joe’s warnings about Parry because they have a neater theory. Logan’s widow becomes convinced that her husband was adulterous because, after his death, she finds a woman’s scarf in his car. But is the elegant embodiment of an idea ever the entire story? On Keats’ Grecian urn perhaps, or in Einstein’s theory of relativity, or even in a love letter. But real life, lived in real time, requires us to push a lot harder for the truth, as does any love that–unlike Parry’s–evolves between two people. The conclusion of Enduring Love, appropriately enough, proves impossible to foresee. Ingeniously rewarding and unusually contingent on the intellectual curiosity of the reader, it offers a playful reprimand to anyone who assumes that they know where the “real” story of this novel begins and ends.