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September 18, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Books | September 18, 2007 |

“Who’s your favorite author?” is probably the most incessant question to ever dog a bibliophile, and it’s one I find frustrating. I tend to focus on individual works themselves, as opposed to one author’s entire canon. Obviously, some writers are better than others, but I’m an ardent believer that the cult of personality which often arises in conjunction with an artist and his or her oeuvre is distracting. For example — Jonathan Franzen’s infamous bout with Oprah over The Corrections was a hugely obnoxious tit-for-tat wherein one party was overly concerned with who should read the book, while the other was overly concerned with the snobbery of the one who wrote it - both views can’t seem to recognize that a literary work should stand alone. No one who reads The Corrections (you’ll just have to accept my generous estimation) in 20 years will remember that Franzen was questionably elitist about it; no one will remember that James Frey was a liar and a tool (if they remember him at all), just that his book was lousy.

I only bring this up because liking one particular author’s canon feels reductive, but it usually doesn’t stop me from answering the question: Ian McEwan. Ever since picking up a dusty copy of Enduring Love in Oxford (which had the additional bonus of being the author’s hometown) a few years ago I’ve devoured anything with his name attached; the guy’s a genuine master at creating dread more palpable than any horror writer, all while working within the highest of literary traditions. It’s hard to pin down the themes of his entire body of work, but McEwan seems to relish the lurid undertones that dissolve middle-class England, whether it’s based in real violence or, more probably, the destructiveness of latent desires.

Fittingly, McEwan’s newest, On Chesil Beach, is the story of a couple undone by sexual incongruence. Beginning with “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy,” McEwan begins to explore and unravel a time when sexual politics were on the cusp of transformation — the 1960s. The novella pores over one evening, with a few flashes backwards and forward, of the sexual culminations which will either make or break a marriage of two people who genuinely love each other.

Both of the main characters, Edward and Florence, approach their wedding night with stores of apprehension — Edward wants to fulfill his erotic desires, Florence doesn’t seem to have them - as they stumble towards discovery and dissolution. The pair are obvious representations of troubling dichotomies (masculine-feminine, subjective-objective), but are no less wrought because of it, and their movement towards sexual achievement or debacle is a highly momentous one. McEwan paces this event with deliberate tension, letting the evening unfold at the literary equivalent of real-time, something McEwan perfected in Saturday.

Despite its brevity, On Chesil Beach has the enormous metaphorical potential consistent with McEwan’s work. Though the exposition encompasses little, the book is short and intense, unfurling with an anxiety that underscores the psychological dynamics coming into play here. On Chesil Beach is a book that can be read in a sitting, but whose polarities can be pored over for a lifetime. It’s exciting to read the work of an author who has mastered his craft slowly and comfortably, and is now experimenting with how much he can do with so little.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

Still Enduring

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan / Phillip Stephens

Books | September 18, 2007 |

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