Saturday, August 02, 2008

Words We Say, Or Words We Don't Say

It's been my experience in reading the novels of Ian McEwan, the popular English writer, that he starts strong and ends weak. It may very well be that the beginnings of his novels, Atonement, Enduring Love and the Man Booker Prize winning Amsterdam among them, are invested with such finely chiseled prose and a seemingly effortless command of narrative that sustaining them through to a satisfying conclusion is nearly impossible. Or maybe he just loses the thread, runs out of steam.

But at the risk of giving my inner-critic enough rope to hang itself, I've found McEwan's endings to be too tidy. There's a nagging tendency by the author to abruptly tie up loose ends and provide odd, jarring summaries of the action that's proceeded. Such contrivances deflate and call attention to the narrative at a time when the reader's immersion and suspension of belief should be cresting.

But I keep coming back to McEwan's books because, endings aside, they're compulsively readable and often breathtakingly beautiful. Terrible things erupt out of the most quotidian of events- a child kidnapped from a grocery store, a fender bender that goes terribly awry--and McEwan's wrings the anxiety, tension and grief from these situations with a masters sense of ambiance and control.

His latest, On Chesil Beach, may be his best and most successful yet. And, yes, something terrible does arise out of a quotidian event. A young couple, on the night of their wedding, sexually repressed despite themselves, awkwardly makes their way to the conjugal bed with disastrous results. In fact, this short book, more a novella, has no other subject then the disaster their sexual coupling, its impending failure and its heartrending consequences. And it's here that McEwan's penchant for tidy conclusive summaries is handled brilliantly. For it's in the consequences that arise from the couples failure to sexually consummate their marriage that McEwan shows us how words, those we say and, more devastatingly, those we don't, can heal or tear asunder.

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