I was incredulous upon learning that Amsterdam, one of the most disappointing novels in recent memory, was also winner of the 1998 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It was not that the author, Ian McEwan (born 1948), is a bad writer; quite the contrary. It was simply that in writing Amsterdam McEwan threw away a potentially wonderful book in order to tell a protracted and laborious shaggy dog story. Though many post modernists may have found this final trick amusing, it produced nothing more than a sigh from me.
So, it was with some trepidation that I approached another of his celebrated novels, Enduring Love (1997). Enduring Love is an interesting psychological novel, but also one that asks some rather large questions, such as, how do we fill up the empty spaces within ourselves?
Enduring Love details the plight of Joe Rose, a successful science writer. One day he and his long-term lover, Clarissa, witness a hot air balloon lose control with a young boy inside the passenger basket. Joe and several others grab the ropes that would secure the balloon to the ground, but a gust of wind pulls it from their hands. One man, John Logan, holds on longer than the others and is carried hundreds of feet into the air before falling to his death.
To make matters worse Jed Parry, one of the men who also grabbed for the ropes, responds to the tragedy by asking Joe to pray with him. In no time at all, Parry becomes obsessed with Joe, writing long love letters, calling him constantly, offering to bring him closer to God and hovering outside his front door.
The tragedy is that, despite all of Joe’s misgivings, he cannot make anyone believe that Parry is a threat or dangerous. The police laugh off his concerns and Clarissa blames Joe himself for mishandling the situation. In addition, Clarissa is not even entirely convinced that Parry exists outside of Joe’s imagination…
Though by turns a tragic romance, thriller and a novel of psychological suspense, I think McEwan is after bigger fish than mere thrills. Joe, our successful writer, is a frustrated scientist. He fills his world with reason and a dry catalog of facts; he fills his life by stocking his mind. Clarissa is a scholar specializing in the work of poet John Keats, and spends much of her time tracking down lost or missing correspondence from the great poet. She and Joe are also childless, and she spends a great deal of time with younger relations and the children of friends. And Jed, who seems to have very little life at all, fills the emptiness of his soul with visions of God and worship of Joe. In fact, the love he bears for Joe has very little to do with Joe the man himself, and is, instead, a grandly constructed romantic fantasia. It’s not the Jed has sexual feelings for Joe, but, rather, Joe becomes a filter by which he can measure, dedicate and justify his own life.
One can’t help but think that McEwan is writing, in fact, a profoundly religious novel. In an increasingly secular world, where many creeds seem to have become little more than cultural touchstones, how does one fill the void left by unanswered questions? What are the stories and the myths we use to give meaning to our lives? And, more importantly, can any of us really connect when we each ‘worship’ differently than eachother?
One more thing about McEwan -- despite the melodrama of the plot and complexity of the issues raised, the man has a real and pungent sense of humor and of irony. Later in the story, Joe decides he needs a gun for protection. He goes to a drug dealer of his acquaintance, Johnny, and they head out to buy it from some low-comedy thugs:
We were still stuck in traffic. On the radio the jazz has been dishonestly succeeded by a program of atonal music, an earnest whooping and banging that was getting on my nerves. I turned it off and said, “Tell me more about these people.” I already knew they were ex-hippies who had made it rich in coke. They had gone legal in the mid-eighties and dealt in property. Now things were not so good, which was why they were happy to sell me a gun for an inflated price.
“Relative to the scene,” Johnny said. “these people are intellectuals.”
“They got books all over the walls. They like to talk about the big questions. They think they’re Bertrand Russell or something. You’ll probably hate them.”
I already did.
Enduring Love is highly recommended.