The first thing you should know about this book is that, like the other Ian McEwan books I’ve read, it is about the most uncomfortable, awkward, and squirmy thing you’ll ever read. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that the book – which is 200 pages long – only covers about two hours of time: the first two hours of a newlywed couple’s honeymoon in which they fumble to consummate their marriage? And that both of them have very embarrassing sexual dysfunctions? Well, that’s what the book is about.
The reader looks on helplessly and squirmily as two virgins, Edward and Florence, sit in a hotel room on the beach embarrassed out of their minds. It’s 1962, on the cusp of the sexual revolution, and the pair have neither the presence of mind or even the vocabulary to communicate openly with each other. There is only a handful of words spoken until the very last chapter of the book (it was tough for me not to use the word climax here, but I try to stay classy).
For the first 50 pages or so I was convinced that McEwan was just selling a freak show to us (again) – that he’s a popular author because people like reading about sex and other people’s weirdo sex problems. Who needs a plot or well-executed sentences when we could have incest, brain damage, erectile dysfunction, and a 30,000 word sex scene? Bring on other peoples’ guilt and shame!
But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. Through a number of seamless flashbacks, the history of the couple unfolded before me – so slowly and steadily and adeptly that I am now convinced that Ian McEwan is a genius. A dirty old man genius.
It made me think back to a few years ago when Ben and I were lucky enough to interview Jim Shepard, Ben’s favorite contemporary writer and a visiting author at the University of Montana (visiting because Ben requested him, no less). We sat in the Union Club sipping straight whiskeys and Jim Shepard told us that the truly great books (he was specifically talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) are books that are constantly revelatory.
And that’s exactly what I though about On Chesil Beach. Everyone – we’re talking about the characters and me – were learning and understanding more and more deeply with each page. It felt like a blossoming or, to be less lame and corny, like a picture very slowly coming into focus. Many times when authors reveal information it seems cheap or as if they were withholding it from you in order to keep you reading – dime mystery book stuff. But McEwan’s real gift is in the natural and subtle ways that he presents information to the reader. In fact, many of the biggest revelations in the book are never said outright, but only seep into the story until you understand each one as truth. It’s really pretty well done.
So – if you can handle cringing non-stop for three or four hours and have a strong stomach, you should pick up this book. And let me know if you can figure out exactly how McEwan does what he does, because I’d like to know about it.