Review: Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

A woman is shaken in her understanding of who she is and what she wants. The walking holiday she and her husband have planned now seems, McEwan writes, “a pointless detour from her uncertainty.” Uncertainty. The phrase denotes trepidation, doubt; it is full of trouble, of precise and elusive implications. Uncertainty is a path, a destination, perhaps even a human need. Of course I do not like the thought – I do not like to doubt – and I’d prefer to see my own detours as chosen directions, uncertainty as something to be shaken off rather than returned to. But often, truths can be measured by the urgency of one’s desire to avoid them, and sometimes only by that.

What I like about this novel is its intimacy with evasion and failure, combined with an alert intelligence about these things which itself looks like grounds for hope. McEwan’s characters talk past each other, go manic, stumble into violence, cultivate suspicions, hide behind illusions. They breathe. They probably can’t help or save themselves, or not many of them can, but it’s hard to believe that such patient and delicate understanding of their condition won’t help someone.

Enduring Love opens with a chapter so crafty (and so complete as a short story, in my opinion), that the rest of the novel must inevitably disappoint, following a kind of thermodynamic law of literature. Chapters 2 through 24 (including the appendices) comprise a very long epilogue, reversing McEwan’s usual trick of making the first two-thirds of a book a prologue of red herrings, whopping you with a left-field climax that seems irrelevant to the buildup. And this trick usually works.

Joe Rose is a scientific journalist (orating with the suspect eloquence of a novelist with a stack of scientific journals on his writing desk) who, after stumbling onto ground zero of a ballooning tragedy, finds himself the victim of a psychotic, homosexual stalker in subsequent chapters. After the revelatory effulgence of chapter 1, chapter 2, of rather less candle power, at least boasts the kind of grisly set piece that McEwan seems to glory in: a corpse, in this case driven into the earth, feet-first, like a fence post: “The skeletal structure had collapsed internally to produce a head on a thickened stick.” If you are a reader of independent means, the book is worth buying for that sentence alone.

Though Enduring Love is only two-thirds of an excellent novel, the book as a whole has a lot to recommend it: an abundance of vivid character detail and insights, wonderful language, and McEwan’s almost scary ability to probe and question and explore and walk a grueling mile in very strange shoes indeed. Sadly, after a bravura beginning, he loses control.

In a note at the end of the novel, we are told that McEwan got the idea for this novel from a case report in the psychiatric literature of a man with an unusual illness called de Clerambault’s syndrome. The subject of the illness exists in a delusional system in which he believes that another person, usually of much higher social rank, is in love with him. There is stalking and then the emotional and physical damage to follow. McEwan fleshes out this case report, putting meat on the bones of the “subject” and “object” of the sterile case report, giving it human meaning and clarity, an understanding of what this aberration means to the characters, and what it might mean to us.

Why would McEwan choose this subject? To showcase a freak of nature? To “steal” a real-life psychological catastrophe from scientific literature, exploit it, for the purpose of entertaining his jaded reader with something more still more bizarre than he sees on TV or reads in the papers? I think not. The “love” that the de Clerambault subject experiences, is vice-like, sick, and enduring, with religious overtones. Ironically, the love that the existed between the protagonist, Joe Rose and his mate, Clarissa, was consensual, and, by contrast, fragile, unsupported by religious sanction. Love can fail. Most of us have experienced, at one time or another, the failure of love. McEwan contrasts the rigid, tenacious nature of pathological love with the fluid and fragile nature of the real thing.

There are lots of interesting side trips in Enduring Love. McEwan, eloquently presents the apologetics for God, or Intelligent Designer, as our current idiom would allow, from the point of view of the psychotic stalker, and scientific “reason,” from the point of view of his atheistic protagonist-victim. The psychotic person has Christian dogma mostly right, but he is socially disconnected and cannot use his Christian faith to interact positively with other humans. Through other characters, McEwan delves into the worlds of literature (mostly Keats), evolution of species and thought from the point of view of a devout Darwinist, and biochemistry, with some very interesting history on the earliest discoveries (and subsequent squelching) of DNA in the middle part of the 1800’s.

At best, Enduring Love is a very well crafted tale of horror, suspense, and an understanding of the psychological minutia of relationships. If you are interested in psychiatry, the place of scientists and science in the modern world, scientific fashion, obsessive behavior, religious faith, love, jealousy, murder, moral choices, guilt, and fear, then you will enjoy this book.

If you have read Atonement and Saturday, and expect the same greatness, I’m afraid you will pine for more. The book as a whole will not be worth it. It is weak for resting the weight of its argument on a series of unlikely, yet pivotal (and television-grade) misunderstandings. I find that the novel is further debilitated by evidence of a worrying trend, the “post post-modern” tic of larding fiction with asides and bits of “hard science,” which are on the whole indigestible, dithering on for long-winded and unilluminating passages that fall short of epiphany, yet manage to invoke the pimply faux authority of a school paper. I’m sorry, but I think that if you want to be filled with wonder for hard facts, rather than for brilliant fiction, you should better purchase a book by a scientist playing at being a writer, rather than the obverse, which is bound to be far less sincere. The book itslef, like the punning gerund of its title, does not live up to the caliber to the author’s other works I have read. I’m underwhelmed.

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