Sunday, 17 June 2007

'Enduring Love' by Ian McEwan - definitely a test of my endurance...

Have just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.


I wish I’d gone along with my instincts and not bothered finishing it at all - like this woman did, a former Professor of German literature; obviously has more sense than I:

Well, it's pretentious. It's artificial. I just can't get into it. Nothing. ... He's some people's favorite author, the big cheese in contemporary literature, and I can't get friendly with him. He doesn't sound real to me. Everything is cerebral and not real.

I've found that people seem to consider McEwan either brilliant or tediously dull. I liked Atonement a few years ago. But Enduring Love was just useless, annoying and lifeless to boot.

Apparently he’s ‘high-brow literature’. Well... my brows were raised rather frequently throughout my readings as I was increasingly surprised that Bill Bryson considered it “beautifully written” and “utterly compelling from the very first page”. (Bill, I am not happy with you at all mate. If your blurb had not been on that bloody book I may never have bothered buying it! You owe me $22.95.)

McEwan’s story idea is fine, but he doesn’t do enough with it.

Plot: is as subtle as a sledgehammer and predictable.

Intellectual interest: no new ideas at all.

Characterisation: his characters are dull, lacklustre stereotypes.

I think the cardboard characters are due to McEwan’s attempt at suspense; the main character is being stalked but the reader wonders whether the narrator is actually the delusional one. If his characters were well-defined he may have lost some suspense - but, even though you are wondering if it’s the narrator or the stalker who’s nuts, you are so unattached to their characters you don’t care! Just tell me and get it over with for god’s sake! Obviously he’s going to confront the stalker and the issue will be resolved. Some have described it as a ‘surprise ending’. *ha* No: ‘predictable, boring, easy and crappy’ would describe it better (you can tell this is a highly technical and complex book review).

The only characterisations that were done well were a few, very minor characters.

There's a good scene toward the conclusion of this bunch of codswallop the book where the main character goes to buy a gun off some strange strangers, assisted somewhat feebly by an old stoner friend of his, Johnny.

By the time we reached the motorway Johnny was horizontal again and asleep. He wasn't usually up before noon. ... He still wore his moustache American frontier-style with the hairs, now whitened at the ends, curling over his upper lip, almost into his mouth. Was it flinty manhood women tasted, kissing a set-up like that, or yesterday's vindaloo? ...

'It's good to get out of the city,' Johnny said. I lowered my window. I thought I might be passively stoned. ...everything looked too emphatic, as though invisibly italicised. Perhaps it was fear.


Xan gave his judgements the ring of fundamental truth by adorning them with basically.

'Basically,' he said, looking at me, 'your allergy is a form of imbalance.'

When I said this was unfalsifiable, he looked pleased. I began to think he might not detest me after all. He had the same hostile regard for his porridge as he had for me. What I had thought was an expression was actually his face at rest. I had been misled by the curl of his upper lip which some genetic hiatus had boiled into a snarl.

'Basically,' he went on ...

Daisy was on her feet ladling out more porridge. She spoke in the quiet voice of one who knows the truth but can't be fished to fight for it. 'There's an overriding planetary aspect with particular reference to earth signs and the tenth house.'


'Jesus!' Xan was a touch irritable. He couldn't hitch his words round his thoughts, it was difficult, and people kept interrupting. His attitude was lining up behind his snarl. ...

All I could think about was leaving - gun or not. I made a show of looking at my watch, and said, 'I'll tell you in four words and nothing more. Someone wants to kill me.'

In the silence everyone, including me, totted up the words.

'So it is self-defence,' Xan said with hope in his voice.

I shrugged a kind of yes. There was dither in these faces. They wanted the money and they wanted absolution. These coke-dealers, these property crooks ... were making a stab at being moral, and they wanted me to help them out. I was beginning to feel better. (pp. 190-200)

I know I would have felt a lot better if he'd written the whole novel this well!

Reading this chapter and actually enjoying it, I wondered if he just happened to write it on a day in which he was in a really good mood. If I were flowery, I would say this chapter shone like an iridescent star in a dreary black night. [Thank God I'm not flowery, eh?] =)


A few short examples of McEwan's heavy handedness (I could give you long passages of tedious drivel but I'm not mean enough - to either one of us).

What were we running towards? I don't think any of us would ever know fully. But superficially the answer was, a balloon. (3)

Blah, and then in the middle of the action of a rescue scene, he starts dryly describing the charcters in a long list of names and pedestrian description:

To my right the ground dropped away. Immediately to my left was John Logan, a family doctor from Oxford, forty-two years old, married to an historian, with two children. He was not the youngest of our group... He played tennis to a country level, and belonged to a mountaineering club... To his left was Joseph Lacey, sixty-three, farm labourer, odd job man, captain of his local bowls team. He lived with his wife in Wallington... (12)

And on and on with the list, blah blah blah, for nearly a page! Totally taking you out of the action, and entirely dull and unnecessary. The only exciting scene of the whole book and he ruins it! Here's some more heavy-handed prose:

In the second or so that this stranger's clear grey-blue eyes held mine I felt I could include him in the self-congratulatory warmth I felt in being alive. ...

Had I known what this glance meant to him at the time, and how he was to construe it later and build around it a mental life, I would not have been so warm. (20)

Gosh, I wonder if this man is going to be trouble for our main character later? Hmmm. Lucky he's letting us know this early on so we don't have to be surprised by anything or, horrors, THINK FOR OURSELVES!

And what colour were his eyes again..?

Parry took a couple of steps closer and looked down at Logan, then back to me. The grey-blue eyes gleamed. [Oh, that's right.] He was excited, but no one could ever have guessed to what extent. (24)

Well, no... not until YOU TOLD US!

All these bloody neon signs. Obviously he considers his audience a bunch of feeble-minded nitwits. Or, he just doesn't know how to tell a good story (of course, perhaps I don't either, but he's Ian bloody McEwan and good enough to write those earlier examples, so why did he waste my time with the rest of that DRIVEL?!!!!! ...Er... so, that's. my. point... *ahem*).


I think Stephen King or Anne Tyler would have accomplished much more with this story. I haven’t read King for many years, and I’m not saying he’s the greatest writer, but I reckon he would have made better use of the thriller/suspense-type plot, further examined the themes, and would have probably created more believable characters (or at least more lively).

And Anne Tyler could have expanded the story’s introspective side, allowed the story to flow instead of being shoved down the reader's throat, and developed characters that were interesting and believable; making the most of their quirks while keeping them grounded in reality instead of mere stereotypes.

And, even though King is far from the literary type, both writers would have been much less heavy handed and obvious!

Yes, I'm thoroughly pissed off and disappointed. 'A page-turner' with an engrossing plot my arse Alain de Botton! It was only a page-turner in that I was hurriedly trying to see if there was actually any point to it; if he was going to go anywhere with it! And he didn't.


Other people left underwhelmed by McEwan:

“Ian McEwan is undoubtedly one of our best writers. It's just that he's not a very good artist.”

“Is there anybody writing fiction more ponderous, more humorless, than McEwan?”

McEwan's strength is, as always, the major pivotal scene of his novels. ... Unfortunately for this book it occurs straight away. [and] is never topped throughout the rest of the book. Your doubts about the reliability and indeed sanity of the narrator carries the story as the plot becomes increasingly unbelievable as the novel progresses.

And from The Guardian:

Immediately before he lies to the police, or to himself, or merely the reader, Joe has been thinking about a truth free of self-interest, ... and has even asked explicitly, in a sentence standing alone as a paragraph: 'But exactly what interests of mine were served by my own account of the restaurant lunch?'

McEwan is anything but a crude writer... and such a sharp-elbowed nudge to the reader is out of character. To introduce at this late stage an unreliable narrator is perverse: it recapitulates on the level of gimmick, the novel's central theme, that unreliability is an ineradicable part of what we are.

...inability fully to dramatise its themes

Obsessed young Jed Parry ... is like a Ruth Rendell character ... It's disappointing that a book that begins so full-throatedly should end with stagy confrontation, then case history, references and appendices.

Another person, (“ex-physicist, aspiring novelist”) agreed with me too. He gave it only one star and offered advice of:

“I'd leave Enduring Love behind. A ghastly road crash of a book.”

Yes, my thoughts exactly.


Well, now you know what I thought, but I'm interested to know any other opinions. And whether you know any of McEwan's books I should read! (Like I said, I liked Atonement fine.) Or any others to avoid...

Has anyone read his latest? On Chesil Beach?

Or has anyone else had a similarly disappointing reading experience recently?


P.S. I should have realised the symbolism of the hot air balloon on the cover. It's a warning!