On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan.
Vintage, 166pp, £7.99, 2008, ISBN: 9780099512790
Having been married just that morning, Mr. and Mrs. Mayhew sit across a roast beef dinner in their honeymoon suite. Their conversation is idle, circumscribed as it is by the lingering presence of two adolescent hotel waiters, and by the intellectual constriction of dread and desire. In its lulls their virginal minds are busy at work.
Both parties understand the mechanics of what comes next—we all do, the state makes sure of it—but this leaves us a lot to be desired. Florence fears the anticipatory disgust she feels towards sex will come through, preventing her from performing the role she knows is expected of her; she feels defective, a fraud. She worries her husband will see through the façade and dispose of her, finally exposing what she’d found comfort in concealing all these years. Edward worries he’ll ejaculate too early.
On Chesil Beach isn’t political work, it isn’t a feminist allegory or a comment on male privilege, nor is it a period novel; it’s more universal than any of that.It brings home the truths of human frailties, the anxieties, and the complexity of emotional interaction; it gives us a biopsy of trust and forces the destructive power of embarrassment upon us, as if to say ‘now do you see?’
The Mayhews simplify one another psychologically, substituting rigid male and female archetypes for the nebulousness and fluidity of a human being, holding these fast, fixed, and beyond doubt, like a set of axioms from which they derive their anxieties.
Communication, the author implies, might just save things. In 1962 his characters are on the cusp of a revolution that might just give them the tools they need to stave off the thousand proverbial cuts of sexual insecurity. But of course that means taking about sex, and that—beyond the functional schematics of a high school diagram or the Potemkin village of Hollywood romance—has never been easy.
And so we watch. We watch as our lovers lurch on inexorably, like so many before them, marching towards the delicate china of their uninitiated sexual lives with sledgehammers.
This gets something right. We can feel it.
We’re trapped in our heads by the shame and the fear of rejection or inadequacy, and we tend to think we’re alone in this; and because of this we prevent ourselves from having the sorts of conversations that could allow us to take on our partner’s perspective. Instead we advance across no-man’s-land, alone through the razor wire, towards trenches lined with projections of our vulnerabilities.
Imagined or not, the bullets still hurt, the wires still cut, the haemorrhaging is real. We retreat from our imagined opponent before the counterattack; we shell our enemy—the imagined contempt bubbling under the smiling face of our lover; we aim at their weak points as they aimed at ours, lest we give them space for an offensive, lest we open the door to further humiliation.
And so it begins, we repair and retrench, we dig down; we’re on high alert, ready to interpret any movement across the smoky, once fertile field ahead of us, as an act of aggression, ready to meet it without mercy. Every shot fired, every comrade killed, etched our memory forever, just beneath the surface for ease of recall. With one apparently simple act we set the perpetual motion machine to work, with spikes affixed to either end.
And through this we’re forced to ask: can we really countenance sending generation after generation to the front like this, armed with little more than poor Edward or Florence had?
Sexual health and all we’re taught about it, is important, but it’s a first step; and as in other cases, a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. For all its vulgar simplicity, sex is complex. We all know this, of course we do, but the way in which we know it all too often fails us, allowing us to devolve into generals instead of diplomats. We need wisdom unstuck from the mud so that we might achieve more than the occasional football match at Christmas, so that we might achieve real peace.
On Chesil Beach gets us closer to this sort of enlightenment than anything but experience could, and in some ways even goes beyond it; and it is because of this that this book ought to be, as a friend once suggested, mandatory reading.
But the greatness of the work lies outside of its utility in its insights into human nature.
McEwan shows us how the more challenging aspects of our relation to sex were always bound to outlive the sexual revolution. What we took for liberation—from restraint, from monogamy, from matrimonial expectation—was really illusory and, as in any other revolution, led to but another form of tyranny. We replaced one set of obsessions and their concomitant anxieties with another—am I having enough sex? am I adventurous enough? have I slept with enough people?—which each of us knows deep down is embarrassing enough to stifle communication.
The weapons have changed but the tactics remain the same. The shrillness of the whistle has softened but still we rush over the top, into the fray; we haven’t the slightest idea what we’re fighting for but we’re going to the last. And when fatigue sets in, when the losses force a ceasefire, when the grass covers over the pock marked landscapes of our first true loves, we ponder their absurdity.
Some of us reflect, talk and listen; we find insight in our experiences, in books or in films—we remember. And we pity the next line of recruits, fresh faced and left to fend for themselves, as we were.
Let us change things. Let us reach out and help. Let us say: ‘lest we forget what happened on Chesil Beach.’