September 26, 2007

Book review: "On Chesil Beach," by Ian McEwan

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese / ISBN: 978-0-385-52240-3

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Regular readers know that this month CCLaP is taking an extended look at the nominees for the 2007 Booker Prize; and regular readers also know that so far I've been mostly disappointed by the nominees I've read, finding most of them to be inconsequential little wisps of stories, many of them well-written but certainly not weighty enough to be called "The Best Novel of 2007." And thus do we come to the fifth Booker nominee to be reviewed here, as well as the one easily most well-known, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach; and let me tell you, if a common complaint about this year's Booker nominees is of their slight and inconsequential nature, On Chesil Beach isn't helping matters at all, in that it is such a non-excuse for a novel as to almost not exist. In fact, I can literally give you the entire plot of this 200-page, paperback-sized book in literally 177 words; and this is a major spoiler alert, by the way, because I'm not kidding, I really am about to tell you the entire storyline of On Chesil Beach from beginning to end, without skipping a single detail, in 177 words. Ready?

A young middle-class couple get married in England in 1962, and spend their wedding night on Chesil Beach. He only got married because he's horny as hell and lives in middle-class 1962 England, where getting married is the only chance you're going to have to get laid, and as a result has now become a cuckold employee of his upper-class father-in-law; she despises the very idea of sex altogether, but is too much of a coward to tell her husband, instead spending months psyching herself up into performing her upcoming "wifely duties." The wedding night arrives. He gets so excited that he has a premature ejaculation on his wife's stomach. She becomes so disgusted that she flees the room in a panic. He chases her down the beach, where they have an explosive argument based on mutual misunderstanding of each other's behavior. She leaves him that night and their marriage is annulled (presumably). And he spends the rest of his life thinking about "the relationship that was never meant to be."

No, dude, seriously, that's it; that's the entire freaking plotline of the book. Which, fine, I don't necessarily mind when it's a 10,000-word short story in a literary magazine, that I'm reading on a boring Sunday afternoon down at my neighborhood cafe; but seriously, as a standalone book for 22 damn dollars? And that the Booker committee has the gall to nominate as the best novel of the entire year? Seriously? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to even believe that publisher Nan A. Talese is trying to pull such a fast one on the general public, and it's examples like this that make me better understand why the traditional publishing industry is in such a mess it currently is; because what else can you call it but an ethical crime to charge 22 dollars for what amounts to a single afternoon of slight entertainment? And who else can afford such a thing than a tiny group of overeducated cultural elite, who are putting up with such outrageous prices out of an antiquated sense of obligation to the medium in the first place? Sheesh, no wonder no one's buying paper books anymore!

And this isn't even the biggest problem with On Chesil Beach, in my opinion; no, the biggest problem is that the story itself is terrible, populated with despicable little characters doing despicable little things throughout, painting about the worst and most awkward portrait of human sexuality and intimacy possible, with none of the characters learning a single thing by the end or growing even the tiniest bit. And man, who wants to spend their free time reading about that? UGH! If I want to be constantly disappointed by the endless stupidity and cultural banality of my fellow humans, I don't need an award-winning novelist to write an elaborate Kennedy-era story; all I need to do is open my damn door and walk down the damn sidewalk any day of the week. The reason I read the work of award-winning novelists is because I'm hoping they'll have something to say about the situation that I wouldn't have thought to say myself, something that hopefully adds to my understanding of such characters or at least explains their situation to me in an original and entertaining way; all McEwan manages to do over the course of On Chesil Beach, however, is remind us of just how many people spend their entire lives feeling awkward about their own bodies, and how the sheeplike fear and shame of most of these people will prevent them from ever being able to honestly discuss such issues with others, even if that's their supposed soulmate and long-term romantic partner.

That's not only an extremely ugly message about humanity, which gives the book one strike against it, but McEwan then never expands on it, never sheds any original light on the situation that I couldn't have thought of myself, which then gives the book two strikes. Then add the palatable feeling that you're getting ripped off, from this essentially being a short story that's being sold to you as a complete novel, and that's suddenly three strikes; and as far as I'm concerned, any book with this many major bad things going on should've never been nominated for a Booker in the first place, much less be what many consider the current favorite to win it all. Unfortunately, like I said, the more of these Booker nominees I read this year, the more I'm starting to realize why traditional publishing is in such a perilous position these days; between the overinflated prices, the underwhelming content, the giant gulf between what academic critics are interested in and what the general public likes, and the ever-decreasing importance of so-called "cultural gatekeepers" altogether, it's frankly a wonder sometimes that any damn paper books are getting bought at all these days.

The longer the literary critics of the world keep exalting such dreck as On Chesil Beach, the more irrelevant they're going to make themselves to the general public, and the less the general public is going to want to support their endeavors; and that means even less newspaper space, even less books sold each year, less attention paid to all those delicate little awards those industry people hand out to each other every year. Traditional critics need to understand that the waning importance of novels and other printed books in our society is not only from that society becoming more visual in nature and less literary; that when those critics go around championing such expensive, inexplicably bad projects like On Chesil Beach, it makes the general public wonder why they should pay attention to them in the first place. I've always kind of understood this about the literary world; reading all these Booker nominees in a row, though, has profoundly confirmed it for me.

Out of 10:
Story: 0.4
Characters: 2.7
Style: 5.0
Overall: 3.1

Read even more about On Chesil Beach: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:34 PM, September 26, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |