Saturday, May 13, 2006

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I spent the entire day today reading Ian McEwan's brilliant novel Enduring Love. I recently finished reading his latest novel Saturday and was itching to read his other books (next in line is his booker winning Amsterdam). It is a gripping, suspenseful novel which is also a fascinating exploration of conflicts of ideas related to science, faith and love.

The novel's protagonist Joe Rose is a man of science, a hard-boiled rationalist and reductionist. He tries to explain everything around him in terms of physics, chemistry and biology of things. In the beginning of the novel he is attending a picnic with his wife Clarissa who is an expert on romanticism in literature and doing some research on Keats's life. Together they witness a bizarre and tragic balloon accident after which the novel turns into a story of sexual obsession. One other witness of the accident Jed Parry is a deluded erotomaniac who gets obsessed with Joe and starts stalking him when his advances are spurned. He is also some kind of a Jesus freak who has found some very personal ideas about God and religion based entirely on emotion and subjective feeling. Gradually the stalking takes an emotional toll on the rationalist hero and fissures appear in the relationship between Joe and Clarissa. It is interesting how McEwan develops tension with the three main characters who together represent science, arts/romanticism and irrational faith.

McEwan uses these three characters not just to propel the plot or to create suspense but also to explore the nature of rationality and its (supposed) antipathy towards faith, love, madness (McEwan thinks that these are the same or at least different only in scale). More importantly he shows that this conflict or antipathy is not there just inside the pages of philosophy books but rather these are deeply ingrained in our psyche and our inherent nature. This is not an original idea but he situates this theoretical conflict within the context of fiction and makes it startling by his gift of psychological realism. He also tries to show that human rationality is a highly contingent form of rationality, far removed from the textbook version. Rather than being rational we have got an infinite capacity for self delusion and retrospective rationalization.

McEwan is obviously enamoured with science and its possibilities and also its limitations vis-a-vis our nature. There are long passages in the book which seem to be taken direct out of some book on Evolution and human nature, only it is beautifully written. For example this passage about our ability for endless self-deception:

I felt a familiar disappointment. No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favour and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We're descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half-truths who in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track--when it didn't suit us we couldn't agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing. That's why there are divorces, border disputes and wars, and why this statue of Virgin Mary weeps blood, and that one of Ganesh drinks milk. And that was why metaphysics and science were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature. Disinterested truth. But it couldn't save us from ourselves, the ruts were too deep. There could be no private redemption in objectivity.

Some links: An article from Slate. Interview with McEwan about the book. Details about his life and career so far here.


Anonymous said...

This is a really good, overall analysis of the novel.

Alok said...