In a succession of novels set primarily in the United Kingdom during the last decades of the twentieth century, Ian McEwan has explored the disorder and fragmentation of a society in which his characters are grasping for some sort of value or direction to give their lives a semblance of meaning, or at least make them tolerable. As Michael Adams has astutely observed, all of McEwan’s novels are, to some extent, a “meditation on alienation,” his protagonists depicted in a struggle with political and psychological forces that seem to be expressions of the darker sides of human behavior. Inexplicable evil, random violence, casual cruelty, and pointless endeavors plague people who are essentially decent but often unsure of how to proceed in a world where chaos and stupidity seem to be in ascendance. Because of his insertion of scenes so grotesquely bizarre that they are unavoidably amusing, McEwan’s books have tended to balance a dark vision of society with a comic stance that alleviates the grim circumstances they describe, and his main characters have often found some degree of surcease from their difficulties. Jeremy, the narrator of Black Dogs(1992), the novel preceding Enduring Love, states that there is “the possibility of love transforming and redeeming life.” This is a position that McEwan supports but one which is not examined in much detail in his other work. In Enduring Love, he has not only examined and developed it in depth but has also gone further to consider how “the possibility of love” can be both life-enhancing and dangerously lethal, approaching a familiar subject and sentiment with such powers of invention that its ultimate power is renewed and revealed again.
Utilizing the kind of unusual situation that has become one of the distinctive elements of his writing, McEwan begins the novel with a devastating incident that completely unsettles the pleasant, comfortable, moderately fulfilling life of Joe Rose, a freelance writer specializing in explaining complex scientific phenomena in journals and on television programs. Rose is in his early forties, a “large, clumsy, balding fellow,” as he describes himself, who is aptly and affectionately seen as “the world’s most complicated simpleton” by his wife of seven years, Clarissa Mellon. Her work as a lecturer in literature at a mediocre university is moderately rewarding, and although they are childless because of a botched surgical procedure in Clarissa’s youth, their relationship has an affirmative intimacy and mutual dependence that has enabled both of them to feel generally grateful and satisfied most of the time. On the way to a picnic in the lush English countryside of Chiltern Hills, they see a balloon with a small child moving out of control, and Joe joins several other bystanders in an attempt to anchor the carriage to the ground. A sudden wind shift pulls the balloon out of their grasp, and as the men are forced to relinquish their grip, one person holds onto the mooring rope. He is carried aloft and falls to his death. The horror of this is sufficient to leave Joe and Clarissa severely shaken—“I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man,” Joe says—but what takes it beyond “mere tragedy” is that one of the other bystanders who ran to help, Jed Parry, has also experienced a kind of fall. He has become, in the instant of their meeting, totally and completely in love with Joe, in spite of Joe’s utter displeasure with Jed’s fervent protestation of affection.
Joe and Clarissa have established a kind of personal fortress to keep the harshness of life in England at the end of the twentieth century at a safe remove. Their life together is a place of retreat and restoration, providing protection against a world where illness, argument, petty aggravation, and pervasive ugliness are rampant. Most of their friends are separated or divorced, Clarissa’s school is administered by uneducated oafs, Joe is troubled by his career decision to forsake pure science for reductive popularizing, and he is tormented by guilt since he feels that he and the others could have held onto the balloon’s rope and saved the man whose heroic efforts were not only deadly but also unnecessary, as the balloon with the boy eventually landed safely. He and Clarissa regard the balloon tragedy as a trial and expect to help each other through the crisis.
This is one aspect of the “enduring love” that the title proposes. Jed’s sudden declaration of ardor, however, compounds the equation and compels Joe to consider the most basic components of a structure he has previously enjoyed without much introspection. This, in itself, is not necessarily unpleasant because of his inclination for analytical reflection. Jed’s wild devotion, though, cannot be contained by the methods of rational inquiry to which Joe is accustomed.
Jed is in his late twenties, affluent, idle, intelligent, and a religious zealot. Nothing that Joe does or says has any...
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