Monday, July 09, 2007

Never Gonna Fall For (Post)Modern Love

One of my favourite Harlequin formulas is the Deep Dark Secret plot. Sometimes the secret is a concealed identity (think You’ve Got Mail); other times, it is the Lurid Past, the Childhood Trauma, or the Double Mastectomy. Deep Dark Secret romances are always full of back story; the author doesn’t need to embroil the hero and heroine in elaborate and improbable misunderstandings in order to keep them apart – instead, the secret keeps them busy lying, concealing, and covering up. In the shorter genres (Harlequin Temptation or Harlequin Presents), the secret is generally discovered by one’s Worst Enemy and then revealed to one’s Object of Affection, resulting in a good, passionate blow-out followed by an even more passionate reconciliation. In the longer genres (Harlequin Historical or Harlequin Superromance), the secret may be complex enough that even the most understanding Object of Affection cannot resolve it with a few well-chosen words of support. In these longer novels, the secret will be confessed somewhere around page 200, and the rest of the novel will deal with the fall-out.

There are certain useful moral principles to be gained from these novels (as well as from their kissing cousins, the soap operas). Do not conceal important information from the man you love: he will always understand and support you once the truth is revealed, but if you ’fess up yourself, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary shouting, name-calling, and melodramatic accusations of betrayal.

I’m not a big fan of Modern (or Postmodern) Literary Novels. As I see it, they are just as formulaic as a Harlequin or a whodunit – but since all the good formulas have been used up, they fall back on the crappy formulas. Like the "Here’s a Likable Character – Now Watch While I Torture Her" formula. Or the "Nothing Happens in a Bleak Prairie Town" formula. At best, these novels – like the romance or the whodunit – are about creating an emotional response, but instead of surprise or satisfaction, they aim for emotional pain. At worst, these novels are about little more than their own noble resistance to the constraints of the other genres.

Despite my usual policy of avoiding critically acclaimed fiction, I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (thanks, Metro Mama, for the free copy!). McEwan has his own formulas, and one of the ones he relies on here is the skilful creation of desire in the reader. He is very good at making me want things. When I read his books, I passionately desire his characters to come together, to achieve fulfillment. In an old-fashioned novel, this readerly desire is stoked by a tantalizing series of postponements, and the delay of the ending, as much as its promised and expected arrival, is fundamental to the novel’s pleasure. McEwan, on the other hand, is not an old-fashioned writer. I know, right from the beginning, that he’s not going to give me what I want, that his novels are about wanting and not getting, desire and not fulfillment.

Even the title tells me something about what the novel isn’t going to do. On Chesil Beach functions for me as an echo of (and commentary upon) Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach," a poem in which two lovers stand upon a bleak shore and contemplate the collapse of the cultural and religious certainties upon which they have been raised. "Ah, love," the speaker declares, "let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night." Considering what a nihilistic poem it is, "Dover Beach" is awfully romantic.

Arnold’s poem was written in 1867, and McEwan’s novel is set almost a hundred years later, on the eve of another cultural shift: "This was still the era – it would end later in that famous decade – when to be young was a social encumbrance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure." Newly married, Florence and Edward must negotiate their wedding night befogged by their shared ignorance and by one Deep Dark Secret: Florence is intensely, covertly reluctant to have sex.

The story is so very nearly a Harlequin that McEwan must strive all the way through to prevent it from becoming one. (That he succeeds is, I think, the real problem with this novel.) Several times, Florence opens her mouth to talk to Edward about her feelings and we readers strain at the bit urging her to form the words that are hovering on the tip of her tongue. For the novel to work, we have to believe that these two are capable of finding a way through their difficulties – we have to want very much for them to do so – and we have to know (while simultaneously doubting our sure knowledge) that McEwan is not going to provide a happily-ever-after ending.

I would have been interested to see whether a writer as skilled as McEwan could have provided a successful resolution to the story without turning it into a romantic comedy. Is frustrated desire the only emotion a Literary Novel can respectably incite? It is as if the spectre of all those cheap paperbacks looms, chaperone-like, over our reading pleasures, refusing consummation, denying fulfillment. We have become ascetics in our literary tastes, puritanically scorning the flesh with its crudely optimistic desires.

This question is all the more insistent because in the end this novel becomes, not a postmodern exercise in uncertainty, but rather a kind of fable, a morality tale. It focuses minutely on a single evening in the lives of these characters and thus captures the life-changing quality of certain apparently small moments of decision. At one key juncture, Edward deliberately considers the prospect of his own anger: "How tempting to give in to it, now that he was alone and could let it burn." Anger seems like a harmless release, and yet that solitary psychological moment determines everything that will follow and affects the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach is a gripping novel. It kept me up turning the pages until well after midnight, and then it kept me up for an hour longer, tossing and turning and wrestling with its meaning. It frustrated me, maddened me – but its characters are continuing to live in my mind long after I closed the book on its disappointing (and surprisingly unambiguous) ending.

29 comments:

Veronica said...

In Noel Streatfeild's autobiography, she said that after WWII, she decided that she would never write another novel for adults, because publishers only seemed to want novels with (unpleasant and miserable) "modern ideas." When I read that, I indulged my Baptist upbringing with a hearty "Amen, sister!" Much as I did while reading this post.

kgirl said...

I cannot believe that you read harlequins. rubbing my eyes in amazment.

niobe said...

Unrelated thoughts that drift into my consciousness and from there directly onto the screen.

1. I always thought that the romantic part of Dover Beach seemed tacked on and unconvincing, but that may be what I bring to the poem rather than what's actually there.

2. I haven't spun this one all the way out, but something like a Deep Dark Secret underlies a book review. The convention is that the reviewer is not supposed to reveal the key piece of knowledge that she has and that we, the readers, lack -- exactly what happens in the book.

3. "Here’s a Likable Character – Now Watch While I Torture Her"

Well, the question of likeableness aside, at least the discovery of this literary formula clarifies one of the things I've always wondered about -- what the plot of my life is supposed to be.

bubandpie said...

Kgirl - I did give them up a few years ago, actually - but I still have a box of my favourites in the basement, including several Deep Dark Secret stories.

Niobe - I was introduced to "Dover Beach" by a very romantic novel (Taylor Caldwell's Testimony of Two Men - anyone read it?) that quoted the lines I've included here, so I've always read the poem through that lens. That's the Victorians for you, though - even at their most depressing, they still understand their obligation to throw a few crumbs of romance my way, and I gobble them up wholeheartedly, undeterred by the whole withdrawing-sea-of-faith part.

Omaha Mama said...

My love of chick lit extends to Harlequin romance novels. I can only read them every-so-often though, they do tend to be a bit predictable, eh? My grandmother used to read them by the box full and I would get them when she was finished. I like the quickness of the pace and the satisfaction of a happy ending. I will not be reading the book you just reviewed for that very reason.

Miscellaneous-Mum said...

'Dover Beach' happens to be one of my favourite poems. I can't tell you how pleased I was to see you refer to it.

Alpha DogMa said...

Are there any sex scenes? I can not read any book with sex scenes that are described using metaphors. ie His heaving Member of Parliament storms the gates of the stately and pure Maiden's Head Hall with a battering ram... AAAAAAAHHHHHH!
Jennifer Weiner is one of the few authors whose sex scenes I can endure with out cringing with embarrassment for the writer.
So, B&P, any plans to write your own romance novel?

PunditMom said...

Oh, yes, definitely went through the Harlequin phase in my teen-angst years. And thanks for the great commentary on McEwen's book.

mcewen said...

It's a long time since I've read his work. I may just be tempted.
Cheers

bubandpie said...

AD - Almost the entire book is a sex scene, in a manner of speaking, but the euphemisms are all character-driven and speak volumes about who they are and what they expect. There's also quite a bit of satire about the horrific language used in 1950s advice manuals.

As for the romance novel, I've already written one (about 16 years ago) and I believe it does involve a Member of Parliament storming Maiden's Head Hall.

Beck said...

I really liked that book, and one of the things that I really liked about it was the sure knowledge that not only had their sexual ignorance brought them suffering but so had the sexual revolution (well, Edward, anyhow). Nobody's happy ever!

Lawyer Mama said...

I read those lurid novels like candy in my teen years too. Except I call them flaming armpit novels.

I keep buying McEwen's books knowing it will end badly. I just can't help myself and I know I'll buy this one too.

bubandpie said...

Beck - Based on a newspaper review I had read, I assumed the novel would be a case study in the folly of preserving one's virginity until marriage. But it really wasn't that. You're right - the novel is just as critical of the sexual revolution as it is of the era that preceded it.

And I still can't quite get over my disappointment in Edward - I thought there was more to him than the ending seems to imply. (The passage I quoted in this post speaks to how he turned out, I guess: he both benefited and suffered from a culture that glorified eternal youth, having emerged from a culture in which youth was a source of embarrassment.)

slouching mom said...

This is one of McEwen's I haven't read. He wrote it early on in his career, did he not? Is it having a renaissance? I seem to be hearing about it everywhere these days...

Jenifer said...

I am still reeling over the fact that you read (have read) Harlequin's. My other favourite formula is the they both hate each other intensely formula only to realize about 200 pages later they are soul mates.

I have not read On Chesil Beach and now I am really not sure. In general this is not a novel I think I would enjoy. Maybe I will give it a go when I find it at the library.

Alpha DogMa's comment had me laughing out loud...oh I have read too many bad romances I fear.

Carrien said...

I think it's easier to write something depressong than to write something joyful and uplifting that doesn't come out cheesy or trite. At least, that's my experience with music composition, Depressing sounds more impressive and serious, like you're a real artist.

Joy, of course said...

Raising my glass for a cheery "Hear! Hear!" to your observations that the critically acclaimed novels tend to be dreary, frustrating and slow. I finally decided that I was just too shallow to be able to put myself through that again and again. I have found some worthy exceptions to this, but overall I am constantly on the lookout for an author that can use their talent to just write a good story, preferably one with a happy ending. This is probably because I tend to use reading as an escape and not as self-contemplation.

I have to admit though, that I cannot stomach harlequin romances and I was as shocked as everyone else to find out you liked them. How fabulously surprising! The truth is, that despite my need for happy endings, I am not much of a romantic at all.

Great post!

TrudyJ said...

"We have become ascetics in our literary tastes, puritanically scorning the flesh with its crudely optimistic desires."

That's great.

I have problems with romance novels (although, like half the "serious" writers in the world, yes I have written one) because of the formulaic nature and, even more, because of the often blah, dead quality of the writing. I have problems with literary novels because of the equally-predictable we're-all-doomed-to-be-unhappy plot and the often "look at me, gosh aren't I clever" quality of the writing.

My favourite writing falls into the middle ground -- the well-written popular novel in which it's still possible to hope for a happy (though not facile) ending. Anne Tyler would be the patron saint of this genre, and there aren't enough of her out there.

Marymurtz said...

First of all, the poster who used the metaphor "member of Parlaiment" gave me the heartiest laugh of the week--Bravo!

Secondly, I'm suffering through a terrible impatience with books at the moment. ME--the reader who will read anything, including a catalog, just to read. I have to read every day.

I tried reading McEwen before (twice) and found myself so impatient with the characters and plot development that I wanted to scream. I think it's the fact that now I have a child and a very busy job, I can only read in short increments and don't have time to let complex plots simmer.

Wonderful post...you're brilliant!

Mommy-Like Days said...

Long live the Harlequins, I say. Also, I find there is an interesting dynamic in my book club--everyone tries to pick a serious book, half-heartedly admitting that a good Shopaholic read is really what they want. I wish someone would pick some thoroughly chick lit kinda book, and then we could have a great time defending it.

Bon said...

brilliant indeed. since i discovered - probably about the time you wrote your own Harlequin - that there was actually a published formula which authors were forced to adhere to, i've looked at all literature a little askance, trying to suss out the formula operating underneath success in various eras. and sadly, all of them irritate me.

but mostly i wanted to comment because you played on a David Bowie line as your title...thus giving me a happy refrain to run in my head the rest of the morning.

kittenpie said...

"Nothing ever happens in a bleak prairie town" formula. hee hee hee hee hee! I love it. I totally agree with that much-hated formula. and the tormenting someone with one plague after another, too. I resolutely refuse to read Rohinton Mistry and Anne-Marie MacDonald because everyone who has tried to tell me about how great they are has also had to confess that they are really, deeply depressing. Why would I do that to myself?

Julie Pippert said...

Ooh a great book review! Thanks!

I call the books, the formulaic torture ones Gratuitous Angst. Oprah's book club is the best list of these. ;)

Member of parliament, maiden head hall BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!

wordgirl said...

Never read a Harlequin, but then...I don't need to in order to annoint myself Judy McJudgypants and turn up my nose at them. Their formula is is only one reason why. That said, I've read one McEwan book and I concur that he's quite good. I say this even though I do like the Modern Novel...as long as it's not something along the lines of chick lit. I've seen copies of "On Chesil Beach" everywhere and it is really grabbing my interest.

Jenn said...

You hit his writing on the head.

Which is why I only purchase him now in soft-cover.

Just can't spend that kind of dough on a book that makes me crazy for years after reading it.

Lisa b said...

Oh now I am going to have to find out how it ends badly.
I feel smarter now having read your "lecture" and I second kgirl - YOU read harlequins?

Occidental Girl said...

I appreciated your review for its eloquence, and for not giving away the ending. I want to read this book now. Thank you.

Luisa Perkins said...

Fascinating. How I love Dover Beach.

I recently read Atonement; I'll have to put this one on my list.

I love a good Harlequin (and a good Regency published by anyone else). I also wrote one (unpublished)! I was 16. It's called Sylver's Promise, and is set in Montana, "where horses run free"....

the mad momma said...

you just made up the harlequin bit to throw us off, didnt you!

read Atonement.. and now after your very positive review, shall go get chesil beach.. love Ian McEwan