Enduring Love (1997) was the last Ian McEwan novel I both enjoyed and could identify as an "Ian McEwan novel" as I had previously known them. The Cement Garden, The Child in Time, The Comfort of Strangers, and the stories in First Love, Last Rites were all chilling tales of innocence lost or corrupted, the grotesqueries of First Love especially disturbing.
McEwan has gone from writing gothic-tinged fables of disintegration to writing conventional psychological realism presented as slices-of-life. If McEwan has now become a more or less recognizable kind of hyper-realist (with now and then a sharp plot twist introduced to keep things moving), shouldn't this now be the standard by which he is judged? Ought not the question be whether his fiction is effective in its hyper-realism or not?
Perhaps. But there still ought to be room for saying that McEwan's early work was arresting and rather daring, completely unlike most British "literary fiction" that preceded it, and that his later work is predictable and often tedious, a pale imitation of the British modernists it seems to take as inspiration. And that the cutting precision of his early style has now become the limp, undistinguished prose of a writer cashing in on his newfound popularity and exploiting his previously-established critical reputation.
Thus not only do I think that McEwan's early, more innovative fiction is better than his later, more orthodox fiction, but I also don't find that these later books succeed on what could be identified as their own terms. Indeed, since I could not finish Saturday, I can only conclude that this book failed the most basic test any work of fiction should pass, that of maintaining my attention at all. I did manage to finish Amsterdam and Atonement, but it is nevertheless a telling measure of its lack of any distinguishing qualities that I now remember nothing at all about the former, and that, although I do remember most of the latter, this is largely because I was so struck by the thoroughgoing banality of its extended denouement.
On Chesil Beach does seem to return McEwan to the fabular form taken by his best work, but its narrative has none of the enlivening angularity of The Comfort of Strangers or Black Dog. It unfolds in a leisurely, unimaginative (first let's introduce the characters, then let's go back and see how they got here), frequently eye-glazing pace, and takes us nowhere surprising. Indeed, it seems almost designed to reinforce the most banal stereotypes of both class and gender in pre-"Swinging London" Great Britain. Its own post-dramatic denouement, taken together with the sexual histrionics of its core narrative, serves to complete an allegorical tale that reveals mid-century English men and women to be, well, class conscious and sexually repressed. I don't think I ever realized that! The male protagonist's later, rueful conclusion that "Love and patience--if only he had had them both at once--would surely have seen them through" is insipid in the extreme.
Thematically, the only mildly interesting idea the novel communicates is the suggestion that, had the frigid female protagonist come of age during the sexually liberating period just a few years off, she might have been able to express her lack of sexual desire more freely, without so much of the accompanying guilt she does in fact feel. This is a provocatively contrarian notion, but it is mostly just a passing fancy, not a motif wound into the narrative and pursued with the steely-eyed vigor one finds in McEwan's fiction of the 80s and 90s. It's one of the various bits of allegorical meaning strewn about the text, and the reader, for all the energy and aesthetic ingenuity with which it's offered, can simply take it or leave it.
But I suppose readers unfamiliar with McEwan's early work, or who found it too disquieting or idiosyncratic, might read On Chesil Beach and find it a compelling enough portrait of an historical era, a relatively quick read with enough McEwanesque touches of trauma and unease to distinguish it from most other routine works of literary fiction. (And it is about sex, after all.) But my own formative reading experiences of Ian McEwan's fiction led me to expect much, much more (and something much different) from what we're getting at this later stage of his career. Perhaps others (including those print reviewers who gave On Chesil Beach such ecstatic praise) will continue to be satisfied with the tamer McEwan, but I'd still suggest they read First Love, Last Rites to understand what's missing.