Chopping up dead people; abductions of small children; surgically removing a vital male organ; your Dad dies so you commit incest. All of these are major events from previous Ian McEwan novels or short stories. This is an author whose fictional territory is the grotesque catastrophic event.
Enduring Love contains none of the above, but it does include one of the most celebrated fictional catastrophes in contemporary British fiction. The ballooning accident which opens the novel is pacey, tense and intelligently told. A man dies horribly and his death, and dead body are described with the customary McEwan taste for horror amidst the everyday.
However, McEwan is not an author who wishes to shock and then, once the effect has worn off, shock us again. He takes this initial event and weaves more challenging material from its intensity. For here our hero discovers that he has a secret gay admirer who doesn't like to keep his admiring that secret. McEwan explores the repercussions of catastrophe. How people deal with the afterwards, the aftermath.
So we have a tale of stalking, a tale with gender implications. For, rather like a tale of male rape, having a male victim at least makes one half of the population feel more vulnerable than they otherwise might. McEwan, in his more mature work has sought to write about issues that have undoubted contemporary relevance, issues we read about in today's newspapers. So, in The Child in Time, he treats the subject of child abduction; in Black Dogs it's the fall of the Berlin Wall and in Enduring Love stalking. But where the newspapers will concentrate on grief and revolution while it still sells McEwan explores the causes and the coming to terms with the event that follows.
Enduring Love can be read in a variety of ways. It is a tale about love, but primarily about the mysteries of love: the love, which endures between Joe and Clarissa and the unwanted love from Jed, which has to be endured. There are many varieties of love encountered within the novel but all of them are touched by an irrationality, which we cannot safely confine to the religious fanatic Jed. The actions of love can force all of us to succumb to radical change; Joe and Clarissa drift apart and as they do McEwan encourages us to take sides, to yell at him or her to stop being so selfish and listen, and in that action of caring for characters who aren't real we're part of the irrationality. The novel is also concerned with the competing claims of art and science, with the different ways they try to make sense of the world, how they may work together and how they may be threatened by the other; Joe and Clarissa represent these two ways; hence another major theme, desire for objectivity, the power of having the right perspective, a certainty Jed claims without science or art. Faith becomes a focus too, Jed has faith in God, but how much does Clarissa have in Joe, or Jean Logan in her supposedly adulterous husband? It is also a story about telling stories, at points we don't know whose narrative to trust despite, or maybe because of the different perspectives we're offered, including Wenn and Camia's bogus scientific paper in Appendix One, (the authors' names are an anagram of Ian McEwan).
Critics have attacked McEwan's novels for being too mechanical. Chapters can seem overdesigned and too neatly structured within a very ordered whole. It's even been said that the novels don't actually go anywhere, but just revolve around the same subject. This is perhaps a legacy of his early short story writing where compact ideas (of the grotesque kind) do not have to be stretched beyond their natural length. Or perhaps the stigma of being Britain's most famous Creative Writing student still sticks thirty years on. Whatever the merits of this critique, McEwan's novels retain the seductive force of the best page-turners along with the power of direct and intelligent emotional challenge, Enduring Love is no exception.