Winston's Reviews > Enduring Love

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
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Jan 25, 2011

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Ian McEwan’s anecdotal narrative-within-a-narrative of postmodern epistemology explores the possible and fantastical frames of minds converging upon a ballooning accident, which precipitates that single explosive moment when Jed Parry is thrust into a psychopathological obsession with the narrator, Joe. Just as Jed’s delusional narrative of Joe’s irresistible affections for him impose immense strain on Joe’s relationship with his common-law wife Clarisse, Joe’s preoccupation with Jed’s potential for vengeance estranges Clarisse, who in turn exacerbates the alienation she feels with her suspicions that Joe’s narrative is merely a fiction and madness.

The author’s narrative thesis on relativism is framed in the anecdotal retelling of a real-life story (the novel is a fictionalised account of P, an erotomaniac, whose case is documented in an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry), and intertwined with Joe’s latest assignment as a science writer to argue the transition of scientific discourse from subjective anecdotal narratives exemplified by amateur scientists, such as Charles Darwin in the Victorian era, to formal objectified discourse in current professional practice. This is an assignment which Joe, and one could infer McEwan, abandons as facetious and contrived by selective attention to evidence. The counterargument is eminently evident in the history of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which was first accepted as truth, upon which evidence was assiduously gathered in support of space-time distortions by gravity. Joe, and presumably McEwan, attributes this to the ‘elegance’ of the argument, which becomes an elusive pursuit of all the protagonists in this story.

The subjective fallibility of human narrative, from which the narrator is unable to exist independently, is conveyed by the diametric opposition of Jed’s Christian beliefs and Joe’s atheism; only the supernatural construct of God could possibly adjudicate the substance of Truth, but the believer cannot assume the Deity, the vision of Whom is shaped by his very own obsessions (Jed believes God has sent him to redeem Joe through his love), and the atheist very simply rejects such a supposition.

The only narratives left to explicate this epistemology are mere demonstrations of human subjectivity – hopeless, often impervious to mutual understanding, and at times comical. The primitive seat of subjective narrative is the emotions, which colour, distort, and fabricate connections with no knowable cause or effect. Joe, in his exasperation to ward off Jed’s attentions, re-experiences his crisis of self-worth as a science-writer who forsook a career of original academic research to be a mere observer of academic enterprise. Clarisse thinks this self-loathing has merely found a convenient exorcism in Joe’s narratives of Jed’s dangerousness. Meanwhile, Jed’s indefatigable love for Joe finds meaning and telepathic communion through signals construed in the curtains of Joe’s apartment windows and the lingering warmth of leaves brushed by Joe’s hands.

If emotions distort, then memory is an easy accomplice. When Jed’s hired killers botch their attempt to snuff Joe (mistaking a former diplomat at a neighbouring table in the restaurant, with the same lunch party of an elderly man, a middle aged man and a younger woman), Joe’s memories of the incident only render him an unreliable witness at best, and even a suspect. (The interrogation, in its comedy, boils down to whether dessert was served prior to the shooting and the flavour of Joe’s ice-cream, if it was indeed served. Joe was adamant it was apple, on the green side of white.) Law enforcers, for all their experience, fare no better. When Joe presents evidence of Jed’s harassment in numerous letters to the police, Inspector Linley dismisses Jed as a pussycat in the police archive of horrors.

If memory is an accomplice, then the balance of power in a relationship is the judge of a narrative’s validity. Clarissa is alienated by Joe’s insistence on Jed’s irredeemable harassment and pathology, which he undertakes a research investigation (Clarissa deems this an attempt by Joe to revive his failed research career) to substantiate as Truth. When Clarissa mouths the explicit declaration that their relationship is over, Joe is numb, despite his unwavering belief in the depth and honesty of their love (and how underserving it is of a balding, large man to have the affections of a beautiful woman). When Clarissa finally leaves their home (after Joe shoots Jed in the arm to free Clarissa from Jed’s hostage-taking attempt), disappointed that Joe had in some way made this final violent showdown an inevitability through his obsessive demonisation of Jed, and rejection of Clarissa’s partnership in the evolving crisis, Joe deems Clarissa an ingrate who failed to see the de Clerembault Jed was and the saviour he was.

The subjective narrative is unrelenting, even when Joe attempts a scientific, reductionist, evolutionary psychological account of the baby’s smile, an account that Clarissa notes is deliberate in dismissing the gestalt of a parent-child relationship. On the other hand, Clarissa the academic expert on romantic poetry diligently seeks possible historical correspondence that could throw light on Keat’s romantic affections for Fanny Brawne, as though Keat’s poetry needed an added narrative to throw light on its meaning. Even in the midst of a criminal transaction, Joe is driven to uncontrollable laughter when he contemplates all the associations he perceives in the moustache of a gun seller with whom he is lunching.

Perhaps the author unsettles the narrative most of all when he remind us of his authorship. The book ends with two appendices, the first a reprint of the British Journal of Psychiatry article on which the novel is apparently based, with a full bibliography no less, but without any indication of the article’s date or journal issue. The second appendix is a letter from Jed to Joe from the mental institution to which he has been incarcerated. The veracity of the ‘true’ story on which the novel is based is kept off-kilter to the very end.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Zaki This is really in-depth!

Winston The psychologist in me was most intrigued...

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