After six previous novels and two books of short stories, Ian McEwan’s reputation as a writer of small, impeccably written fictions is secure. His gift for the cold and scary is well established, too: among the critical praise that festoons his book jackets, the word “macabre” crops up more than once. But his books are more than tales of suspense and shock; they raise issues of guilt and love and fear, essentially of what happens when the civilized and ordered splinters against chaos. There can be something of Greek myth in his narratives—man casually overthrown by the indifferent Fates. At the same time he is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled. It is a pity his surname is resistant to adjective (as in “Kafkan”): it would have a quite recognizable meaning by now.
Enduring Love is as satisfying in the menace and tension departments as any of the previous books, and less unforgiving than some—his best, perhaps, since The Child in Time. The plot is simplicity itself: a loving and well-matched couple, Joe and Clarissa, are split apart by a deranged stalker who believes that instant mutual love has struck himself and Joe. One kind of enduring love meets another kind (to Jed, the stalker, just as real), and the result is disaster. So what is love, anyway: what real, what illusory, what benign, what destructive?
The opening of the story is a Verdi overture: sweet tunes are played, ominous notes struck, and the curtain rises on a baritone voice. Clarissa and Joe are having a celebratory picnic after a six-week separation during which Clarissa has been researching letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne (obsessive love!). The baritone voice comes from the pilot of a helium balloon heading for a smash in the field below.
McEwan excels in presenting the single moment frozen in time. Clarissa has handed Joe the wine bottle, his palm has just touched the neck, and the frightened shout comes from across the grass.
We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.
There is a horrible accident; a man dies gruesomely. It is not certain whether it could have been prevented, whether someone let it happen (did Joe?). Everyone who saw the event is affected; together, and with friends, Joe and Clarissa talk it out and try to exorcise it. At the moment of the accident, in a marvelously described state of manic shock, Joe has thrown a wildly cheerful glance at one of the other bystanders. And so it begins.
Jed Parry is youngish, ponytailed, in denims and red-laced trainers. No sooner has the glance found him than he is coming up to Joe, falling to his knees, and asking Joe to pray with him. “You shouldn’t, you know, think of this as some kind of duty. It’s like, your own needs are being answered? It’s got nothing to do with me, really, I’m just the messenger. It’s a gift.” With distaste Joe disentangles himself, goes home with Clarissa for mutual comfort, forgets Jed. After midnight, the phone rings with a message of love from him. It will go on ringing: a relentless pursuit has begun.
McEwan’s cunning as a narrator is in the hint of a suggestion, as the story develops, that Jed may not be as mad as he seems. The two names, Jed and Joe, even suggest alter egos. Joe is, after all, disgusted with his job as popular science writer, recycling current materialisms into whatever shape pleases the public. (“Might there be a genetic basis to religious belief, or was it merely refreshing to think so? …What if it bestowed strength in adversity, the power of consolation, the chance of surviving the disaster that might crush a godless man?”) Perhaps for him prayer could be a gift; the reader is tantalized. And McEwan has Jed write rather beautiful love letters:
I’m sitting at a small wooden table on a covered balcony that extends from the study and looks out over the inner courtyard. The rain is falling on two flowering cherry trees. The branch of one grows through the railings, so that I am close enough to see how the water forms into oval beads tinged by the flowers’ pale pink. Love has given me new eyes, I see with such clarity, in such detail. The grain of the old wooden posts, every separate blade of grass on the wet lawn below, the little tickly black legs of the lady bird walking across my hand a minute ago. Everything I see I want to touch and stroke. At last I’m awake. I feel so alive, so alert with love.
If the letters were mad and silly, we would have just a run-of-the-mill suspense story.
Ambiguity is carried further when it becomes clear that nice Clarissa really hardly believes Joe’s story of persecution, or at least finds it hard to sympathize. The handwriting on the love letters is not unlike his own! For the first time, a rift is growing in their own well-established love, so good and true up until now. (McEwan has the rather rare gift of convincingly describing homely felicity.) She shows signs of catching the paranoia virus from the stalker. The police offer little help. Under Jed’s relentless gaze, Joe is more and more alone. “It was as if I had fallen through a crack in my own existence, down into another life, another set of sexual preferences, another past history and future.” From one minute to the next, evil transformation spreads and strengthens.
Meanwhile the hunter is inside his own bubble of aloneness:
He crouched in a cell of his own devising, teasing out meanings, imbuing nonexistent exchanges with their drama of hope or disappointment, always scrutinizing the physical world, its random placements and chaotic noise and colors, for the correlatives of his current emotional state—and always finding satisfaction. He illuminated the world with his feelings, and the world confirmed him at every turn his feelings took.
To his prey, the hunt seems to be getting closer. At one moment Jed’s bubble—religion? fantasy? love, even?—is clearly pathological; at another, his critique of Joe’s godless writings seems to be hitting home: “Never deny my reality, because in the end you’ll deny yourself,” he writes to him.
Then while Clarissa and Joe, out to lunch with friends, are in the middle of a discussion of imagination and destructiveness (Wordsworth snubbing the young Keats), physical attack comes very close. Joe becomes terrified, acquires an illicit gun, and in no time at all is using it to save Clarissa from a dangerous Jed. Jed’s “love,” and his despair, have exploded into violence at last.
Tension is so important a part of McEwan’s method that it would be criminal of the reviewer to give away every last turn in the narrative. Does Clarissa repent her unjust doubts of Joe, thank him for his swift action, fall into his arms? Has their enduring love, in sum, been destroyed by Jed’s? Reader, you must find out for yourself. To do this, the so-called “Appendix I” at the end of the book must not on any account be skipped. This purports to be—perhaps is—a paper from The British Review of Psychiatry entitled “A homoerotic obsession, with religious overtones: a clinical variant of de Clerambault’s syndrome.” In 1942, it reports, de Clerambault first distinguished his syndrome from other psychoses passionelles. The patient, usually a woman,
has the intense delusional belief that a man, “the object,” often of higher social standing, is in love with her. The patient may have had little or no contact with the object of her delusion. The fact that the object is already married is likely to be regarded by the patient as irrelevant. His protestations of indifference or even hatred are seen as paradoxical or contradictory; her conviction that he “really” loves her remains fixed. Other derived themes include beliefs that the object will never find true happiness without her, and also that the relationship is universally acknowledged and approved.
By creating a full intrapsychic world, such erotomania may act as a defense against loneliness, the authorities suggest. The case of the middle-aged Frenchwoman who was unshakably convinced that King George V was in love with her is quoted; and then—of course—that of the religiously obsessed young man who happened to be at the scene of an accident involving a helium balloon… For this young man, appropriate medication and psychotherapy were prescribed, but in vain; and in view of his occasional violence, indefinite incarceration in a secure unit was the only solution.
This is the last of repeated confrontations between scientific and imaginative explanations throughout the book. The composition of water, the search for DNA, future space colonization are topics that legitimately weave in and out of the narrative through Joe’s work as a scientific journalist. The very helium in the unleashed balloon is “that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and all our thoughts.”
Opponents of this view of a ruthlessly materialist universe have been, in their different ways, both Jed and Clarissa. Why reduce a baby’s smile to neo-Darwinism or evolutionary psychology? she queried. “It’s the new fundamentalism…. Twenty years ago you and your friends were all socialists and you blamed the environment for everyone’s hard luck. Now you’ve got us trapped in our genes, and there’s a reason for everything!” Jed’s approach has come from another angle. “Life has been very good to you…. It probably never crosses your mind to give thanks for what you have. It all happened by blind chance? You made it all yourself? I worry for you, Joe. I worry for what your arrogance could bring down on you.”
Letters from Jed do not stop. “Appendix II” is from the case file of J. Parry at the end of his third year after admittance.
…It was a cloudless day and what rose up above the treetops ten minutes later was nothing less than the resplendence of God’s glory and love. Our love! First bathing me, then warming me through the pane. I stood there, shoulders back, my arms hanging loosely at my sides, taking deep breaths. The old tears streaming. But the joy! The thousandth day, my thousandth letter, and you telling me that what I’m doing is right!
The patient writes daily, the case notes record. His letters are collected by staff but not forwarded, in order to protect the addressee from further distress.