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After his parents are killed in an automobile accident, Jeremy, the orphan narrator of Ian McEwan’s 1992 novel, Black Dogs, describes his childhood as an emotional dead zone, a time not so much lived as endured. Growing up, he drifts from surrogate family to surrogate family, visiting mothers and fathers while his classmates are out on dates or playing on teams. Yearning for connection and completion, he is waiting for a chance to reinvent himself at college and, afterward, as an adult. Stalled some 20-odd years, Jeremy’s life eventually does begin again; “the sorry madness” of his young adulthood finally ends when, in his mid-30s, he meets his wife-to-be, Jenny Tremaine, and falls in love. He explains simply: “My existence began. Love, to borrow Sylvia Plath’s phrase, set me going.”
Love—its pursuit, its relentless, devouring nature—is also at the heart of McEwan’s latest book, the sad, profound horror novel Enduring Love. This time, though, the titular emotion is a twisted and perverse thing—the stuff of Lolita or, yes, Adrian Lyne’s film Fatal Attraction. More terrifying than the former but thankfully nowhere near as exploitative as the latter, Love, informed by McEwan’s acute understanding of our desperate need to want and be wanted in return, tells a story of homoerotic fixation as moving as it is grotesque.
The book begins with a terrible, bizarre accident. Reunited after a six-week separation, science writer Joe Rose and his wife, Clarissa, a Keats scholar, are about to uncork a bottle of champagne at a celebratory picnic. Joe, telling the story, recalls specifically the “pinprick on the time map,” the exact point at which his life’s happiness begins to unravel: “I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.” The man, it turns out, is James Gadd, and he’s shouting for help to keep the hot air balloon carrying his panic-paralyzed grandson from blowing off into some power lines.
Four men, including Joe, join Gadd beneath the balloon. Taking hold of the ropes dangling from its basket, the men struggle to secure it—and have, in fact, almost succeeded, when a violent wind endangers the entire group, and all but one let go. Balloon and lone man, John Logan, begin their ascent, rising upward until, inevitably, Logan’s grip weakens, and he plummets to his death. “I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man,” Joe remembers. Drawn to Logan’s crumpled body, Joe is met there by Jed Parry, a young man who implores Joe to join him in prayer. Together, Parry explains, they will help each other make sense of the catastrophe. (Logan, we soon learn, has died in vain; Gadd’s grandson recovers and guides the balloon to safety.) The men speak briefly, and then Joe, unnerved, breaks off. Sadly, it is too late; Parry is already obsessed. The same night, he calls Joe and declares, “I just wanted you to know, I understand what you’re feeling. I feel it too. I love you.”
Thus begins Parry’s resolute hunt, with a barrage of deranged, increasingly threatening phone calls and letters, demanding that Joe either return his love or, more insanely, stop leading him on. Clever devil that he is, McEwan layers the menace on subtly and even ambiguously—no boiled rabbits here—so much so that the reader’s suspicion that Parry’s “erotomania” might exist only in Joe’s mind—unhinged, perhaps, from witnessing the ghastly spectacle of Logan’s death—grows with each misstep Joe takes: lying about Parry’s midnight phone call, claiming it was merely a wrong number, and erasing Parry’s 29 messages from the answering machine before anyone else hears them. Even later, after Joe finally does confide in his wife, when he shows her a love letter Parry has written him, McEwan continues to cast doubt on his protagonist’s psychological state by having Clarissa’s first response be a dubious, half-accusing one: “His writing’s rather like yours.”
Deluded or not, Joe is ill-equipped to deal with the forces gathering against him. Not merely a victim, he is also, infuriatingly, responsible for much of his trouble with Parry, isolating himself from those few people who might help him. A failed scientist turned journalist, a writer who decrypts hard science texts into more easily understood terms for the general public, Joe internalizes all his life’s experiences through a distancing, scientific filter. When someone sneaks up on him, he does not describe the sensation emotionally but biologically: “Nerve terminals buried deep in the tissue of the heart secrete their noradrenaline, and the heart lurches into accelerating pumping….It’s a system so ancient, developed so far back along the mammalian and premammalian past, that its operations never penetrate into higher consciousness.”
Faced with Parry’s ruthless, irrational love—and on top of that his religious fanaticism—Joe, who must explain all things scientifically, even a baby’s spontaneous smile, ends up doing everything wrong. Completely misreading Clarissa’s skepticism as indicating some graver problem, he searches her desk for proof of the affair he believes she must be having. Clarissa catches him, they argue, and suddenly husband and wife find themselves living in the same house but separated not only by Parry’s obsession with Joe but by Joe’s obsession with solving all his problems coldly, using the same clinical tool he is applying to Parry’s delusions—De Clerambault’s theory of pathological love—to mend his disintegrating marriage. The irony (and McEwan’s point, of course) is that all love, not just Parry’s deranged variation, is at its root inexplicable, and that trying to comprehend it logically is useless.
The other player in McEwan’s twisted romance, Parry, is similarly complex and full of contradictory impulses. Finding hidden “messages” of love in the way Joe casually brushes a bush or walks past a window, he is not merely insane and dangerous (“My love is hard and fierce,” he writes to Joe in a letter, “it won’t take no for an answer, and it’s moving steadily toward you, coming to claim you…”); he is also a pitiable creature, hopelessly consumed by his mania. Joe remembers Parry’s response after he tells him to stop calling: “‘Oh, God,’ [Parry] wailed. ‘You say that, and then you make that face. What is it you really want me to do?’” Crazed stalker, obsessed fan, religious zealot—McEwan pinches bits from these cliches and produces a wholly believable character. When the realization comes that Enduring Love must end badly for either Parry or Joe (and it must—it was written, after all, by Ian McEwan, whose first novel, The Cement Garden, is about siblings who keep their mother’s corpse entombed in a tub of concrete in the basement), deciding which character is more deserving of sympathy isn’t an easy choice.
Working on a biography of his wife’s parents, Jeremy in Black Dogs writes: “Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth.” In Enduring Love, Joe’s turning point comes early, a declaration of unwanted love received in the shadow of a mammoth balloon. McEwan’s novel, as it eddies out from this point—Clarissa and Joe’s efforts to salvage their childless “marriage of love,” as well as Parry’s ceaseless attempts to convert and, ultimately, destroy Joe—not only rises above mere formula but hovers among those few other contemporary novels rightfully considered serious, mature art.