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Careful What You Wish For

books and culture

Careful What You Wish For

Two novelists portray the allure—and limitations—of liberation. October 24, 2008

Indignation, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $26); On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (Anchor, 224 pp., $13.95)

The idea that mankind might find life beautifully easy if only the right laws could be promulgated and the right social attitudes inculcated is a beguiling one. It suggests that dissatisfaction and frustration arise from error and malice, rather than from the inescapable and permanent separation between man’s desires and what the world can offer him. Difficulty, however, cannot be abolished; it is the condition of human life itself. We try to avert our eyes from this truth as we avert them from death itself.

In different ways, Philip Roth’s Indignation and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach force us to confront difficulty. Both are short, and both contain surprises at the end. Both raise initial fears in the reader that he will be subjected to a politically correct tract; both subvert political correctness in the end.

The protagonist of Indignation, set in the beginning of the 1950s, is Marcus Messner, the only child of a kosher butcher in Newark. Marcus is a model son, a brilliant and industrious student who delights in helping his father in the shop. His father, who started working when he was ten years old, hopes that his son will do far better than he did. Unfortunately, Messner Senior undergoes a change. Two developments render him anxious and neurotically overprotective of Marcus: the establishment of a supermarket nearby that threatens to undermine his business and the onset of the Korean War. Having lost two nephews in World War II, he fears he will lose his son in the new conflict. To escape his father, Marcus transfers from a New Jersey college to one in Winesburg, Ohio (an artful reference to Sherwood Anderson that conjures a world of quiet desperation). Winesburg is more provincial than the East Coast, of course, but for Marcus, Middle America is a new world: at the price of some social discomfort, he finds that the move broadens his horizons.

Marcus spends what for him is a small fortune on preppy clothes, but finds when he arrives at Winesburg College (which is a Baptist establishment) that he fits in socially among neither the Jews nor the Gentiles. Impoverished, he works in a bar on weekends, where he hears mildly anti-Semitic jibes. He befriends a beautiful young student, Olivia, the daughter of well-to-do parents, with whom he has his first sexual experiences, but he discovers two things about her that undermine his confidence: first, despite her relatively privileged background, Olivia is mentally unstable and has made a suicide attempt by cutting her wrists (itself a warning that life is not automatically made easier by easy circumstances); second, she has a reputation for loose morals. His sexual experience, then, does not make much of a conquest.

Young Messner soon finds himself in conflict with the Winesburg College dean. Having committed to memory Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian and accepted its arguments as uncritically as any religious dogmatist accepts the reality of miracles, he engages the dean in a memorable argument. The dean calls Messner to his office because the young student has changed his accommodations twice in a short time, finding his roommates uncongenial. Fearing that this may be a sign of psychological instability, the dean probes the young man’s private life, at which Messner bridles in a prickly young man’s way. The argument proceeds effortlessly to the question of God’s existence, and Messner displays the pride of an adolescent in his own logic. The scene has all the hallmarks of a lived, or witnessed, experience.

One of the book’s crucial episodes is a panty raid by male students on female dormitories. The normally staid and well-behaved students, sexually frustrated by the demure code of conduct then still in force, run riot. The college restores order, and the students are forced to listen to a speech by the college president, Albin Lentz, a self-made man and local politician who eloquently draws attention to the contrast between their frivolous and egotistical behavior and the horrors that American soldiers had to confront in Korea. He speaks with such moral authority that not one student dares contradict him or move from his place. “An army of hoodlums,” Lentz calls the rioting students, “imagining that they were emancipating themselves.” The riot is a precursor, of course, to the unrest of the 1960s; Lentz’s characterization of the motives and conduct of the Winesburg College students could just as well apply to the rebellious students of that decade. They were, and wanted to be, Lentz’s “kiddies in diapers unconstrained.”

Messner’s downfall occurs when he is unwilling to meet the college’s requirement that he attend chapel 40 times before he graduates. He refuses to do so, not as a Jew but as an atheist. A handsome, worldly-wise Jewish student suggests that he pay another student to impersonate him at chapel. The ruse, however, is discovered, and the college expels Messner. He is thereafter subject to the draft; he goes to Korea and is mortally wounded. The reader has just completed Messner’s recollection of his life while he is heavily sedated with morphine, just before he dies of his wounds.

A comparatively slight work, Indignation nevertheless offers several themes that suggest the irreducible challenges of living. Marcus has to contend with good and loving, but suffocating, parents, and establish his own independence; he must negotiate an entry into a wider world full of people very different from himself or anyone he has ever known; he has to discover the meaning of sex; he must confront the realization that happiness is not simply a matter of fortunate conditions; and he pays a terrible, indeed the ultimate, price for the kind of spiritual pride, common among adolescents and young men, that will not allow him to compromise or make himself conform to a traditional but not very onerous requirement. It takes maturity to know when to compromise with what exists, and when to resist. In a sense, Marcus dies because he has read, and placed all of his faith in, Why I Am Not a Christian.

None of the problems Marcus confronts in his short life is susceptible to easy solutions. No simple doctrine could provide any answer, let alone an indubitably correct one: hence, of course, the terminal absurdity of utopian political thought and feeling, of which there was such an outburst in the 1960s, and which turned out to be in the service of selfishness.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the well-known novelist Ian McEwan has written a novella, On Chesil Beach, that prompts similar reflections. His protagonists are two newlyweds on their honeymoon in 1962 on the Dorset coast. Both have just graduated college, he with a degree in history and she as a violinist. England has not yet undergone the sexual revolution: conservative primness remains the rule. The year of the novel’s setting is surely intended to bring to mind Philip Larkin’s famous lines:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Larkin is to McEwan what Sherwood Anderson is to Roth. McEwan’s protagonists are sexually inexperienced, and their first attempt at intercourse is so disastrous, and so repugnant to the bride, that the marriage founders after only eight hours and is later annulled for nonconsummation.

What is the moral of the story? At first sight, it might seem like a paean of praise to the sexual revolution. The opening sentence of the book reads in part: “They lived at a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Ah yes, one thinks, if only they could have talked it through! Alas: “This was still the era . . . when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.”

Thank heaven, then, for the liberating youth culture that abolished all such problems! The bride’s attachment to classical music is a metonym for her sexual repression. We realize that the groom will break free because he prefers Chuck Berry, the only type of music he knows and really likes. What stood in their way, the book asks? “Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity and squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself.” Get rid of all those things, then, and all would be well.

However, this rather easy lesson is rejected at the end of the book, indeed, almost turned on its head. The bride remains timid but becomes a member of a famous string quartet and finds fulfillment in the music of the past. There is depth to her being, even if it is not wholly satisfactory.

The groom, on the other hand, successfully overcomes his inhibitions. He takes part in the youth revolution, runs record shops that sell pop music, and has casual affairs to satisfy his sexual appetite. Forty years on, however, he is lonely and unfulfilled, and realizes that his former bride, who ran out onto Chesil Beach after their unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, is the only woman he has ever loved. If only he had had the wisdom to be patient, instead of rejecting her, his life in a conventional marriage would have been much more meaningful.

I’ve spoken with some readers who do not find the novel’s plot plausible, but this complaint does not trouble me. My experience in medical practice has taught me that almost any description of human behavior is plausible, given the varieties of human self-destruction. What’s important in McEwan’s book is its subversion of the idea that, if only certain obstacles to happiness could be removed, life would automatically become happy; that life will become easy with the eradication of difficulty. This is a lesson particularly hard for secularists—of whom I am one—to accept.

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