A beautiful piece of literature in which Ian McEwan explores the idea of rationality and what constitutes proof of reality. He does this by developing two characters: a rational science writer and an extreme ideological religious believer and proceedes to crash them into each other by means of a fatal accident. After the accident Jed, the devout Christian, is convinced that level-headed Joe has fallen in love with him. Jed has discovered that his life is contingent on Joe's for any meaning. Jed's love becomes obsessive; this is paralelled by Joe's obsessive re-examination of his own life. Joe remains calm although as he continues his re-examination he discovers that many ideas he has previously been able to explain through science become less black and white. Gradually everything he was sure of becomes questionable until his rational mind starts to be contaminated by questions.

One of features of Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love” is his varied use of literary devices. This willingness to experiment with narrative is used to an interesting effect, and he makes use of written letters, and at one point in Chapter Two he makes use of a “filmic” narrative, which helps reinforce the sense of diminishing reality that has set into the piece by this point. The subject of this humble node will be the passage in Chapter One (which in fact begins on the first page), where narrative shifts from the perspective of the narrator to that of the buzzard. While it is very difficult to ignore all the things I have learnt from reading the book, it is important to remember that we have, at this stage, no clue as to the narrator’s profession, locality or even name. Thus, the observations made so far have little meaning to us at present, and will become more relevant later (perhaps this is the secret of McEwan’s “page turning” writing), and so the sudden change of perspective is no where near as jarring as it would have been later on in the story. However, the switch is unannounced and largely unexplained. The sentence that opens the passage “I see us from three hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we had watched earlier”, does little to illuminate the nature of the transition. Does the narrator use his imagination? Is the author temporarily abandon the narrator altogether? Or is the narrator in possession of the supernatural gift of Extrasensory Perception? You may think that learning more of the character would shed some light on the matter. In fact, the contrary is true. We discover that Joe Rose is a scientific rationalist, who is unsatisfied unless his strict logic is adhered to. So then, why would such a character make use an animal in where an abstract third person view would have just as well sufficed? It would seem to be something that Joe’s partner, Clarissa, would be more likely to do. However, I believe that I may have an explanation for this.

This is a story about delusion. In the end, it turns out that everybody but one person, is deluded. The police, Jed, Clarissa, Jean Logan… all of them have their own view of what they believe. Even the reader is lead astray at certain times, as each character’s perception of reality, and thus the sense of surprise when the truth finally chooses to unveil itself. The one character who turns out to be correct, the hero of the piece, Joe Rose, comes to his conclusions via a series of fevered imaginings and hastily drawn conclusions. Perhaps the more shocking revelation is the fact that this man, who the reader may be forgiven for thinking was going insane, was in fact right all along. However, is it simply the case that he to was deluded, yet miraculously his delusion came true? Clarissa seems to think so in her letter from Chapter Twenty Three: “Your being right is not a simple matter”. Assuming the form of a narrative buzzard is certainly delusional, although whether or not Rose (or McEwan for that matter) intended this and knew the implications is unclear. Joe’s custody of the buzzard could be identified as almost schizophrenic in nature, which connects with Parry’s “invisible creature” from Chapter Seven. Even if the buzzard is not a sign of Joe’s impending obsessions, this early flight (no pun intended) of fantasy sets up a leitmotif for the remainder of the story.

It is possible that McEwan intended that the buzzard be used as a piece of imagery. The buzzard is a variety of hawk, and thus a hunting bird, which of course is a predatory creature. Parallels may be drawn with Jed’s activities as the story progresses. Joe describes the bird as “circling”. Obviously, this what Jed does for much of the story.

With hindsight, we can see some irony when Joe mentions “the buzzard we had watched earlier”. When Jed finally pounces, Joe and Clarissa (although only through Joe) had been able to view his actions all along. Indeed, in America, “buzzard” is a colloquial term used to describe someone of a short temper or angry disposition, and this could refer to almost any of the characters present in piece (Jean Logan would especially fit the bill). The buzzard may also have darker symbolism. In much art, it is used as a sign of foreboding, and is a mystical figure in various mythologies (Cherokee in particular). Perhaps (to make use of Carl Jung’s theory of subconscious representation), McEwan is consciously tapping into the emotions and foreboding which exist in us all. Or perhaps he too is using it unwittingly. What is certain, in my opinion, is that a writer such as McEwan does not make such decisions arbitrarily. Why instead could he not have chosen a bird such as a pigeon or a sparrow? Surely these are both a more common species. But I very much doubt it would be seen as being as significant if these were used. It is obvious that other possibilities, such as the vulture or the white dove, would have brought with them very different meanings indeed. While the buzzard does not re-appear in the story per se, the Jungian archetypes reappear throughout the story. The “pig like eyes” of the would be assassins in Chapter Nineteen are an obvious one (a very prominent literary theme, as can be seen in William Golding’s “Lord Of The Flies”). The story is replete with seemingly random, although probably very significant imagery. The jam jar and the marigolds of Chapter Four would seem to indicate life, although they are connected with murder. The buzzard too shared the sky with a balloon, a killer alongside a typical representation of childlike image. From a Freudian perspective, one can even see the balloon as the “mother” (bio-survival) figure, and hence Harry Gadd’s very typical refusal to leave the basket (a place of safety, or Freud would have us believe, the womb). To extend the Freudian analysis of events, the dispute amongst the men surrounding the balloon, “No one was in charge- or everyone was, and we were in a shouting match”, is a typical “father” like mammalian response to the problem, solution through conflict. As in Freud’s theories, this leads to the eventual downfall of the mother archetype, and all those who would hold on to it (in this case, all too literally, John Logan).

As mentioned earlier, Joe is a stalwart scientist. His constant search for cause and effect logical explanations can often grate on the other characters in the novel, as it often contradicts Clarissa‘s empathy or Parry‘s theology. However, here Joe finds him self, even with his powerful force of reason, completely impotent to prevent an impending catastrophe. He becomes an observer to his own actions, realising, as he puts it, “a premonition fulfilled”. This kind of determinism can be deeply scientific (everyone from Darwin to Quantum Theorists seems to support it), and in a scientific sense, he may be using “premonition” to refer to a carefully calculated outcome to a certain of circumstances. Nevertheless, it is an odd choice. To the very end, he desperately tries to apply his scientific know how to resolve the problem, “a freak physical law, a furious thermal, some phenomenon”, but unsurprisingly, this kind of scientific prayer has not effect. When this fails, he falls into simple disbelief. It could well be that the extremity of this situation is pushing his mind to its limits. From the vantage point of the bird, he has absolute clarity in his story telling, where, as you can see, a first person account may have been far less than accurate.

The view point of the buzzard also allows to alienate ourselves from the characters in the story. This is interesting, as this is a novel very much about alienation. Not only do we witness Parry’s alienation from reality, but also Joe and Clarissa’s alienation from one another. As Joe plunges further and further into the “soap opera” his life becomes, he becomes more estranged from his partner, to the point at which their relationship almost (or perhaps does) break down. We never know whether the “love” in the title is in reference to Parry’s obsession, or Joe and Clarissa’s relationship.

This analogy can be extended further when we consider how useful the “birds eye view” is to the writer. It allows McEwan to write about events that it would be difficult to justify while retaining Joe’s perspective. This added flexibility means that he may lay out the characters in sort of a map. However, he does remain true to Joe’s narrative style. He retains the clarity and meticulousness of Joe’s thought patterns. Also, the writer alienates us from the flow of time in the book. In this novel, time is a relative concept, and events can scrutinized in great detail, with the world slowing to a halt to allow for McEwan’s sometimes wandering descriptive prose. At other times, days are glossed over with scarcely a glance. The bird, having no (to our knowledge) sense of time, helps make this kind of writing more possible.

I personally believe that the level of delusion, solipsism and alienation in the book calls the very title into question. “Enduring Love” seems something of a misnomer, as the novel is concerned with the different character’s journeys into their own psyches and individual realities, and away from other people. Can this really be a case of enduring love? It must be said, the old cliché that “love is a two way street” is true, and yet the perception of love here is far from that. This book is not only filled with contradictions, it positively revels in them. Take, for example, Joe’s weariness of narrative in uncovering the truth, and yet he makes uses of it extensively, even using to support his claims about De Clérambault’s syndrome. He wants Clarissa’s love, yet pushes her away. Conversely, he claims to have no interest in Parry, yet is driven to the edge of madness by him. Is McEwan’s message that we all live contradictory lives, that we are all hypocrites in someway? Or a warning against the intense level of contemplation and introspection that Joe immerses himself in? Or, and forgive my towering cynicism here, is this simply a stalker-thriller formula story with illusions of grandeur?

“I just don’t know”
-Clarissa Mellon

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