Considering Small Moments in Literature: On Chesil Beach and Euphoria
I want to talk about small moments. In our current environment where the loudest voices are the ones we hear most, tweet most, remember most, the idea of subtlety seems almost quaint. But subtlety, the rewards of careful reading, the ability to hear a whisper and have it change everything, can be so powerful. I just finished Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, a heartbreaking, small novel about a young inexperienced couple on their wedding night and I immediately thought of Lily King's Euphoria. If you've read both books, you may be scratching your head - Virgins on their wedding night at a beach front hotel in England, and a fictionalization of anthropologist Margaret Mead's time in Samoa, related? Well, yes. Boiled down to their essentials, they are both the story of a marriage. One longer established, the other, brand new. Both are a stories of betrayal, betraying oneself and betraying the person you've married. Both are studies in subtely in writing. Where the essential, pivotal elements of the story are less than obvious. A small a special gift to the careful reader or re-reader.
It seems to me that there is a lack of subtlety right now. In politics, in communications, and in most literature. We, as a culture have become used to the big motion, the over the top gesture, the loud headline which leaves little room to question the writer's intent. Social media requires us to pay attention to the biggest speaker - the one with the most posts, the most follows, the most likes. Partisan politics often feels like a shouting match in which each side screams as loud as possible and all nuance and refinement gets lost in the desire to win. The intense popularity of the unreliable narrator who leads the reader to the wild twist, while fun, is the absolute rebuff of subtlety.
Not so in On Chesil Beach and Euphoria. In fact, I read Euphoria several years ago with a book club. This was a group of smart, savvy women, who are voracious readers and broad complex thinkers, but when it came to the denoument of the novel, several of them missed it. Inspired by Margaret Meads 1933 trip to New Guinea, Ms. King creates a new story of a brilliant woman's struggle for recognition and battle of ethics in a field so wholly dominated by men reflected through a tragic love triangle. It is so easy to miss the moment when King changes everything. It passes by so quickly; in the last 10th of the book, King's short chapter takes the tale we believe we are reading and churns it into something entirely different.
In On Chesil Beach, the subtlety of plot change comes about half way through, at about Chapter Three. The novel, actually more of a novella, tells the story of Florence and Edward and takes place in less than one day. Set in the early 1960's Mr. McEwan captures England right at the edge of the cultural and sexual revolution that will rock both England and the United States in just a few years. But Florence and Edward are not yet in that free and wild time. Instead they find themselves in their honeymoon suite, two virgins, each filled with anxieties over consummating their marriage. But with a handful of sentences, sprinkled throughout the story, McEwan changes it into a story with much darker roots.
On reflection perhaps the thing that binds these two very distinct stories in my mind is not, ultimately, the subtlety, but the marriage. Although marriage is the story of two people, two lives, twinned down into one, marriage is also about the blank spaces. The things two people so connected through their lives do not have to say, each understanding the truth without words. Marriage is also the silencing of what came before it. The lives and pasts of each person that then disappears in the face of the married couples new togetherness. Silences and subtleties that both King and McEwan use beautifully in these two powerful books.