Tuesday, November 20, 2007

(A)sex on Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan's new book On Chesil Beach contains one of the most awkward euphemisms for sex I've ever read. For your wincing pleasure, here it is:

"...Edward had been mesmerized by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman." --pg. 8

Now, I will be the first to tell you that the human body is a beautiful thing, but really now, "naturally formed cavity"? Yuck! However, I will forgive McEwan this, because also contains a depiction of the first asexual character I have ever read about in a novel. Since the book takes place in the 1960s, the term "asexual" isn't used. But McEwan's descriptions of Florence, while not always flattering, are extremely realistic and on the whole, gentle. Much like Reading Rainbow, you don't have to take my word for it. Here are some quotes that, among others, really sealed the fact that Florence is, indeed, "one of us":

"Florence suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her, that she had always been different...Her problem, she thought, was greater, deeper, than straightforward physical disgust; her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh...she simply did not want to be "entered" or "penetrated". Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it." --pg. 10

If Florence lived today, I suspect she would be a regular at London's AVEN meetups. However, in Chesil Beach she attempts to do what millions of asexuals have done and still try to do: go through the motions. Since this is a literary novel, there are, of course, disastrous consequences. Later in the story, Florence tells Edward, her husband:

"Not only am I no good at [sex], I don't seem to need it like other people, like you do. It just isn't something that's part of me. I don't like it, I don't like the thought of it. I have no idea why that is, but I think it isn't going to change."-- pg. 187

My favorite thing about Florence is that even though she's asexual, she isn't dispassionate. It's clear that she deeply loves Edward, possesses a zest for life, and as a professional violinist, is truly dedicated to her music. Since music is the "sex" in my life as well, I really enjoyed that McEwan chose to make her a musician. And since I have the attention span of a locust, I also appreciate that this book is very small. I recommend it for short train trips-- and as a cautionary tale. It's a pocket-sized manual for what not to do in a "mixed" (sexual & asexual) relationship. If you somehow missed the memo that communication in a relationship is key, Chesil Beach will remind you. Fail to communicate, and you could end up the victim of a strange and speedy epilogue. Don't say I didn't warn you.
For once, I've talked about a current and popular book, so I have hopes that some of you have read it as well. What did you think? (Well, besides the fact that you thought the ending was odd...)


Anonymous said...

Interesting to see someone else's take on it. I read an excerpt of the book online at The New Yorker. I wondered though, whether Florence was really asexual, or just a victim of the sexually repressive times she was living in, where women were expected to have sex just a means to having children.

-Sarah T.

Ily said...

Thanks for the comment! I wondered that too; how much was the times and how much was her sexuality. I wasn't alive in the '60s (there I go dating myself!), but I assumed that most women, when given a socially acceptable place to explore their sexuality (marriage), might have gone with it. Florence's feelings seemed to go a lot deeper than that. I wonder if Ian McEwan has said anything about Florence...

forsaken (Aven) said...

Very insightful blog asexy.
I had a similar take on the novel, both as a depiction of an asexual character and as a cautionary tale.
Reviewers mostly focus on the 'clash of decades', attributing Flo's revulsion to the naivete and extreme chastity of the pre-sexual revolution era. I also read somewhere else that allegedly, Ian McEwan said that she'd been abused but that b/c he did not want this to be the focus of the book, he mad e it implicit. In fact, there are some quotes (Flo's remembrance of the times on the yacht with her father and her aversion to her father etc) that allude to the fact.
Both of which stress the two common misconceptions about asexuality-that it has to reflect either inexperience and naivete (the infamous 'you don't know what you are missing' ) or that there is a history of abuse (why else would you not want it right?grrr).
Then again those are my two cents on the topic and of course one might say that my view is asexually biased. lol.

Ily said...

Thanks for the comment, Forsaken! Hope you'll stick around. I didn't get a clear indication of abuse from the book-- whether this was poor execution on McEwan's part or hasty reading on mine, I don't know. I'm not going to deny what McEwan intended, but there are plenty of reasons why people feel weird about their fathers. Also, I can't deny the fact that while abuse doesn't cause asexuality, asexual people are just as likely to be abused as anyone else. But as soon as you introduce an asexual person who has been abused, everyone wants to prove causation. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

How would I site this post? I'm using some quotes from it in an essay for my English class (I hope you don't mind!). I've looked around and there are barely any other articles/essays approaching OCB with queer theory, which surprises me so much! If anyone knows of any please comment a link!

Ily said...

Hey that's cool! You're welcome to use quotes with attribution.