On the Beach Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel
Trimming the Literary Fat
If you were one of the few dozen people who read my last Lunchtime Lit review of Murakami's 1Q84, you may recall my conclusion that some writers really like to stretch a novel out - writing around in circles, incessantly repeating the same scenarios. Some manage to keep this captivating, others not. Murakami can, Clavell cannot.
There are several possible reasons for this tendency to elucidate. Maybe a few of these overly verbose writers are so enamored of their own reflection they are certain others will get the same thrill out of their loquaciousness as they do. For others, perhaps the exercise from unrelenting typing is the only aerobic activity they get. The majority, however, I think are just killing time because they have a nagging wife that wants them to get off the typewriter and fix the leaky toilet.
Then there are writers such as English/Australian author Nevil Shute, who write short books you wish would have been at least double the size, but they pinch it off because they obviously have better things to do. Maybe Shute's tendency toward terseness is because he has a respectable daytime job of aeronautical engineer. Some unknown sage named Scott Edward Shjefte declared, “A pessimist says the glass is half empty, an optimist says the glass is half full, and an engineer says the glass is too big. With his keen sense of engineering efficiency, Shute assumes the literary glass is too big.
Nevil Shute Norway may write like an engineer, but he definitely has the soul of a novelist. As he trims the airframe of his novels for perfect aerodynamics, he doesn't sacrifice emotion, empathy, character development, or any other essential elements of a great work of fiction. He just does it all in a lot fewer words.
This is great for the average reader sitting in front of the fireplace with a shelf full of replacements to draw from once the short Shute novel has ended, but for the postal lunchtime reader like me - parked out in the middle of a horse farm, miles from the nearest bookstore or library; succinctness in literature can become problematic. For this literature loving letter carrier, finishing a novel too quickly heightens the risk of forgetting a new book for tomorrow. Because my postal customers don't do too much serious reading, I will then be stuck with the Macys catalog, the Harbor Freight Tools flyer, or Red Plum ads to read, although on good days there might be Victoria Secret booklets in the mix to ease the boredom. Lingerie I can deal with, but looking at pictures of toasters, drill bits, and pizza coupons can get tedious. If I don't gain your tearful sympathy from this mailman's tale of fictionless woe, hopefully I have written well enough that you can empathize with my predicament.
Lunchtime Lit Protocol
Obviously I am not inundated with readers here, so I'll go over the rules sweetly and gently, assuming you are a Lunchtime Lit virgin and this is your first time. Lunchtime Lit books can only be indulged on my authorized half hour Postal lunch break, along with my peanut butter and banana sandwich, yogurt, chocolate chip cookies, all washed down with a vigorous quaff of Gatorade. Here is a summary of Lunchtime Lit since its inception:
Lunchtime Lit Recap
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
On The Beach
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river....
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper— T.S. Eliot (Quoted in the opening of On The Beach)
Summarizing the whimper at the end of the world
On the Beach is only around 300 pages, so why summarize it here, other than you expect me too? The novel itself is a summary of what takes place after an apocalyptic holocaust where over 4000 bombs are exploded in a devastating nuclear war. But true to T.S. Eliot form, in On the Beach the last traces of humanity, hanging on tight to the last habitable handhold of the southern hemisphere, are not extinguished in a deafening flash of fire. Instead, in a feeble whimper they are slowly and quietly bulldozed by an implacable, invisible blanket of nuclear poison.
Not surprisingly, nobody wins Shute's war. The northern hemisphere, being the location of all the nuclear nations - an inconvenient fact for those of us that live here; is enveloped in a radioactive cloud that kills everybody. The trade wind patterns take time to spread the fallout to the Southern Hemisphere, however, so two years after the conflict Australia remains habitable for humanity. This is the setting in which On the Beach begins and ends.
Yet there is no permanent refuge down under. The deadly radiation is approaching inexorably, and the inhabitants of Melbourne are distressingly aware that they have until approximately September to live. The people respond to the impending disaster in different ways. Some try to drown the knowledge of approaching doom in orgies of drunken debauchery. Others react to their unavoidable deaths by defying it by various means, such as in suicidal auto races. The majority of Melbournites, however, find comfort in going about their daily lives, pretending there is no danger at all upon the horizon, living in a sort of delusional fallout cloud of their own making, formed by the unshakeable notion that things will always go on the way they always have.
Many cling desperately to the dim hope that the radioactive cloud will dissipate before it reaches Southern Australia. Even scientists are taken in by this belief; encouraged by strange radio transmissions emanating from someplace near Seattle. It seems there might be somebody sleepless in Seattle after all, and if you understand that reference you may be watching too many 90s vintage romantic comedies, and not reading enough post apocalyptic literature. Anyhow, to investigate the mysterious transmissions, an American submarine stranded in Melbourne after the war is dispatched northward. This USS Scorpion is also tasked with verifying the so-called Jorgensen effect; an idea posited by a prominent local science who thinks the radiation is dissipating north of 60 degrees latitude.
No spoilers here - you can read the book yourself in a few hours, so I'll leave it up to you to figure out what happens next.
About the Author - Don't Shute, I'm only the reviewer
On the Beach is as stirring a testament against nuclear war as you will ever read. One would assume its author, Nevil Shute, to be a tree hugging, flower power, tie-dye wearing member of the hippie protest movement. Instead, Mr. Shute's life is about as establishment as establishment can get, which makes On the Beach all the more powerful. If God Bless the Queen British conservatives are this worried about the danger of atomic proliferation, then maybe we should take it seriously too. There's a lot of bombs still out there, buddy.
Nevil Shute was actually born Nevil Shute Norway, but chopped off his last name to keep his writing notoriety from interfering with his day job. I am not a magnificent published author, but I can smugly assure myself that at least I am better at picking a nom de plume than Mr. Shute did. Think about it. If I'm the stuffed shirt Chief Engineer wondering who this Nevil Shute taking thinly disguised fictional shots at me is, I'm probably going to start my investigation with a certain Nevil Shute Norway listed on my employee roster. His choice of pen names makes me think that he wanted to get caught.
As a youth, Shute displayed no signs of the radical peacenik On The Beach gives him the appearance of being. In his late teens, Nevil Shute served as a stretcher bearer in the British effort to put down the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Not exactly a malcontent rebel, our author. He then participated as a soldier in World War I, after which he helped develop the British dirigible fleet. When that particular lost cause could not stay afloat, Mr. Shute turned to airplanes, for which his innovations gained him an appointment to the Royal Aeronautical Society.
When World War II arrived Mr. Shute started out in Weapons Development, but it turned out that the British war authorities were not at all fooled by his cryptic pen name. While working as an engineer, the future author of On the Beach had been simultaneously scribbling succinct stories in secret, and his rising fame as a wordsmith led to his appointment as war correspondent.
Bemoaning the declining socialist government in his home country, after the war Mr. Shute moved to Australia, where his writing career launched much more efficiently than the bloated dirigibles he had tried to build earlier in life. Altogether, Nevil Shute published 24 novels and novellas. On the Beach, his most famous of these, gives no clue to the author's identity as a staid, conservative citizen of the British realm. Fellows of the Royal Aeronautic Society typically do not go around waving Ban the Bomb banners, but that's the best three word summary I can give to Mr. Shute's heartrending description of the end of mankind.
Miscellaneous Musings while not sitting On the Beach, even though I live in San Diego and should be
The Australian people of On the Beach - that hardy, stoic, long suffering race of the vast penal continent of the Southern Hemisphere, are damn good allies. I know this from personal experience, not as an abstract concept I read about in a book or saw on the Internet. When I pulled into Perth twice as a member of the US 7th fleet, there were local citizens by the hundreds lining the channel to welcome our fleet, waving little US and Australian flags. When my shipmates and I were looking for a place to breakfast away our hangovers, a restaurant owner saw us staring in the window of his darkened eatery and opened shop ahead of time so the "Yanks" could eat, as he put it. Events like this touched my heart when I was down under, and made me realize that Aussies are as good as friends get. I suppose the Australians still remember our participation in Guadacanal, Coral Sea and other battles that stopped the Japanese invasion when Mother Britain had all but abandoned them; but my arrival in Australia was about 40 years after that smoke had cleared. All the same, the memory lingered.
That being said, I couldn't help but think that at least some of the good citizens of Melbourne, Australia in On the Beach should be out in the streets protesting their unjust fate. Australia does not have a nuclear arsenal at the time of the novel, and as far as I know they still do not. Shouldn't the novel depict an undercurrent of animosity against the great powers for starting a war that destroyed all human beings, even those that had nothing to do with it? I would expect a less than warm welcome for United States submarine Commander Dwight Towers and his crew of the USS Scorpion. Faithful allies or not, Australian citizens would be perfectly justified to throw things at them. Instead, the Yanks are received with open arms, being invited into the homes of regional residents and given free reign to make connections with the local ladies. Damn Yankee romantic imperialism never stops, even in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Rather than anger, I detect a tremendous sense of fatalism on the part of the Australians of On the Beach. The nuclear destruction that takes place is viewed the same way as any natural disaster, the unvoiced attitude being that there isn't anything we can do to stop it, so why partake in pointless finger pointing? If anything torments Shute's unflappable characters, It's not so much the awareness of inevitability of death, as it is the awareness that we're all going to die at the same time.
Quite possibly, the author guesses right about what the attitude of innocents paying the ultimate penalty for the sins of the guilty is, and all I can do is pray we will never learn what the reaction of human survivors living in a post apocalyptic world will really turn out to be.
Have You Read It? Rate It.
Summarizing Shute's Summary
Mr. Shute is not going to stir your soul with flighty prose. A lot of his storytelling consists of dialogue, and much of it is mundane dialogue at that. But it is mundane on a mission; these prosaic conversations about ordinary events lifting the reader to an extraordinarily moving conclusion. For instance; Peter Holmes and his wife spend a lot of time talking about the changes they are going to make in their garden so they can enjoy it more come springtime, even though they and the reader live with the suppressed knowledge that they won't be alive come springtime, because the radioactive cloud will kill them before then.
This obsessive, often delusional clinging to routine pleasures - even those that will soon be rendered impossible, elicits sympathy on the part of the reader, because it is the simple things that are most endearing to all Homo sapiens, regardless of where we live and in what circumstances we find ourselves. Those of us eavesdropping on the lives of the Holmes and others in the book think are skillfully compelled by author Nevil Shute to think about our own gardens; and about other tiny plans and pleasures that could forever be swallowed by the shadow of the mushroom cloud.