Nevil Shute, On the Beach

My pettiness knows no bounds: sometimes you can't help bleeding just to know you're alive, as the Goo Goo Dolls once sang, but my own courting of risk is generally limited to choosing to teach books I've never read before. Prufrock: kind of my idol.

From cool blog Existential Ennui
With that in mind, my January course on human extinction includes two books I've never read before (so very daring!), and I've just finished the older of the two, Nevil Shute's still-remarkable 1957 novel On the Beach. Many years ago, I pulled this book off my parents' shelves, but replaced it on the cover-driven assumption that it was really a romance novel; errors can have such a long half-life, that you're lucky ever to be there when they decay, to pick up the gem that's left behind.

Does it make sense to warn of spoilers for a 50-year-old book, and its Pulitzer-winning comparator since made into a successful Hollywood movie, i.e. The Road? If so: here be spoilers.

Previously, this blog awarded the title of Bleakest Novel Ever to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Shute's future here is distinctly darker than McCarthy's. Whereas McCarthy's largely lifeless world is populated still, albeit by humans shambling about and persisting cockroach-style, but without the insect's native elegance, Shute's world really does end.

McCarthy leaves us shattered, probably irredeemable, but alive; Shute kills us off, every single one of us, slowly. As one character muses, close to the end:
The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense. (p.269)
Shute's novel is therefore utterly without hope -- and yet it's not nearly as bleak as McCarthy's.

The Road depicts a world where social niceties have been torn away. Many of these niceties vanished early, in the immediate aftermath of whatever inexplicable catastrophe has befallen Earth, but by the time depicted in the novel, human society has devolved into isolationism and cannibalism: all we have left to eat is each other, really, and many of us are doing exactly that. Survival seems, against the odds, to remain possible, if only individual people can live long enough for the undoing of whatever it was that happened, but during this interminable interregnum, it's a world and a social order none of us would want to belong to, and a species we'd want to disavow as our own.

So what about On the Beach, this lovely, painful book that withholds from us even the shards of hope that McCarthy's sadistic The Road gives its readers?

In the face of certain extinction, which comes slowly but inescapably to Australia in the form of drifting radioactive fallout from nuclear annihilation of the Northern Hemisphere, society continues almost uninterrupted. In the time before the novel, there seem to have been riots, and rampaging, and all the acting out that you'd expect from utter despair, but by the time depicted in the novel itself, society has resumed. People have gone back to work, mostly; students are attending universities in larger numbers than ever; gardening shops keep selling out of plants and seeds and fertilizer and fenceposts.

There is no hope in the world of On the Beach, none at all, but unlike in McCarthy's vision, our response isn't to reject social connections and obligations, but to insist upon them until the end, and both to honour them and to treasure them.

To take just one small example, the real trick is to make sure the port and the brandy don't run out before the end, and yet that we don't end leave too much of it unappreciated. Appreciation: the great lesson of On the Beach.

Torres del Paine, Chile
It turns out, you see, that it can be wisest after all to go gently into that dark night. When the night is dark enough, then going gently is something like a prayer of thanks for the days we'd enjoyed so much before the final dusk we knew had to come eventually anyway. We live in a world of shocking beauty, intense relationships, and unknowable possibilities, and it broke my heart to have Shute show me we don't have to surrender any of our interior world for a little thing like planetary extinction.

Broke. My. Heart.

And yet somehow left it stronger. I'm so looking forward to teaching the novel, and talking through it with my reliably insightful students!

(Someone else's incredibly long and thorough review plus summary is available here, if you'd like a commentary with actual details.)


Andrew Fox said…
I just wanted to say "thank you" for your shout-out regarding my long-ago post on On the Beach. I'm very pleased you thought highly enough of what I'd written to link to my essay. I came back to you through a notification that one of my readers came to my blog through your link, and I was very happy that I followed the link, because you own essay sheds additional emotional light on this wonderful novel. Thanks again!
richard said…
Well, back at you, Andrew: especially with older books, I just can't quite get comfortable giving a detailed discussion of plot points, and your long post was the perfect cover for doing only what I wanted to with On the Beach.

It has been entertaining teaching the novel, I should say, because my students are so alert to the importance of class, the pervasiveness of sexism, and the invisibility of Aboriginal Australians. It's a wonderful novel, I agree, but inside the novel, there's only room for certain kinds of people, and that's a limiting factor for its readers now.

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