Thursday, August 19, 2010

Disappointing Stories

Genesis 3 is a tragedy. It's called The Fall for a reason. Yet even in the darkest moment there is a glint of light:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

The story moves forward. Next chapter.

This story is a search for offspring and a battle. Abel is born (4v1-2) and is a true worshipper (v4), his brother has the opportunity to crush the head of the serpent lurking at his door (v7). Instead he strikes his brother (v8). He’s a serpent seed (1 John 3:12). Hope is there but is put in the ground (v11), and the ground cries out curse… The story could have been over, but this is not the ending we wanted. Yet.

Oh for better blood (Heb 12v24). Exodus opens with a woman having a son (Moses) while a tyrant tries to strike him. Also Herod vs. Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. When Solomon reflects on life it is Abel’s name he chooses to capture his frustration (Ecclesiastes 1v2). The Hebrew word Hebel (Abel) is his word Meaningless! Vanity! Smoke! It's all we've got until we had a reason for real hope. On Good Friday our hope is in the grave... and if he stays there then no one has a happy ending.

Ian McEwan is a brilliantly disappointing author. He writes in the world of Genesis 4. He knows we want happy endings (why is that?!) but doesn’t believe in them. And his stories are stronger for their honesty. McEwan lets me be melancholy about the world (where do you go when you want to be melancholy?). This is a world where in the short-term people rarely get a Hollywood happy ending.

E.g. In Atonement McEwan explicitly tries this as Bryony offers a happy ending before confessing that it’s a fantasy. In On Chesil Beach he explores the insecurities of a couple on their wedding night, will love triumph? In his latest novel Solar, we see a man who could save the world from climate change, will McEwan let him win?

Where does the story go?


  1. This is one reason I like P.G. Wodehouse stories - they (virtually) always end right.

    Disappointing endings are fine but they're not the whole picture. Creation is a comedy, not a tragedy (see Leithart). Comedy includes tragedy (the gospels before the resurrection) but if someone writes non-stop tragedy, there's probably something wrong with them.

  2. " if someone writes non-stop tragedy, there's probably something wrong with them."
    Agreed. No surprise that McEwan is an atheist.

    Whilst the whole story is a comedy, there are plenty for whom the story will be tragic, plenty of lives that are tragic, and for all of us tragic subplots... Qoheleth isn't an atheist, but then he doesn't write entirely without hope - his cry Hebel is uttered because he has hope and hasn't found it rather than because he doesn't believe in hope.

  3. I've started on PGW book, probably should try finishing it sometime!