The penis, in the contemporary novel, has been a mighty matter, looming large. Who will forget the narrator of The Bell Jar seeing an adult penis for the first time and being both fascinated and repelled? ('The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.') Or Fermina Daza, in a darkened room in García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, announcing, 'I have never been able to understand how that thing works,' and then slowly realising all the magical tricks this little rubbery object could do when suitably inspired? ('She grasped the animal under study without hesitation, turned it this way and that, observed it with an interest that was beginning to seem more than scientific, and said when she was finished: "How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman's thing."') It is not hard to imagine the surprise of Florence, the girlfriend of Edward Mayhew, a nice girl in her early twenties from a nice background in Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach, when 'one Saturday afternoon in late March, with the rain falling heavily outside the windows . . . she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis.' What she experienced was 'a living thing, quite separate from her Edward - and she recoiled.' Edward, also in his early twenties, was so excited that 'he could bear it no more' and asked her to marry him. This short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding.
LRB 26 April 2007 | PDF Download