Friday, August 22, 2008

Ian McEwan's "The Cement Garden"

This one has the feel of an archetype, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses for a novella. The domineering but insecure father. The loving but helpless mother. The capable oldest daughter who takes on the mothering when both parents die suddenly. The second-oldest son browbeaten by dad, lusting for the sister, masturbating constantly. The third child, another daughter, the studious and sensitive one. The youngest boy who likes dressing up as a girl, and holding hands with his male play-mate. The archetype gives the family drama a strong sense of inevitability but the predictability at the same time weakens the drama.

Part 1 begins with its promised end, the father's death coinciding with Jack's first wet climax. It is a beautiful demonstration of how a son comes of age by killing (indirectly) his father, but, despite its sure narrative and precise language, or, perhaps, because of them, it does not escape the feel of being a demonstration. Part 2 is messier, within the plotted confines of the tragedy. It covers the death of the mother, the children's formation of a self-protective "family" and the break-up of that unnatural "family" by an outsider, the boyfriend brought in by the oldest sister. The concealed, contained "cement garden" of the temporary respite from reality gives way to the realities of the outside world.

I think the reader is supposed to feel at least somewhat sorry that such a respite has to end, but that was not my feeling when I finished reading the book. The cement garden is not supposed to be an idyll, but it must possess some idyllic qualities for its ending to be mourned. The novel, however, refuses to idealize that temporary accommodation. The house gets into a mess. The children withdraw into themselves in hurt and anger. Everything is in such great need of being taken care of, that I felt relief when finally the cop cars arrive at the door.

Part of the problem lies in making Jack the point of view. He is so fragile, so egoistic, so needy, that the world seen through his eyes is necessarily limited. He is also not an easy character to empathize with. Pity, yes, but not immersion. Predictably, he gets what he wants in the end, the sister putting his penis in her, while they lie in bed together, but the satisfaction fulfills limited ends, much less climactic than a similar scene in John Irving (Is it in Hotel New Hampshire?) He still does not understand anything about himself, his siblings, and his dead parents. He is still all outside, the way we see all the characters in this family fable.


Lai Meng said...

I haven't quite read The Cement Garden, but I wonder from your entry, if Jack's detachment from his family is his way of coping with deaths, pain and heart-aches in the family.

Jack's egocentric views and his sexual interest in his sister, appear to suggest a subliminal and symbolic need for physical intimacy at home, which coincided with his developmental growth where he grapples with his sexual needs.

His "not understand anything about himself, his siblings, and his dead parents. He is still all outside, the way we see all the characters in this family fable" may suggest the presence of an ego defence mechanism. That, if Jack loses it, he may come crashing down with depression or psychosis. This defensive layer of detachment helps keep his sanity.

But that's just my hypothesis. I should try read the book too.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi lai meng!
Good to hear from you. Your psychologizing hypothesis sounds very plausible. For me, the aesthetic problem with Jack is that he feels too much like a case study in the book.

Lai Meng said...

Hi Jee Leong,

I hope you are settling in. And well. *big hugz*