Imagine Trying to Do This

Imagine you had this idea that you wanted the crux of your novel and the entire trajectory of the two central characters to hinge on a single physical act. Then think, what would be the most basic act, something sort of small but potentially devastating depending on the minds and lives of the characters? How about...premature ejaculation? How about PE being the reason that these two people who really do love each other but are naive and scared split on their wedding night and never see each other again? Well, I certainly couldn't describe it without it sounding like something out of Forum magazine, but Ian McEwan can. This is that scene from On Chesil Beach (note: spoiler plus sperm involved). Just to set it up a little bit, this is set in 1962 and both characters are virgins. Oh, and the guy has been abstaining from any form of self-pleasure for a week before this, God knows why. The female, Florence, is petrified about the act of "penetration" that she's only read about in some dusty volume on female sexuality. Anyway, here's how McEwan manages to write about this:

"She was without any other desire but to please him and make this night a success, and without any other sensation beyond an awareness of the end of his penis, strangely cool, repeatedly jabbing and bumping into and around her urethra. Her panic and disgust, she thought, were under control, she loved Edward, and all her thoughts were on helping him have what he so dearly wanted and to make him love her all the more. It was in this spirit that she slid her right hand down between his groin and hers. He lifted a little to let her through. She was pleased with herself for remember that the red manual advised that it was perfectly acceptable for the bride to 'guide the man in.'

"She found his testicles first, and, not at all afraid now, she curled her fingers softly around this extraordinary bristling item she had seen in different forms on dogs and horses, but had never quite believed could fit comfortably on adult humans. Drawing her fingers across its underside, she arrived at the base of the penis, which she held with extreme care, for she had no idea how sensitive or robust it was. She trailed her fingers along its length, noting with interest its silky texture, right to the tip, which she lightly stroked, and then, amazed by her boldness, she moved back down a little, to take his penis firmly, about halfway along, and pulled it downward, a slight adjustment, until she felt it just touching her labia.

"How could she have known what a terrible mistake she was making? Had she pulled on the wrong thing? Had she gripped too tight? He gave out a wail, a complicated series of agonized, rising vowels, the sort of sound she heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates.

"In horror, she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid. It was a calamity, and she knew immediately that it was all her fault, that she was inept, ignorant, and stupid. She should not have interfered, she should never have believed the manual. If his jugular had burst, it could not have seemed more terrible. How typical, her overconfident meddling in matters of awesome complexity; she should have known well enough that her attitude in rehearsals for the string quartet had no relevance here."

There's more. She is disgusted, tries to get it all of of her by using one of the honeymoon pillows, and then runs from the room down to Chesil Beach. He is horrified and then angry. They see each other once more on the beach, but that's it. The marriage is annulled, they go on their separate ways, and both never love anyone as much (remember, it's McEwan of Atonement fame, known perhaps by pop culture only because that book was made into a movie starring Kierra Knightly, the British version of Winona Ryder). I was inappropriately trying to explain this scene to a co-worker and he said, Now I have to Google images of old men. I said, Why? He meant that he had to distract himself from thinking too much about the scene. I guess it was perhaps not the best topic of conversation at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I always forget that people don't think like I do and I don't find that scene or the idea of that scene particularly sexy. I was trying to explain how difficult it is to write something like that and still keep it charming and interesting in a way.

Dreamt last night that at a certain point in the next hour or so, the apocalypse would descend. I knew it was going to happen and that I would be erased, but no one else would believe me. This may come from listening to "It's the End of the World as We Know It" on repeat on my i-pod. "And I feel fine..."