Balloons, Stalkers and Love Under the Microscope

Enduring Love , by Ian McEwan. Doubleday-Nan A. Talese, 262 pages, $23.95.

Think of the skilled novelist’s mind as a high-speed elevator. Ground level is the physical environment, earthworms and paper clips and the shirts in Gatsby’s closet. The penthouse is the realm of the speculative, where thoughts range free and wide, where Melville ponders the whiteness of the whale. In between are many floors crowded with social busyness, good manners and bad, prenuptial contracts, codicils and drunken dinner parties. You see at once the advantage of speed, so that in the space of a single sentence you can get from a mother’s labor pains to the legal ramifications of the birth of an heir and then up again to theological disquisitions on the sins of the father-with a view at the top of future generations scrabbling the surface of the planet.

Ian McEwan’s elevator travels the length of a towering skyscraper with deep levels of underground parking. He can drop down to elemental ooze and then hurtle to thin-air theory. Man, does that elevator move.

In his last novel, Black Dogs , still his best, two huge and terrifyingly real black dogs bare their fangs to reveal “alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edge.” These same dogs are “spirit hounds, incarnations.” The reader understands, in the instant they appear, that the dogs are both emblematic of Evil and also evil in the flesh, “a yellow-red eye and eyeball muck spiking the fur, open sores on a foreleg.” The doors slide open and you’re in two places at once.

Mr. McEwan’s masterful new novel, Enduring Love , is narrated by a science writer, Joe Rose, a man who loves the leap from looking to thinking. He gathers data, and zip-kites a theory. Though trained in physics, with a doctorate in “quantum electrodynamics,” he devotes major brain-time to evolutionary biology, quoting E.O. Wilson, sociobiology’s leading light, bending a reverent knee to Charles Darwin, its patron saint. For the space of this narrative, however, the topic that preoccupies Joe-the squirmy problem that bedevils him even as he does his super-rational best to pin it down-is love.

A virtuosic first chapter opens with a pastoral picnic in love’s honor. Joe and Clarissa, his girlfriend of seven years, are celebrating a reunion after weeks apart. It’s a gusty spring day, and they are sitting under an oak at the edge of a field, just about to open a bottle of wine.

Suddenly, they hear a panicked shout and see a man in the middle of the field struggling with an enormous helium balloon; in the basket of the balloon is a young boy. Joe and four other men come running from different directions to lend a hand. The rescue is fatally botched. A blast of wind lifts the balloon and one man is carried off, dangling from a rope. He falls from a height of 300 feet.

After catastrophe wrecks the picnic, Joe and Clarissa are in for more rude shocks. One of the men involved in the blown rescue, Jed Parry, announces that he and Joe are in love-more specifically, that he, Jed, returns Joe’s unexpressed love. Jed also promises to bring Joe to God, to show him God’s love. He bombards Joe with letters and phone calls, tracks him across London, lurks outside his apartment.

Jed’s a nut. Joe even figures out what kind of nut: He tells a bored, skeptical policeman that Jed is “suffering from a condition known as de Clérambault’s syndrome. It’s a delusional state.” Joe’s research suggests that Jed’s delusion may lead to violence.

The police won’t do a thing. Joe can see that in Inspector Linley’s face, which Mr. McEwan describes with morbid relish: “It wasn’t the pallor that was repellent, it was the puffy, inhuman geometry of its roundness. A near-perfect circle was centered on his button nose and encompassed the white dome of his baldness and the curve of his fattened chin.” Wrong as well as repulsive, Linley dismisses Joe’s worries, saying, “As stalkers go … he’s a pussycat.”

Worse than the indifference of the authorities, Clarissa doubts the seriousness of the threat and begins to doubt Joe’s sanity, too. She’s not sure that Joe’s frenetic research isn’t a sign of unhealthy obsession-perhaps Joe is obsessed with Jed, and not the other way around. She thinks her lover may have been unhinged by his part in the ballooning accident.

She is a Keats scholar, green-eyed, pale-skinned. She does not share Joe’s unwavering faith in the rational. Her doubts infuriate him, and his anger feeds her doubts, a few of which the reader shares.

Jed’s weird passion puts love under the microscope. Joe reasons it out: “For there to be a pathology, there had to be a lurking conception of health. De Clérambault’s syndrome was a dark, distorting mirror that reflected and parodied a brighter world of lovers whose reckless abandon to their cause was sane.” Jed’s sick love infects the once healthy, now ailing love Joe shares with Clarissa. Are these categories stable? Mr. Mc-Ewan’s ambiguous title points out a problem: The love that lasts may be a lasting burden. Jed knows his love is divinely inspired. Clarissa listens to her heart; she favors intuition and is occasionally deceived by it. Always the proud rationalist, Joe looks to tiny clues. His tender and minute descriptions of sexual frolics with his green-eyed Clarissa are the romantic equivalent of scientific evidence. But Joe, too, can be led astray by his method.

You’re never in doubt as to where Mr. McEwan’s sympathies lie. Joe is said to have “a talent for clarity”; so does Mr. Mc-Ewan-in spades. He values lucidity, reason. He gives a fair hearing to the touchy-feely: Like Clarissa’s doubts, Jed’s delusion can be quite convincing. But Mr. McEwan’s balanced exposition is itself a tip-off. The prose is neat and economical, measured and sane-it’s Joe’s voice, but you just know that the author behind it is in league with reason.

And yet Joe absent Clarissa is incomplete. Reason requires a shot of intuition. Maybe a dose of delusion, too. If indeed delusion works like a “dark, distorting mirror,” it may hint at somber truths. Joe needs to remember that we’re always rubbing elbows with the irrational; accident drops from the sky like a helium balloon battered by winds, well beyond the pilot’s control.

At any given moment, in a plot that builds to choking suspense, Mr. McEwan stands ready to illuminate the whole situation, top to bottom, the brute detail and the spiraling implications. Here’s Joe deep in the woods outside London. He has just tested the gun he has bought to protect himself and Clarissa. Fear has liquefied his bowels, and he’s crouched with his pants around his ankles: “I tried to soothe myself by parting the crackly old leaves and scooping up a handful of soil.… I brought my palm close to my face and peered over my glasses. In the rich black crumbly mulch I saw two black ants, a springtail, and a dark red worm-like creature with a score of pale brown legs.” He thinks about the millions of organisms in his handful of soil, he considers their “blind compulsion … to consume and excrete.” He hopes to remind himself that he is a part of this “natural dependency.” But he no longer is: “[E]ven as I squatted to enrich the forest floor, I could not believe in the primary significance of these grand cycles. Just beyond the oxygen-exhaling trees stood my poison-exuding vehicle, inside which was my gun, and 35 miles down teeming roads was the enormous city on whose northern side was my apartment, where a madman was waiting … and my threatened loved one.”

While Joe squats in the woods, Mr. McEwan takes us up the last few floors to the penthouse: “We were no longer in the great chain. It was our own complexity that had expelled us from the Garden. We were in a mess of our own unmaking.” Or as Joe tells Jed, explaining his refusal to pray, “There’s no one up there.”

Enduring Love is a frightening love story that glides without stress or strain between scatology and theology. Like that other love story, the one about the Garden, it teaches ageless wisdom: We are in a mess of our own unmaking. It is a story humbly amazed at the mystery of love.