Habitual Mood

On the Beach (Shute)

Habitual Mood

I didn't think much of On the Beach, but at least there was some novelty in it being set in my home town of Melbourne - the perfect place for a story about the end of the world, as Ava Gardner didn't say when she flew in to star in the film adaptation. Other than some place names and slang, not all of it familiar (did mid-20th century Australians really refer to their refrigerator as "the frig"?), the setting doesn't feel terribly specific, although I was intrigued by the suggestion that Melbourne once possessed a "toy shop district".

On the Beach takes place after a nuclear war (started by Albania, the rogues) has obliterated all life in the northern hemisphere; the radioactive dust is slowly creeping south, killing all in its path. When the story begins, the north of Australia is starting to succumb, and Melbourne is calculated to have six months, at best, before the end is nigh. Shute focuses on a handful of characters: US submarine commander Dwight Towers, serving under Australian command; his local liaison officer, Peter Holmes, who has an offensively infantile wife and a regularly infantile baby daughter; party girl and aspiring alcoholic Moira; and CSIRO scientist John Osborne, seemingly the only person in town who fully accepts what is happening.

Despite impending doom, the world Shute sketches is bizarre in its normality. Holmes and his family lead a shabby-genteel existence in Falmouth (presumably a stand-in for the bayside suburb of Frankston), where the citizenry occupy themselves with amateur sailboat races and Country Women's Association meetings. The city itself is the scene of modest Bacchanalias, and some businesses have shut their doors, but you can still catch a tram, watch a movie, or enjoy a meal in a restaurant or upscale club. Captain Dwight goes about his naval business with rigour, doggedly faithful to his superior officers, who are dead, and his country, which is destroyed. If it wasn't for the regular refrain of "They say it won't be long now", you wouldn't know anything was wrong.

To give his characters something to do, Shute sends the submarine on a voyage across the Pacific to check the source of a mysterious radio signal. It comes to nothing, but there are some mildly eerie moments as the crew gawk at depopulated America through their periscope, life-sized dioramas of whole towns and cities in which nobody, and nothing, remains alive. This is as close as the novel gets to looking directly at the horrors of nuclear war, which is to say, not very. Shute prefers an elegiac mode that doesn't always suit the extremity of the situation. It's difficult to believe that even the staid, highly repressed people Shute depicts would behave with such equanimity in the face of human extinction.

There's a deliberate and possibly even admirable refusal to inject even minor peril into the narrative. On the submarine voyage, one of the sailors develops appendicitis symptoms, and the captain reluctantly makes plans to operate on the wardroom table - but the man's pain subsides by itself. A subplot has John Osborne coming into possession of a racing car, which he proceeds to enter in the various races which are somehow still being organised. Shute describes several races at length, but his bland prose can't bring across the suicidal fervour of the drivers with any immediacy. It's like the plot of Death Race 2000 described by the author of a washing machine manual. The racing subplot does at least lead to the book's sole amusing bit of dialogue: "We can't have a decent race if half the drivers have got diarrhoea and vomiting." True at any time, really.

Shute likes nothing better than gracelessly describing mechanical tasks. Here a submariner gets into a dinghy:

Out on deck he stretched and breathed deeply, relishing the sunlight and the escape from the hull. Then he raised the hatch of the superstructure and pulled out the dinghy pack, stripped off the plastic sealing strips, unfolded the dinghy, and pressed the lever of the air bottle that inflated it. He tied the painter and lowered the rubber boat into the water, took the paddle and led the boat aft to the steps beside the conning tower. He clambered down into it, and pushed off from the submarine.

The psychology of his characters is similarly laboured. They are all, with the exception of Osborne, in denial to a greater or lesser degree, which is fair enough, but the nature of their denial never alters. Captain Dwight starts out compartmentalising and continues to do so to the bitter end; Holmes's wife flatly denies reality almost to moment of her death. When characters do change, it is in absurd ways. Gadabout Moira, who at the start of the book is quite sensibly drinking herself into oblivion, is quickly set on the straight and narrow by the terminally square Captain Dwight, and lives out her last days embracing moderation, celibacy, and the joys of secretarial classes.

Of course, we are all doomed. I'm sorry if this is how you have to find out, and really someone should have told you by now, but it's true. However long we are destined to live, our time is finite. By removing suspense from the narrative - by giving his characters no certainty but imminent death - Shute brings this existential truth into sharp relief. However, here as elsewhere Shute is incapable of facing this directly; indeed, he could have removed the apocalyptic element and told much the same story with much the same tropes of duty, denial, and redemption. There's a lack of insight into how the end of the world affects these characters beyond their personal circumstances. The revulsion normal people feel about nuclear weapons goes beyond the individual. It's one thing to know you have to die at some point, quite another to be aware that, potentially, your death might be one among billions: the death, in fact, of the human project itself. Shute largely declines to have his characters grapple with this.

The lack of credible, engaging characters makes it increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief as the radiation closes in. With mere hours remaining for Homo sapiens, how are restaurants and country hotels still open for business? How are the trams running, the phones operating, the electricity flowing? We are told that the street cleaners, at least, have had the sense to pack it in, allowing Melbourne a final bow as the Smellbourne of yore. As the main characters started dropping off the twig, I felt a slight stirring deep in my cockles, proof that I am not entirely an unfeeling monster. Mostly, though, I was struck by how trite even the end of life on Earth becomes in Shute's hands.

On the Beach's epigraph is T.S. Eliot's famous gag about the way the world ends, so it's not as if the reader isn't forewarned about the book's lack of vim. Still, to paraphrase another oft-quoted poem, a smidgen of rage against the dying of the light wouldn't have gone astray. Nothing excessive, of course; nothing to frighten the 1950s book-buying public. Just a forceful tap on the clammy nose of the dying of the light, to let it know it's not getting things entirely it's own way, this time at least.

Having crossed off On the Beach, my next Commonplace Classic is On the Road. Then, presumably, On the Buses.

#books #commonplace classics