September 15, 2009
Nevil Shute: On the Beach
Nevil Shute was always one of those authors I intended to read, but my excuse for not having done so was that his books weren’t available in nice editions in the UK. (I didn’t say it was a very good excuse.) Until recently, the curious House of Stratus kept him in print here, in editions that looked more like textbooks than novels. Now, Vintage Classics have reissued all his novels, though only four (A Town Like Alice, Pied Piper, Requiem for a Wren and this one) have been given cover illustrations. The rest are, I understand, print-on-demand editions and have identical text-only covers a little like Faber poetry books.
When I saw that On the Beach was published in 1957, three years before Shute’s death, I wondered if it was a rare example where an author’s most famous book is one written late in his career. The reason why On the Beach is so well known is easily seen: its bold conceit is that it describes the last months of human life on earth following a nuclear war.
The 50s and 60s were a boom time for popular dystopias, and the loose environmental future-fear of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! probably explain why they’re once again in vogue. Shute’s springboard in On the Beach, however, was specifically Cold War-related: China and Russia have exploded thousands of nuclear warheads in territorial battle. This is conveyed in a needless ten-page dialogue to explain to the reader how the nuclear devastation came about. I’d have preferred it to remain unspecific, though the detail probably more effective and frightening for readers at the time (the book is set a few years in the future, in 1963).
As a result of the war, the whole northern hemisphere has been devastated by radiation, and no humans survive (though dogs and rabbits will outlive them: no mention of cockroaches though). Winds are bringing the radiation south, and one of the last countries to be affected is Australia. By the time we join the narrative, even northern cities like Darwin have succumbed to radiation death, and Melbourne is a holdout. We join a series of largely undifferentiated characters for their last days.
Rather like The Death of Grass and The Day of the Triffids, the spirit of 1950s British stiff-upper-lip remains (Shute was born in England but settled in Australia after the war.) There is little hysteria, other than one affecting scene – at least to a new parent like me – where a couple discuss what will have to be done to their baby when the clouds come. The only signs of a crumbling of social order are in the last days, when shopkeepers no longer care whether they receive payment: but continue to turn up each day and serve their customers. Unlike later writers such as Golding or Ballard, Shute seems to be assuring us that the veneer of civilization is robust. At times the stoicism seems parodic, as characters joke about the suicide pills being made available by the government.
“Everybody’s after these,” she said, smiling. “We’re doing quite a lot of business in them.”
He smiled back at her. “I like mine chocolate coated.”
“So do I,” she said. “But I don’t think they make them like that. I’m going to take mine with an ice-cream soda.”
(Smiling seems to be Shute’s shorthand for characters who are in a good mood. When they’re really happy, there’s a lot of grinning.) Out of context it looks like a satire on social mores (“You’ve got to take what’s coming to you and make the best of it”), but even when a character does express fear, they’re quickly tramped down. One character wishes she were dead already: “it’s like waiting to be hung.” “Maybe it is,” says her companion. “Or maybe it’s a period of grace.”
This made me think of parallels with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, where the characters and their truncated lives represent us all. Similarly, On the Beach could be an extension of all our lives taken to the extreme: we all know that we will die sooner or later, so why bother continuing to plant flowers for next season, taking part in car racing, or any of the other quotidian tasks that the characters here do? As a distraction? As work for work’s sake? (“Even if we don’t discover anything good, it’s still discovering things.”) Because the alternative is, literally, nothing?
There is the occasional joke, sometimes gallows humour (“Before the war it had probably been the best club in the Commonwealth. Now it certainly was”), and sometimes a sort of poking fun at how human insularity is abandoned at just the wrong moment, when one woman says she can’t imagine how American towns must look devoid of life, then adds, “I never saw them, of course. I’ve never been outside Australia.” Surprisingly, there is almost no suggestion that anyone expects a life after death, though this enhances Shute’s bleak vision.
On the Beach is old-fashioned and a traditional popular novel, with a good deal of exposition in dialogue (“We’re all going to get it. We’re all going to die of it. That’s why I want to tell you just a bit about it,” begins one such reader-friendly prompt.) Yet part of the appeal is the fustiness of the dialogue and telling – which presumably they weren’t when it was published half a century ago. (Abbreviations, unchanged in this new edition, are equally archaic: frig for refrigerator, and bizarrely, it’ld for ‘it would’.) A period piece, the interest of On the Beach – a prime slice of apocalypse fiction from the middle of the last century – is more cultural than literary. For a book by a writer known as a popular storyteller, there’s not much story in this book, other than The End is more and more nigh. I intend to read one or two of his others to see if they appeal, but I do wonder, if it wasn’t for the high concept idea behind On the Beach, whether Shute would still be read today at all.