On the Beach: The most disturbing novel I have ever read

Remnants of Chernobyl [Photo: CC0]

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert: This novel is about how to die. Forget the reviews that wonder how people could conduct themselves so serenely and not go off like crazed rats. If I had the knowledge that I - and everyone else - would be extinct in a matter of weeks, how would I want the end to be?

I finished reading this novel last night with a powerful rush of emotion followed by involuntary tears and a horrible feeling of powerlessness. I tried to shake this off with a start on some absurd Nabokov (Despair) but it didn't work. All night I dreamt about how I would die in this situation.

In the first dream, everyone was scrambling into a cave. I was following a loved one. Deeper and deeper into the earth we burrowed. I wanted to stop and go back but I also wanted to be with the one I love. They went on. The effects of radiation began to tell on me and I wanted to be near my loved one but not in the dark, buried under ground. We died there and I felt so disappointed that I hadn't gone my own way. I awoke in a state, realised it was the novel and a dream.

My subconscious wasn't satisfied, so back into the dream state I go and the dream runs again. And again. And again. Finally, I wake and realise that life is not so serious. Dying well is more important than running on the rollercoaster of others' ideas. Trust the process. And off into the deepest sleep I go.

No art has ever affected me so. Arriving at this novel and discovering such powerful emotions was a fortunate accident of circumstance. Dilectio Libertas et Doctrina. Love, Freedom, and Learning. Such a powerful way to live.

My choice of books is often a result of random events that open an entirely new world of thought. On a recent road trip, my girlfriend selected the podcast The Cold War Vault, and we listened to the episodes about the Net Evaluation Subcommittee and how it painted an increasingly gloomy picture of the United States' ability to win a nuclear war in the late 1950s.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was President at the time, and Nevil Shute's novel was published in 1957, followed by the 1959 film starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson, and Fred Astaire. The novel and the film painted a bleak picture that almost materialised during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. By then, Robert McNamara's strategy of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) was gearing up, and the Net Evaluation Subcommittee had made itself obsolete. 

In 1983, Carl Sagan's warnings of a nuclear winter following even a limited nuclear war would ramp up the scientific debate about the end of the world. But Nevil Shute, a Brit-turned-Aussie (and author of A Town Like Alice and Beyond the Black Stump), had set it out already in On the Beach.

I had no idea about Nevil Shute. The connection to Australia came out in the Cold War Vault podcast, which referred to the film and "Anthony Perkins' non-existent Australian accent". I was intrigued and the next thing I notice, the book is staring at me in Elizabeth's Bookshop in Newtown.

These random connections in my various readings are wonderful. Even while writing this up, I looked for a link to Nabokov's Despair and discovered that it, too, had been made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. Much like Shute, I knew nothing of Bogarde until I read Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and watched the 1971 film. I've since read several of Bogarde's autobiographical stories, opening up another world of French gardens and country living.

Back to On the Beach. Unlike the horror of dying from radiation exposure as thousands of people did after the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Shute tells of the various approaches to death taken by the characters left in Melbourne as nuclear fallout following the short World War III in the northern hemisphere slowly engulfs the rest of the planet.

The hopelessness of it all is symbolised by a trip in a nuclear submarine to test an optimistic theory that radiation levels are decreasing closer to the north pole and to investigate the origin of random morse code transmissions from near Seattle. Yeoman Swain escapes the submarine off the coast of his hometown and is later seen in his boat with an outboard motor fishing. He refuses to die in a strange land in a few weeks' time, preferring to die in a few days at home. It's the individual choices that make this story so vividly disturbing.

One character decides to remain faithful to his dead wife (unlike Gregory Peck in the movie version!). Another buys a Ferrari race car and pushes himself to the limit in scenes where several drivers die brutally in an ad hoc Australian Grand Prix. He takes his prescribed suicide tablets (provided free by the local pharmacy) while sitting, victoriously, in his well-preserved car.

A couple and their daughter decide to just get it over with. A farmer worries about his cattle and makes sure they have enough feed. The naval officer goes down with his ship outside of territorial waters, and Ava Gardner's character gets sloshed and takes her suicide pills just as Gregory Peck's character (she doesn't shag him in the novel) sails off into the sunset and before diarrhea strikes her again. She's on the beach. Hence the name.

This novel demonstrates how stupid it all is - going through the motions because we don't know how to live, let alone die. I am still disturbed when I think about the novel, but differently than in my first nightmare last night.

Much like my literary idol Professor Harold Bloom said, as we age we read against the clock. But we might also prepare to die well. That starts now. And that, I believe, is what Nevil Shute was trying to say.

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