Before you go jumping to conclusions though, I wouldn’t call On the Beach an ideological screed. While there can't be much doubt what Shute thinks of war (he's against it, as most of us are), he approaches the subject with sorrow rather than outrage, melancholy instead of polemics. The novel is set in 1963 Australia following a catastrophic war, and observes its inhabitants as they await the slow drift of the nuclear fallout that brings with it certain death.
What’s left of the American navy is there, led by Captain Dwight Towers, who becomes involved in a platonic relationship with Moira Davidson, an Australian woman introduced to him by mutual friends. While the two form a close friendship, it doesn't go any further than that. It can't, for Towers - a good and decent man - still has a wife and children home in Connecticut. We know they're dead, as is everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and Towers knows it too - he just can't bring himself to face it. In one poignant scene Towers and Moira go shopping for presents for Towers' family, in particular his quest for a first fishing rod for his son.
Denial seems to be the predominant mood of most of the people we encounter, and what’s most fascinating (and terrifying) about On the Beach is watching how they accept their approaching death. For the most part there is no defiance, no panic in the streets. Society still maintains order, the streets are kept clean and people go about their work and their lives as best they can. On the surface it's as if there's been a slow, backward movement of civilization - cars are apparently a thing of the past, and only enough electricity for radio. It might seem not so different from the rationing and shortages of World War II, except that there was no war Down Under - only the consequences.
People enroll for college courses that won’t be completed, plant gardens they’ll never see, hoard gasoline that won’t be used. A woman goes in for an operation that her doctor says, without a trace of irony, should “give her a few more years of life.” It’s the secret that everyone ignores, the elephant in the room, the crazy aunt living in the attic, who nobody talks about. They talk of a future that's already gone, mouthing the words "next year" even though none of them really believes it. The start of trout season is moved up, and we understand why - by the time the original date rolls around, there won't be any fishermen left. That doesn't stop some from speculating that the government's just doing it for political advantage at the next election - an election, of course, that will never be held. ("Of course," one cynic says, "they'll have to change it back next year.") The date of the Australian Grand Prix is moved up too, and the drivers take ridiculous chances on the rain-slicked track – after all, what difference does it make if you die doing something you love, or wait for the sickness to kill you?
For those who might not be "fortunate" enough to die doing something they love, there's the free euthanasia pills (complete with instructions) being offered by the Aussie government. This may sound like a parody, but it’s deadly serious – and, considering the premium we seem to put on “quality of life” today, it probably creates less of a stir than it did when the book was first published. In particular Shute describes a young husband, an Aussie officer assigned to Towers’ submarine, trying to explain to his wife how she is to euthanize their baby and then herself if he hasn’t returned from his mission by the time the cloud arrives.
All through it the reader is confronted by the humanity of the characters, people struggling to get a grip over something they understand but can't comprehend. The mood shifts subtly during the year or so that the book covers. The world as they know it, the world that's left, becomes oppressive, a kind of living death, as the city slowly starts to fall into disrepair - things are broken but never fixed, shop clerks abandon their stores, people disappear from rooms and never return, presumably clutching the coveted pill in their hands. There is a sudden moment of reckless abandon as the end draws near - gasoline seems to appear out of nowhere, cars fill the streets, there's scattered crime and disorder - but even that lasts only a short time, a final fling while people can still appreciate it. "Everything's just slowing down," someone says sardonically. When reports start to come in of cases of radiation sickness in Melbourne, everyone knows the time has come.
It's that "living dead" sense (which you see so vividly in Eliot's "The Hollow Men," from which Shute gets his title) that I think stays with you after the book is over, the slow and gradual decay, the feeling you get when people just don't give a damn anymore but are helpless to do anything about it - even give up. A telling scene occurs when Towers and Moira go to an art show featuring a painting of a sorrowing Christ against the background of a destroyed city (presumably New York). Towers hates the painting - at first he criticizes it as being "phony" (the planes destroying the city are too low, the buildings are situated all wrong for New York) - and finally the truth comes out. "It couldn't have looked like that," he says, letting the denial fall away for just a moment. He goes on to say he gets no comfort from the painting: "as for religion, that's just not my line."
"You go to church regularly," Moira says.
"Oh well, that's different," Towers replies.
It is one of the saddest sections of this sad, sad book, this lack of consolation. Religion is there, sort of, but it's just pro forma. It doesn't really mean anything. In that sense I suppose it does nothing so much as mirror our own attitudes toward religion - it is a cultural thing, something you do, but not something you actually believe.
If there is a major shortcoming to On the Beach, I think it revolves around Shute's brief explanation of the war itself - how it came about, where it happened and why. Not that his explanation is implausible (it manages to indict everyone without pointing fingers at anyone) - it's just unnecessary. The war is the monster under the bed, Eliot's "Shadow," the great force that has nonetheless managed to ruin everything, no matter how they try to ignore it. As one character comments, "There never was a bomb dropped in the Southern Hemisphere. Why must it come to us? Can't anything be done to stop it?" As in any good horror story it’s the fear of the unknown rather than the known that is the most terrifying. The greatest of these stories are those in which the monster is never seen save fleetingly: a shadow, the movement of a window drape, the creak of a floorboard. Better that the war should have been seen that way, visible only in the effect it's had, but never seen straight on. To spell it out even to the extent that Shute does is to injection a brief glimpse of reality into a nightmare world that, because of its serenity, remains all the more nightmarish.
Some critics have pointed to other flaws: stilted writing, wooden dialogue, implausible behavior, bad science. It’s tempting to say these people are missing the point, though. (And you have to read this book in the context of the 50s, rather than the let-your-feelings-hang-out mores of today.) Ultimately what resonates with the reader is not how well the book is written or how realistic the dialogue is. It’s the atmosphere Shute creates - this overwhelming, almost unbearable sense of sadness. To truly appreciate it, try reading the last thirty or so pages while listening to all three parts of the Kyrie from Bach's Mass in B Minor, or perhaps Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila. If you're familiar with either of those pieces, then you'll understand what I'm talking about. If, after you finish this book you look at your loved ones and suddenly feel just how precious life is, then you understand what I'm talking about, too.
Read T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" here.
Originally published February 23, 2007