April 21, 2014
Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge
Bainbridge tells the story of the tragic voyage of the Titanic through the eyes of Morgan, a young man who was the nephew of industrialist J.P. Morgan. Morgan boards the ship as one of the self-centered idle rich. Though he mixes with these shallow "bright young things," Morgan seems to have a conscience and is the focus of a modest coming of age story line.
The book is primarily character driven, but I had a hard time caring about any of the characters. Even Morgan seemed hard to cozy up to and I found him to be the most sympathetic character out of the bunch. Every Man for Himself is a shallow look at the shallow lives of very wealthy first-class passengers on a ship we already know will sink. Steerage class passengers hardly note a mention as though not worth the paper and ink. This baffled me until I wondered if Bainbridge was employing subtle irony. I'm still not sure if the author was using a clever device to make a point or not. Those who are more familiar with her writing might be able to enlighten me.
Very little happens until the ship hits an iceberg and begins to sink. The drama and horror, the terrible loss of life that was the sinking of the Titanic is wrapped up in the last 35 pages of a 201 page book. This hurried ending does impart a frantic and chaotic note that was surely a part of those last hours, but there is no character redemption or reflective commentary involved. The shallow characters never cease to be shallow and continue to idle away their last hours in various self-indulgent states. The reader is never focused on any one scene for too long during these last pages, as though confused by the chaos and noise. Perhaps this too was intended by the author to make a point, but it fell flat for me. I honestly didn't care if any of the characters survived or not and that seems important to me in a character driven story.
I really had high expectations for this book. These were mostly based on various comments about the author's skill as a writer that I came across in reviews and other write ups prior to reading the novel. Again, the book is not bad, but it failed to make much of an impact.