Ian McEwan’s short fiction was a significant element in the transformation of British literature during the 1970’s from the gritty realism of the Angry Young Men and the still genteel social explorations of more traditional authors toward the anarchic, dystopic, neo-gothic postmodern writing of a generation responding to the fragmentation, fracture, and aggression of a postcolonial society in convulsive transition. Following the temporary euphoria of the “swinging London” of the 1960’s, McEwan and contemporaries like Martin Amis, Angela Carter, J. G. Ballard, and Will Self completely removed and discarded a veneer of semirespectability to reveal and examine what they regarded as the essence of life in the British Isles. While some critics accused McEwan of dwelling in depravity, he has insisted that he is illuminating some of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition and that the base impulses to which his characters respond reveal essential aspects of human nature usually unacknowledged.
Like Ballard, McEwan has envisioned a late twentieth century world in which technological innovations have undermined human interaction; like Carter, he has explored the darkest regions of the human psyche in a style that recalls the almost delicious horror of the classic gothic genre; like Amis, he has looked with scathing contempt at the stupidity and opacity of people at their most selfish and narcissistic; and like Self, he has described with apparent relish the fullest range of the physical, examining the Body with curiosity and an almost obsessive fascination. Nonetheless, McEwan has maintained, “I can’t locate myself inside any shared, any sort of community taste, aesthetic ambition or critical position or anything else.”
Aside from an understandable preference for avoiding categorization or superficial grouping, McEwan’s expression of singularity is an attempt to provoke a discussion of his work that is not reduced to a reiteration of subjects like incest, sexual violence, and murder, which make his short fiction troubling for some readers. The shocking or macabre features of many stories are disturbing, attracting the initial attention a young writer might require, but the most successful stories use sensational detail and situation as a way to introduce questions about the societal norms that permit or encourage such behavior. McEwan, in his short fiction, seeks to understand without endorsing the characters he depicts and to convey the entropic turmoil that has resulted in the disintegration of the structure that supported relationships between people in earlier times.
First Love, Last Rites
A summary catalog of the central subjects of McEwan’s first collection, First Love, Last Rites, suggests the sources of discomfort that produced uneasy responses from some commentators. The stories concern calculated, passionless incest (“Homemade”), compassionless control (“Solid Geometry”), exploitation and humiliation (“Disguises”), affectless murder (“Butterfly”), blatant sexual exhibitionism (“Cocker”), and a hideous rat as a symbol of pregnancy (“First Love, Last Rites”). The protagonists—frequently the narrators—of...
(The entire section is 1317 words.)