In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories
Ian McEwan’s voice, as is always necessary in short fiction, is distinctive, and his technique is controlled. If, after two collections of stories and one brief novel, McEwan is not yet a major writer, he gives every indication that he could become one. His flaws are those of youth, self-indulgence, and subject matter, rather than of craft or intelligence. In Between the Sheets and Other Stories is an intriguing, sometimes challenging, and generally superior collection of stories, the work of a craftsman on his way to becoming an artist.
McEwan’s subject matter is not enticing. He often indulges a fascination for the squalid and the sickening; his imagination tends to dwell on freaks, sexual aberrations, and bizarre fantasies. Nevertheless, other writers have created literature from such subject matter. The question which the reader must ask (and which McEwan must ask himself) is: do these preferences of subject matter add up to an authentic vision of life and of the world, or are they a quirk of youth or of the desire to be different?
As V. S. Pritchett has pointed out, McEwan is a master of styles and structures who is able to muster a variety of feelings through his strange tales. He possesses intellectual resources sufficient to enable him to open up his claustrophobic stories and suggest worlds beyond them. Perhaps the underworld in these stories is the first view we are experiencing of a new artist’s unique perceptive faculties.
McEwan’s strength lies in his ability to create a scene or a character out of precise, perfectly chosen details. Even his more fanciful or bizarre stories are rooted in concrete, meticulously described details. He also possesses invention and humor, a flair for irony, and a gift for satirical parody, but without the well-chosen details which make us believe his stories—at least while we are reading them—these other gifts would be futile. McEwan has been compared to Kafka and Beckett. He is not yet in their league, but he does possess their understanding that it is necessary in direct proportion to the degree of fantasy in a tale to tie the fantasy to reality with homely, immediately comprehensible details.
McEwan’s novel, The Cement Garden, a short, bizarre work which tells the humorous and terrifying story of a most unusual London family, is successful largely because of the dryness of its tone and its ironic attention to detail. The stories in In Between the Sheets and Other Stories lead the reader into a world still more bizarre, violent, and filled with sexual fantasies and erotic dreams; in these stories, the deformed and maimed play major roles, deliberately perverse and disgusting images abound, and an audacious black humor runs throughout. Often strange images and shocking scenes are used to symbolize McEwan’s themes; for example, the Americanization of Britain is represented in the story “Pornography” by the shifting of the pornography shop to entirely American stock, because it is “better” and more salable. It is unclear, however, what is being symbolized by O’Byrne’s contradictory relationships with Pauline, whom he dominates, and Lucy, who dominates him.
Pathetic, lost, frightened individuals swarm through McEwan’s stories, struggling to survive, to find a moment of happiness, to achieve some kind of satisfaction in their existence, however brief or tenuous. These characters are often portrayed humorously, but a shift in plot or tone inevitably provides the thrust which carries the story into the grim, bizarre literary realm which McEwan seems determined to carve out for himself. The Ape in “Reflections of a Kept Ape,” five-foot-tall Harold with his built-up shoes and thick-lensed glasses in “Pornography,” and ugly and precocious little Charmian in the title story are three examples of these bizarre yet ultimately meaningful characters, and there are many others.
The first story in the collection, “Pornography,” veers from what promises to be a comical account of the lives of two brothers running a Soho pornography shop, in which nervous customers try to get as many free glances of the pornography as they can before they are asked to buy or vacate, to a...
(The entire section is 1733 words.)