Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1317
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 these stories range from the not particularly appealing to the pathetic and repulsive. McEwan explained his choices in 1979 by saying that he needed the tension of “what is bad and difficult and unsettling to start me writing.” His interest in the actions of his characters leads to an intense probing of the psychological basis for their motivation and derives from his desire to identify, describe, and, at least implicitly, condemn the social forces that have resulted in their isolation. McEwan’s characters are outcasts or outsiders, marginal figures effectively beyond the reach of what social support might still be available, and only in the title story is there a suggestion of a personal relationship that might sustain and support a degree of hope for the future.
“In Between the Sheets”
Many of the protagonists of First Love, Last Rites are adolescents, in accordance with McEwan’s feeling that this cohort is anextraordinary, special case of people; they’re close to childhood, and yet they are constantly baffled and irritated by the initiations into what’s on the other side.
He goes on to say that “short stories, and especially first-person narratives—can thrive on a point of view which is somehow dislocated, removed.” One of the limitations of this position, however, is an almost total enclosure within the mind of the narrator, a factor which McEwan addressed in the title story of his next collection where a single father, Stephen Cooke, arranges a visit from his fourteen-year-old daughter Miranda and her strange close friend, the diminutive Charmian. The third-person narrative enables McEwan to remain slightly beyond the central characters while evoking their thoughts and feelings, especially Stephen’s, through a persistent probing of their responses and reactions. The awkwardness that Stephen feels in his daughter’s presence, an uncertainty growing out of separation and compounded by her growth toward young womanhood (and sexual echoes of Stephen’s estranged wife) and by the mystery of Miranda’s friendship with Charmian, is complicated but also ameliorated by his rediscovery of a deep care and concern for her. The title, taken from a popular rock song, is obviously designed to emphasize the sexual component of many of the stories, but the prior line “Don’cha think there’s a place for you” is equally important as an indication of the need for a comfortable or safe place in any relationship.
“Dead as They Come”
“Dead as They Come” joins some of McEwan’s prevalent concerns in a very compact, consistently intense narrative delivered by a wealthy middle-aged man who relates his obsessive fascination with a store-window mannequin. The story evolves as a kind of continuing present-tense confession that is clearly a record of progressive mental deterioration but which reads like a completely rational account of understandable behavior. The erudition, self-rationalization, sexual absorption, increasingly violent responses to frustration when will and desire are thwarted, and vividly graphic and explicit description of action are features of McEwan’s writing at its most effective. The narrator is, characteristically, completely removed from any social constraint and is bereft of any human relationship which might alleviate his rage. The story almost functions as an allegory because the figure of desire has no mind or soul of her own and is seen only through the consciousness of a person who does not care about another’s inner life. The fact that she is literally a model of a woman rather than a woman as supermodel is part of McEwan’s point.
“Psychopolis” reaches beyond the limits of the short story toward the broader social and personal explorations that have marked McEwan’s novels. His narrator is a young Englishman, probably closer to McEwan’s own sensibility than any other character in the short fiction. The story developed from McEwan’s brief visit to Los Angeles, a city he uses as the template for the chaotic energy of a contemporary Western city in the last decades of the twentieth century. Adrift but exalted by the pulse of life in a strange land, open to experience, friendly with other self-absorbed but not unpleasant young people, the narrator is alternately bemused and fascinated by what seems like the inexplicable but compelling behavior of his friends, or more accurately, social associates in what he calls “a city of narcissists.” The bizarre situations, sexual latency, and lurking semi-violence that is common to McEwan’s fiction is present in “Psychopolis,” but instead of a feeling of dread, despair—or, even worse—benumbed indifference, the unnamed narrator generally regards his own confusion and his friends’ peculiarities with a degree of humor that widens the field of the story beyond the circumscribed lives that are effectively prisons in other stories. There are more distinct characters in this story than in any other one; their vehement if somewhat incoherent arguments indicate a degree of complexity to their lives, and the narrator shares a few moments of exuberance and even temporary joy with the others, which suggests his wayward quest for “something difficult and free” is not automatically doomed to failure.