Ian McEwan McEwan, Ian (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McEwan, Ian 1948–

McEwan is a British short story writer and novelist. He is a black humorist whose fiction is characterized by a unique blending of macabre plots, grotesque characters, and a lucid, almost pristine, prose style. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Jonathan Raban

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

First Love, Last Rites oozes with talent as wayward, original and firm in vision as anything since [Jean] Rhys's early novels about being alone and young in Paris and London.

McEwan's characters are adolescents; they bristle with the sudden violent consciousness of selfhood like hatching pupae. Or they are children, prematurely burdened with egos that give them the wizened gravity of infants in Renaissance paintings. Or they are men whose bodies have grown but whose minds have never broken free of the appalling second womb of puberty. Cruelty comes easily to them: they can wound or kill with the offhand grace of animals for whom the self is the only reality. They are profoundly disturbed by their own capacity to love another, which creeps up on them from behind like a pad-footed intruder on their barred and bolted rooms. They are endlessly curious about the world, but their curiosity has the roving neutrality of creatures in a zoo, unsure of what to focus on. They belong to no society. They are alarmingly in touch with blood and slime. (p. 81)

[The] great strength of McEwan's writing is that it is constitutionally incapable of being appalled. Taking nothing for granted, it is surprised by nothing and observant of everything. His style is wonderfully supple, open to experience, and certain in its movements. At its frequent best, it has a musical purity matched to music's deep indifference to the merely moral....

(The entire section is 559 words.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the black humour of McEwan's stories [in First Love, Last Rites] sometimes the blackness predominates, sometimes the humour. He can even be blackly Rabelaisian…. Always he is inventive, stylish and keenly observant of grotesque detail. He drives his plots logically to the most absurd or violent but, from his premises, inevitable ends. A brilliant and devastating début. (pp. 112-13)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), August/September, 1975.

It is likely that McEwan will be compared to other practitioners of the short story form, Roald Dahl in particular. There is about [First Love, Last Rites] the same juxtaposing of simple quirks and complex pathologies, and the same blurry distinctions between the normal and abnormal behavior of seemingly sane individuals that Dahl mastered in "Kiss Kiss" and "Someone Like You" a decade or so ago. At the same time, the comparison is perhaps unfair. McEwan is no mere emulator of the style of others as "Solid Geometry," perhaps the quintessential example of the genre, and contained herein, readily demonstrates. (p. cxlii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975).

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Cement Garden"] is really a kind of extended dream, although there's nothing dreamy about the precision and clarity of the writing. Its narrator, Jack, is a 15-year-old English boy so sunk in self-loathing that there are long stretches when he can't even be bothered to bathe or brush his teeth. Jack's father is a crabbed, oppressive man …; his mother is not much more than a shadow, and their neighborhood is a wasteland of abandoned prefabs. Life here seems smothered, flattened. For Jack, his two sisters and his little brother, the only pleasures are those that erupt beneath a rigid surface: some rather joyless sexual games and a few stolen moments of willful disobedience.

"The Cement Garden" describes the process that steadily isolates these four children, until they're so absolutely alone and so at odds with the rest of the world that there is no way of returning to normal life. First their father dies, and then their mother. The loss of their mother leaves them without relatives; so to avoid being separated they keep her death a secret and bury her in a trunkful of wet cement in the basement. From then on, it's all regression and decay. (p. 11)

In one sense, this is an easy novel to read. The story skims along, and the style is so direct that we have no trouble accepting the fact that it's a 15-year-old speaking. Jack is articulate but never precious; he succeeds all too well in letting us into his numbed,...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Privacy is one of the imaginative poles of a story [The Cement Garden] whose ambiguities tease and fascinate me the more I reflect on it. McEwan's imagination moves between extremes of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, and he offers a series of charged phrases, images and atmospheres which give his story a mythic direction. Both domestic privacy and its opposite—society—are present in the young narrator's observation "I did not wish to be placed outside this intense community of work." They are present again in his father's wish to build "a high wall round his special world" in order to shield his garden from an urban landscape of demolished houses and "vacant sites … lush with weeds and their flowers." Some of the images have an extraordinary power: the derelict cement garden, the gardens of the abandoned prefabs, the fine black dust that blows "from the direction of the tower blocks", and the shovel lying in the centre of a round stain of dried cement "like the hour hand of a big broken clock." Jack thinks of all the "rooms that would one day collapse" and his description of this gutted prefab makes it resemble one of the "desolate places" in Job…. Obsessively, McEwan returns to images of dereliction, arbitrary living-spaces, family and the absence of family, guilt and its absence. In these burnt-out places there is no order—nature is dead, the city is dead, and the world is drained of meaning. What his fiction...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Helen Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The events which take place in Ian McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, are as apparently unnatural, though less gratuitously so, as in most of the stories in First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets. The ten tidy chapters are a chart of ugliness, death, rotting cadavers, incest and perversion. Most family taboos are briskly broken, but, on the part of the narrator at least, there is no relish. (p. 104)

It is the startling combination of everyday banality with the most horrendous acts that gives The Cement Garden its especial flavour.

As has been pointed out more than once, the plot bears a striking resemblance to that in a novel of the fifties by Julien Gloag—though McEwan claims not to have read it—and which was subsequently filmed, but the manner is rather different. The story is told in the first person by the elder boy, a sulkily resentful adolescent whose two conventional sisters seem to be growing up faster than he is…. [The] author maintains a passive stiffness, which is characterized by the grey cement of the title. No-one seems to react adequately in situations which amply provoke a reaction. Their world seems slightly anaesthetized, and it is the reader, whose emotions have not been dulled, who is most affected.

There is never much change inside The Cement Garden. Time passes. The climactic act of incest takes place. But the children...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

First Love, Last Rites [is] possibly the most brilliantly perverse and sinister batch of short stories to come out of England since Angus Wilson's The Wrong Set thirty years ago. Unlike Wilson, McEwan is not concerned with the teeth-baring of vicious little snobberies in an exhausted, class-ridden society; the England of his fiction is beyond all that—a flat, rubble-strewn wasteland, populated by freaks and reclusive monsters, most of them articulate enough to tell their own stories with mesmerizing narrative power and an unfaltering instinct for the perfect sickening detail…. With the exception of one piece ("Solid Geometry"), [the stories] are not really classifiable as examples of latter-day...

(The entire section is 409 words.)