Ian McEwan 1948-
(Full name Ian Russell McEwan) English novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of McEwan's career through 2002. See also Ian McEwan Criticism (Volume 13).
One of the most celebrated British writers to come of age during the 1970s, McEwan emerged onto the literary scene at age twenty-seven with the short story collection First Love, Last Rights (1975). Riddled with graphic depictions of rape, incest, and murder—all rendered in detached, forensically precise first-person narration—First Love, Last Rights and its follow-up, In Between the Sheets (1978), earned McEwan both critical acclaim and scorn for his macabre preoccupations. While his later novels, including The Innocent (1990), Enduring Love (1998), and Amsterdam (1999), display considerable growth in the range and depth of his work, McEwan's prose still focuses heavily on gothic predilections and shocking subject material. McEwan has also written several notable screenplays, which include some of his most pointedly political work, as evident in The Ploughman's Lunch (1983). Although his fiction is generally conventional in terms of narrative structure, McEwan's unique prose style, technical skill, unusual characterizations, and satiric wit have earned him acceptance in both traditional and postmodernist literary circles.
McEwan was born on June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, England. His father, David, was a career Army officer, and McEwan spent most of his childhood years in Singapore and Libya. When he was twelve, McEwan's family returned to England, and he attended a boarding school in Suffolk, where he developed a fondness for English Romantic poetry and modern American and English fiction. He worked briefly in London as a garbage collector before enrolling at the University of Sussex in Brighton, receiving his bachelor's degree in English literature with honors. In 1970 McEwan was accepted into the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where the teaching faculty included novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. After completing his master's degree, McEwan toured Afghanistan and soon began publishing stories in literary magazines. In 1975 McEwan published a selection of short stories he had written for his master's degree under the title First Love, Last Rights, which later received a Somerset Maugham Award. McEwan began writing radio scripts and screenplays and soon had two produced—Conversations with a Cupboardman (1975) was produced for British Broadcasting Company (BBC) radio, and Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration (1976) was produced for BBC television. In 1978 he published a second collection of stories, In Between the Sheets, and his first novel, The Cement Garden. Controversy arose, however, when critics noticed plot similarities between The Cement Garden and Our Mother's House, a 1963 novel by Julian Gloag. McEwan denied having read Gloag's work and no formal charges of plagiarism were filed. McEwan was again the subject of scandal in 1980 when BBC television decided at the last minute to cancel the production of Solid Geometry, a teleplay he adapted from his short story of the same title. The story features a protagonist who keeps a chemically preserved penis in a jar on his desk. Throughout the 1980s, McEwan concentrated primarily on writing screenplays for television and motion pictures, including The Imitation Game, The Ploughman's Lunch, The Last Day of Summer (1984), and Soursweet (1988), as well as the stage play, Strangers (1989). During this period, McEwan also wrote two novels, The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and The Child in Time (1987), which was awarded the Whitbread Award. McEwan married Penny Allen in 1982; the couple would later divorce in 1995. McEwan was on the short-list for the Booker Prize for The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs (1992), and was awarded the Booker for his novel Amsterdam. McEwan published Atonement in 2001, which was also short-listed for the Booker Prize, and later received the W. H. Smith Award.
In McEwan's first two short story collections—First Love, Last Rights and In Between the Sheets—he establishes several of the recurring motifs that would become hallmarks of his fiction, most notably, the exploration of the effects of power and obsession on the human psyche. The eight stories in First Love, Last Rights are primarily concerned with coming-of-age, though within the collection's grim worldview, maturity is tantamount to corruption. In “Homemade,” the protagonist recounts his first sexual experience—the rape of his younger sister. “Butterflies” also centers on a tale of sexual predation, made even more horrifying by the inclusion of a matter-of-fact murder, while “Disguises” tells of an embittered actress who schools a young nephew in debauchery. In Between the Sheets covers similar subject material, but the collection exhibits a more fabulistic, Kafkaesque tone, indulging heavily in black humor. In “Pornography” two nurses plot to castrate a man who has sexually abused them both, and “Reflections of a Kept Ape” centers on a woman who initiates a sexual relationship with a pet monkey—narrated from the point-of-view of the monkey. McEwan uses these specific episodes of violence and cruelty to investigate how obsession can shape human desires. McEwan continued to examine similar themes in his novels, such as The Cement Garden. The novel follows a group of four children who, after the sudden deaths of their parents, decide to live without adult supervision, presenting a scenario that resembles William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The older children try to master the power necessary to fill the adult roles, but ultimately fail, sending the broken family into chaos. The Comfort of Strangers revolves around a married English couple on an ill-fated vacation in Venice. After a seemingly chance encounter, they become involved with a man who has a psychotic thirst for sexual dominance. In the opening pages of The Child in Time, a man discovers that his young daughter is missing. His daughter is never found, and McEwan traces the man's downward spiral into alcoholic infantilism. By making his protagonist a minor government functionary, McEwan is able to work in themes of political as well as emotional helplessness. In The Innocent, the protagonist is an Englishman working in postwar Germany who, after being recruited by the English intelligence service, discovers that as his power over others increases, so does his desire to exercise it.
McEwan revisited postwar continental Europe in Black Dogs, a dense, multilayered story which explores the effects of power on morality. The novel follows a couple whose marriage begins to crumble after an encounter with a pair of feral dogs. The dogs symbolize not only the evil that humans are capable of, but also the extraordinary acts that people can accomplish when confronting such evil. Enduring Love is a darkly comic tale of two men, Joe Rose and Jed Parry, who meet at the site of a hot-air balloon crash. Jed succumbs to an obsessive love for Joe and begins stalking him. Meanwhile, Joe finds it nearly impossible to convince his wife and friends that Jed is obsessed with him. Amsterdam also centers upon a relationship between two men, a composer and a newspaper editor, who, at the funeral of a mutual friend, initiate an euthanasia pact. The complex and comic plot eventually puts the characters at odds, climaxing in Holland where euthanasia can be easily arranged. Atonement recounts the story of a novelist who, in her youth, gave damning testimony that led to a working-class boy's false conviction for rape. Subsequent sections of the novel follow the boy's post-prison experiences during the British retreat from Dunkirk during World War II, and the novelist's experiences as a nurse during the Battle of Britain. While his dramatic works have received considerably less critical attention than his fiction, The Ploughman's Lunch is often noted as one of McEwan's strongest works. Set during the Falkland Islands War of the 1980s, the tale centers on a cynical journalist who is writing a revisionist history of the Suez crisis of the 1950s—one which defends British attempts to retain control of the canal, and thereby the Middle East. By juxtaposing the two crises, McEwan displays how fictional gamesmanship can have very real—and very dire—consequences.
McEwan's preoccupation with disquieting subject matter has garnered him a great deal of public notoriety in England, but it has also polarized the critical assessment of his work. While some critics have maintained that McEwan is a serious literary writer who addresses challenging issues in his work, others have asserted that he is merely a glorified horror writer who is solely concerned with producing gratuitously shocking prose. Despite these disagreements about the topics of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, McEwan has been consistently praised for his storytelling, characterizations, and adept handling of metaphor and symbol. Several reviewers have noted the publication of The Child in Time as the beginning of a more mature stage in McEwan's writing career. These critics have argued that McEwan's novels published after The Child in Time—including Enduring Love and Atonement—focus much more heavily on elements of psychological depth, moral complexity, and political awareness than his earlier works. While many commentators have suggested that McEwan's Booker-winning novel Amsterdam was not his strongest work, most have agreed that McEwan had been long overdue for serious literary recognition. However, a number of reviewers have found McEwan's schematic moral and philosophical oppositions distracting, particularly in Black Dogs, and have complained that his later plot-driven fiction too easily falls prey to the demands of narrative movement. Additionally, several critics have suggested that McEwan abandoned the subversive and experimental elements of his earlier work—as seen in the stories “Reflections of a Kept Ape” and “To and Fro” from In Between the Sheets—to obtain more mainstream acceptance. Although many postmodern critics have maintained that McEwan's later work has not lived up to the promise of his early short stories, McEwan is still often compared to such avant garde authors as Martin Amis and J. G. Ballard.