In The Pornographer, John McGahern tells the story of one man’s encounter with the duplicitous moral nature of the world. This man, the novel’s narrator and eponym, is at once cynical and naive: He desires that his emotional life possess an uncomplicated simplicity and directness which every aspect of his emotional experience teaches him is impossible. Much of the novel’s skill is devoted to a cumulative and rather merciless detailing of the combination of blindness and insight which makes up the narrator’s moral position. The more his insights fuel his hunger for simplicity, the more he finds himself trapped in the situation which refuses to be simplified.
This situation is itself one of stark simplicity. Pleased by the quality of his sexual relations with Josephine, whom he has casually picked up at a dance, the narrator soon finds that Josephine is pregnant. Despite the narrator’s obdurate and repeated refusals to meet the situation with traditional, respectable solutions, Josephine naively keeps hoping for the best, even to the extent of jettisoning her Dublin business career and emigrating to England. Even the arrival of the child means nothing to its hard-hearted father, however, and in any case, by this time he has found another girl whom he prefers. Josephine is left to drift out of his life.
The bleakness of this tale, persuasively communicated by McGahern’s typically spare and intense style, is offset by the other major claim on the narrator’s emotional energy: his dying aunt....
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