"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 13, 2012

"First Love, Last Rites" & "Between the Sheets" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan started writing in the 1970s and his first two books were collections of short stories: "First Love, Last Rites" (1972) and "Between the Sheets" (1978). One glance - even at the titles of the individual stories - suffices to show that these sinister and perverse stories are rather different from McEwan's later work, such as the celebrated novel Atonement. The only thing they share is the controlled, elegant and precise language, one of the reasons I admire McEwan's books so much. But as content goes, these  fifteen stories are utterly weird and disturbing, full of freaks and monsters who tell about their misdeeds in sickening detail. The stories are also quite varied in nature. McEwan has said that these early tales were a sort of laboratory for him, allowing him to try out different things, to discover himself as a writer.

The protagonists of the stories are often isolated, sexually-deviant males. The first story in the first collection ("Homemade") is about a young teenager who tricks his little sister into incest. The sexual initiation strikes the precocious adolescent boy as comical rather than anything else, in what is perhaps a nod towards Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

More evil is the protagonist in "Butterflies:" a lonely and misshapen man (a dwarf) meets a little girl on a deserted path along a canal, befriends her but panics after he touches her, and ends up drowning her in the waters. The deed is terrible, but so is his realization of lifelong solitude. McEwan deftly tricks the reader into an improbable sympathy with the outcast.

In “Pornography,” a man who is the owner of a porno shop leads a despicable life: he is sleeping with two different nurses, passing on a venereal disease to both. When the women by chance meet each other, they decide to take revenge by applying their clinical skills with brutal efficiency, acting out their fantasies in a scene that is even more violent than the most awful BDSM books the man sold in his shop.

There are also comical stories, although the situations remain weird. In "Solid Geometry" a man reads the diaries of his great-grandfather in which a "geometrical" method is described to make people disappear into another dimension. As his wife has started to disgust him, he tries it out on her, with great success. In "Reflections of a Kept Ape" the narrator hangs on kitchen cabinets and behaves not really human, although he has a relation with the woman, a writer, with whom he lives. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the story is told by an ape. In "Dead as They Come" a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair, as he fears this stunning beauty can't be faithful to him. And that, while the "mistress" is a mannequin, acquired from a shop window...

McEwan dissects his characters as in a laboratory. Reading these dark, experimental stories almost feels like an act of voyeurism. But here also lies the kernel of McEwan's authorship, allowing readers of McEwan's books to understand how he has evolved as a writer. And certain elements, such as the dark humor McEwan finds in human foibles, are a constant in his work - take, for example, On Chesil Beach.

[Photo from Wikipedia]

8 out of 10 points. Published by Vintage Books. Ian McEwan website; official blog. Profile in The Guardian. Article in The New Yorker. Paris Review.