Adam Mars-Jones, writing on Ian McEwan after the publication of McEwan's The Child in Time, said, "however much the world has changed around Ian McEwan in the years since he started writing, it seems fair to say that he has changed more. In his early stories the only rule seemed to be that it should not take place, within marital commitment and reproductive intent, within a fertile cleft - and the further removed it was from that situation the more it seemed to interest him." Critics understandably nicknamed him Ian Macabre, with the brilliance of his early stories appearing to lie in the capacity to combine depravity with innocence, and in an image structure that captured fragile terror. McEwan may now be a Booker regular mentioned in the same stale breath as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift and others, but he originally seemed the writer most capable of mystery. Christopher Hitchens, in a piece in Vanity Fair, would talk about how in the mid-to-late seventies McEwan was an intermittent member of his gang, often drifting in and out of the milieu, off interviewing writers like Milan Kundera, or hanging out with hippies. Like those early stories it was as though McEwan couldn't quite be pinned down, that he was one of those writers who (like Peter Handke, Roberto Bolano, and Raymond Carver), gave the impression of having no fixed abode; that the mystery in the writing was emanating from the mysteriously unlocatable figure writing it.
Many would insist late McEwan is the opposite: someone who is now rooted in writing novels that are well-researched and well-written, with full access to the British Library and friends well-established in their professions. Saturday, for example, was written with the expert advice of brain surgeons; Enduring Love acknowledges in the appendix the significance of certain research papers on Erotomania. No matter if McEwan later announced the citations were fictitious, the joke might seem to be on him: they suggest a novelist less using the powers of his perverse imagination than distilling accounts from learned journals. The book still feels researched. The New York Times' reviewer may have been wrong in fact as he assumed they were real references, but right in sensibility: in thinking that there was a scientific tone to the book. Early McEwan seemed more provocatively to be opening up pathways into abnormal psychology. The mysteriousness of the mind in the stories in First Love, Last Rites (and also In Between the Sheets) became the more predictable neurosurgery of Saturday; pathological case study in Enduring Love. Perhaps such criticisms are too harsh, but the early work, as Mars-Jones notes, appears very different.
It is on his first collection First Love, Last Rites that we want to concentrate, and especially McEwan's capacity for creating images that can convey both longing and perversity, tenderness and disturbance. In 'Homemade', McEwan takes a hormonally-charged teenager looking to release his sexual frustrations and enter the world of adulthood, but in such a manner that the sexuality is perverse and the rite of passage distressingly misaligned. He manages to lose his virginity but does so by abusing his sister. The first person narrator puts things into perspective, after the deed, but the action can hardly be undone; and nor would he want it to be. "This may have been one of the most desolate couplings known to copulating mankind, involving lies, deceit, humiliation, incest, my partner falling asleep, my gnat's orgasm and the sobbing which now filled the bedroom, but I was pleased with it..."
By placing us within the narrative perspective of the nave, McEwan here allows little room for indignation. The act of child abuse is committed by a boy who is not much more than a child, and the writer achieves the macabre and not the indignant; the emotionally comprehensible over the morally reassuring. When Hitchens says in the Vanity Fair piece that McEwan had the astonishing capacity to enter a young person's mindset, it lies in a combination of defamiliarisation and a certain unreliability of narration. Yet the defamiliarisation is not pushed to the further extremes of Brechtian distancing, where the story would become a text self-reflexively aware, nor in radical metaphor and simile, where the richness of the language draws attention to itself evident, for example, in the famous opening line to be found in Nabokov's Lolita. The unreliability of the narrator, meanwhile, is not a hermeneutics of absence, a la Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, where we make sense of the gaps the narrator is too blind to see, but a necessarily limited point of view, made slightly more limited by the youthfulness of the characters. In the passage quoted above from 'Homemade', the narrator has a clear comprehension of the event; what is missing is the moral overview that determines the event as a rape. Instead, it is presented as a messy conquest. The narrator isn't so deluded that he is aggrandized by taking his sister's virginity, but he is happy to have lost his own.
But how does the image structure we've alluded to help create McEwan's macabre world? Here are a few observations from 'Homemade'. "Where others of our age picked their noses over their stamp collections...", "...cunts, bits, skirt, of stroking, beatings, fuckings, suckings, of arses and tits, behind, above, below, in front, with, without, of scratching and tearing, licking and shitting, of juiced cunts streaming, warm and infinite...", "her wobbling girth and laughing piggy's eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, teaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh...", "...of pricks old and limp, or young and ebullient, of coming too soon, too late, or not at all, of how many times a day, of attendant diseases, of pus and swellings, cankers and regrets..." This is a form of substance abuse, with McEwan using the body's fluids and loose flesh to create a decadent world without moral bearings. The combination of a youthful perspective and the details that the youths observe make the stories claustrophobic examinations of times past remembered, but recalled not in tranquillity, but in an agitated corporealism.
The two stories that most completely bring together the corporeal present and the evocative sense of past event are 'Last Day of Summer' and 'First Love, Last Rites'. In each, the image structure, often as rancidly vivid as in 'Homemade', serves a more textured sense of self, as though McEwan has managed to bring together the active observer and the reflectiveness of the melancholic without contextualising the story to the point that hindsight and moral assertion take over.
'Last Day of Summer', where a boy has lost his parents and now lives in the house with his brother and various friends, is clearly in the present tense: "I am twelve and lying near-naked on my belly out on the back lawn in the sun" But McEwan manages to give to the present the sense of time passing that creates the tone of evocation and not simply description. To evoke and to describe are not always one and the same; with McEwan not so much describing the present as evoking it. If one thinks of a book like Mike Stocks' White Man Falling, we can see the different use of the present tense. Both writers are writing in the present, but while Stocks' third-person narrator remains in it, securing the characters to their moment in time and space, McEwan hints at a tense beyond that moment. Here is Stocks opening chapter eight of his book. "Leela is lying on the cool cement floor on the living area, on her side, with her head in Pushap's lap. She has stopped crying. They watch TV listlessly, some 1970 film in which super VVIP film star M. G. Ramachandran - later to be Chief minister of Tamil Nadu - is fighting dozens of assailants simultaneously...Pushpa is stroking Leela's hair as she watches and occasionally insulting her younger sister with an affectionate "you big baby!"" Here is McEwan's narrator describing a meal. "I can't think of anything to say. In fact, no one has anything to say this meal, they're all just pushing their knives and forks backwards and forwards over their plates, and now and then someone murmurs for something to be passed. It doesn't usually happen like this when we're eating, there's usually something going on."
McEwan utilises vagueness to achieve evocation over description, so though the tense is the present and the child twelve, hovering over it is a sense of time passing instead of events simply detailed. Later in the story, the narrator says: "Suddenly the summer is over. Jenny comes into my room early one morning to drag the sheets off my bed and the clothes she can find in the room. Everything has to be washed before I go to school." He adds, "Then she gets me to clean out my room, all the old comics and plates and cups which have been collecting under my bed all summer, all the dust and the pots of paint I've been using on my boat."
McEwan's figures may not be especially reliable narrators, but they're not particularly unreliable either. They seem figures caught up in the flux of time, partial in their perceptions, but mature in their observations, aware so often it seems of time in front of them that gives the story flashes of time past. Someone might argue that such an approach indicates failure of characterisation; that McEwan is both inside and outside the narrator's point of view rather like an American star that hasn't quite mastered his English accent, and is both character and actor. But McEwan effects a fascinating duality here that most writers would understandably resolve through putting the story in the past tense, with the narrator recollecting from a mature distance. Now though, as we've noted, Hitchens insisted that McEwan had an astonishing ability to return to the mindset of youth, one could argue the real strength resides in a return that is also a recollection, but that the story never leaves the present tense, even if the melancholy that surrounds it indicates it has. In 'Last Day of Summer' Jenny is a very large young woman living in the house with various others, and takes over the mothering duties. At one moment the narrator describes her thus: "she spends a lot of her time in the kitchen and that's where she does most of her singing. Somehow she makes more space in there. She scrapes paint off the north window to let in more light." It is that somehow doing so much of the work, taking the story out of the immediacy of detail and giving it a broader quality.
If McEwan manages to offer observations that evoke rather than describe, that contain the descriptive moment within an elegiac sense, then what makes his work especially interesting is that the image structure he utilises would seem to indicate immediate images rather than reflective ones. A reflective image is one that allows for or demands the contemplative, the sort of image that does not ask for immediacy of reaction but the capacity for reflection. Such images would include sunsets, landscapes, gardens, architecture, paintings etc. A writer might create this reflective mood even in the present tense by having characters watching the sun setting. But what if the writer tries to achieve reflection out of immediate images: like the brother raping the sister in 'Homemade', like the conclusion to 'Last Day of Summer', where the boat capsizes and Jenny and a friend's baby drown in the water, or in 'First Love, Last Rites', where the narrator kills a rat? "A faint smell crept across the room, musty and intimate, like the smell of Sissel's monthly blood. Then Adrian farted and giggled from his held-back fear, his human smell mingled with the wide-open rat smell. I stood over the rat and prodded it gently with the poker. It rolled on its side, and from the mighty gash which ran its belly's length there obtruded and slid partially free from the lower abdomen a translucent purple bag, and inside five pale crouching shapes, their knees drawn up around their chins."
Strong images are described not with adrenalized breathlessness but a calm disinterest, as though feelings have become detached from the intensity of description. The image structure is hot but the narrative voice cold. In a story like 'Solid Geometry' it gives the tale a horrible, low key misogynist irony as McEwan plays with the idea that one might wish for one's girlfriend to disappear, and the narrator does exactly that to her by the end of the story. Based on certain experiments by a relative in the past, the narrator masters the capacity to make things vanish. First, he tries it with a piece of paper, and then, at the end of the story, with his partner. "'Oh God'", she sighed, 'what's happening?' and her voice sounded very far away. Then she was gone...and not gone. Her voice was quite tiny. 'What's happening?' and all that remained was the echo of her question above the deep-blue sheets." Here there is no horror, merely the quizzical - the narrator's casual sense of surprise at the success of his experiment.
There is a curiously scientific side to McEwan in these early stories, an observation born out by his own interest in science evident for example in a filmed conversation he would later have with the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and numerous comments in interviews about the significance of science. In Salon magazine he says that the achievements of Cervantes and Shakespeare are easily matched by those of scientists. He also insists that he often reads books on science, and clearly, its influence can be found in novels like Saturday, Enduring Love and Solar. However, we have also said more recent McEwan is very different from early McEwan. One senses in the stories that the writer was putting life under the microscope, not so much drawing on science but involved in the humanly experimental. While Enduring Love concludes with some twenty references to the social sciences in the appendix, albeit made up, the stories in First Love, Last Rites rely on problematic, writerly instincts: the musing over certain psychic states and responses to events.
This is not at all to draw too clear a line between early McEwan and the later one. There are scenes in Atonement viewed from the point of view of Briony that share some of early McEwan's interest in burgeoning emotional states that aren't quite explicable. Enduring Love details brilliantly a man falling from a balloon, and also the response of one figure to the events. "Clarissa's tears were no more than a fact, but I was pleased by the way my feet were anchored to the ground and set well apart, and the way my arms were folded across my chest. I looked out across the fields and the thought scrolled across: that man is dead." In interviews, McEwan has said that "he wanted to write a first chapter that would be the equivalent of a highly addictive drug"; yet the passage we've quoted shares similarities with early McEwan: the sense of hot events and cold observation.
In A Scotland on Sunday interview called 'First Love, Last Writes', Catherine Deveney believed McEwan's "cool and clinical style" is "hewn painfully, chip by chip, from granite", while McEwan reckons, "My own wariness of language was very much drawn from my mother. She always had a weird problematic relationship with language. I could never quite trust language, because I thought it might not do what I wanted it to do." We needn't be overly biographical about this. One reason why McEwan's early work is of interest is that it shares with much great writing of the last hundred years a distrust in language while of course unavoidably using it as the means of expression. In The World and the Book Gabriel Josipovici says that the question "all the great modern writers have struggled with [is]: why write at all?", mentioning Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot talks of l'space littraire, where 'the private signatures' of modern writers have been filtered through the public language, and we might say that each great writer must wrestle from the public a private language of their own. Though McEwan may mention his distrust of language autobiographically, it is part of a broader creative one; how to make it singular and distinct?
McEwan's distrust in First Love Last Rites, shows itself in the sort of rich description that indicates mastery of language, but also the tonal aloofness that makes us wonder how completely we should trust the language used. It is partly why we've proposed that unreliability of narration isn't McEwan's aim in the stories. Isn't it implausible that a twelve-year-old boy would be capable of such impressive language in 'Last Day of Summer', a problem that could easily have been resolved by using the past tense, or for that matter third-person narration? Yet defamiliarisation can take many forms, and while some writers move in the direction of what we might call defamiliarised trust, the sort of brilliantly vivid language of Nabokov or Joyce, can we not also have defamiliarised distrust? When Nabokov says "the elms and the poplars were turning their ruffled backs to a sudden onslaught of wind..." or Joyce that "the swift December dusk had come tumbling clownishly after its dull day", this is familiar defamiliarisation: it is, basically, skilful use of pathetic fallacy - giving human feelings to the natural world. One has such faith in language that we admire the manner in which a writer has evoked nature through it.
If one feels McEwan is less interesting now than he happened to be as a young man, this might seem paradoxical: doesn't a writer develop and grow, and in McEwan's case move from the story to the novel, from sketching ideas to developing them fully in novel form? Yet one senses that McEwan's problem with distrust, and the problematic this set him, is much more prominently explored in the short fiction than novels like Saturday, Enduring Love and Atonement, all of which fall back not only on trust in the word but also faith in plot mechanics. Saturday is an intruder in the house book, with an upper-middle-class family confronted by gangsters. Enduring Love utilises the stalker genre, while Atonementuses a character falsely accused of rape to keep lovers apart. Not only language but narrative feels homogenised, standardised and functional, however brilliant.
In First Love, Last Rites the stories have mystery, as though they're not interested in creating plot but hypothesising feeling. McEwan says that his early work "presented a fraction of what I was thinking about at the time", and that he believes "I think it was Kinsley Amis who said no one can write 250 words of prose without revealing something about themselves". It is as if however, taking into account Blanchot's comment, the early work created the literary space - space between private thought and public language - while more recent McEwan has become too readily and comfortably ensconced in the public domain. These early stories could be nicely summarized by a few lines from one of them, 'Conversation with the Cupboard Man': "How did I become an adult? I'll tell you, I never did learn. I have to pretend. All the things you take for granted I have to do it all consciously." There is something in that early prose, evoking rather than describing, distrusting rather than trusting, and combining hot images with cold observation, that made McEwan horribly singular and undeniably earning the macabre moniker for which he was once well known.
© Tony McKibbin