It’s got to count for something when the most upbeat story in your first published book is called “Cocker At The Theatre” and tells about the staging of a pornographic play during which one of the ‘actors’ suddenly starts doing it for real. Much to the dismay and amazement of the director. This is a breath of fresh air (or you might call it laughing gas) that you should cherish. Because moments later you are once again dragged into bizarre lives and incidents involving perverts, lesbians and cupboard men. All to be featured in the disturbed and disturbing world of McEwan’s novels.
McEwan’s first short story collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), is clearly an apprentice job (finding his voice, perfecting his craft, establishing his identity – that sort of thing), but you wouldn’t dare call it humble beginnings. ‘Humble’ would be the wrong word. It’s outré, it’s bold, it’s risqué, and it’s dead serious. That might be the thing about McEwan, one that so discretely separates him from that other conspicuous exponent of his generation (as well as his friend), Martin Amis. Sex doesn’t take farcical, grotesque proportions in his prose (like it does in Amis’s writing): instead, it’s depressing, painful and inescapably real.
“Homemade” opens this collection, and it tells you exactly what to expect. It’s a coming-of-age story with a characteristically warped edge to it, its incestuous climax a direct precursor of McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden. It’s powerful and unforgettable, and the unlikely happy, even triumphant ending will surely leave a sickly taste in your mouth. It was meant that way.
McEwan doesn’t mind getting surreal on occasion, and whereas in “Solid Geometry” it comes courtesy of a supernatural, somewhat Kafka-esque twist, in “Disguises” it’s that quizzical, elusive atmosphere of the last few pages. Otherwise, First Love, Last Rites is our very real world blown off to its most marginalized, morose, despicable proportions.
For me, the most striking stories are “Last Day In Summer” and “Butterflies” (largely due to the sticky shock value). For all its undercurrent nerve, the former might look like one of McEwan’s brighter, lovelier, more romantic stories – but then of course, you knew it all along: it’s not going to be, it’s just not going to be. “Ian Macabre” was his nickname, and it wasn’t given for nothing. As for "Butterflies", it is McEwan at his most disturbing and engrossing. It’s a story of a pervert (who doesn’t know he is a pervert, up to a point) and a little girl (who wants to see butterflies, also up to a point). It’s depressing and disgusting, all the more so because it also happens to be so simple and so mundane.
Dysfunctional families, bleeding rats, paedophilia – it’s all in there. It’s all on the outskirts of your favourite town. You don’t want to see it, you don’t want to hear a word of it, and you only read it because it is written so masterfully and with such an intelligent, if grim, insight.
In Between The Sheets (1978) was published three years later, and it finds McEwan deep in that very same area. It’s the same edgy subject matter, same writing style, same mood, similar characters, but it is also evident that there is a certain drop in consistency here that results in a couple of confused stories that I will get to in a minute.
As if First Love, Last Rites wasn’t shocking enough, In Between The Sheets spices things up even more, this time with midgets and zoophilia. I’m only mentioning the details because at some point you start having a distinct impression that if you take them out, those sick details, some of McEwan’s short stories would be reduced to almost nothing. It may be his dark artistic vision, but it also seems that he is sometimes macabre for the sake of being macabre. (Not that the book is not enjoyable in its disgusting, odd, twisted way.)
So what’s good? Well, “Pornography” is good, telling of a pornographer who is dating two women simultaneously. Both women are nurses working at the same hospital, and when they learn of his venereal disease (which he may have passed on to them), they know exactly what to do about that. It’s a twist-in-the-tail story, McEwan-style. Another favourite would be ‘Dead As They Come” about a successful businessman who falls in love with a mannequin. The story has an intricate, intriguing buildup, and gives McEwan a great opportunity to express the ordinary in what is essentially perverted and completely ludicrous.
However, some of these stories are just plain weak. “To And Fro” is a surreal collage that is neither comprehensible nor engaging. In fact, the only good thing about it is that it is too brief to become annoying. “Two Fragments” is futuristic and intriguing, but is still what it says: two fragments. The closing “Psychopolis” is well-written but meandering. It threatens to be great in places, and offers a couple of strong leads and ideas, but the overall impression remains very fuzzy and vague.
McEwan’s fans should not be disappointed, but I’d recommend starting with First Love. Still, In Between The Sheets is filled with what McEwan does best: he discloses things about your nature you never wanted to know, he drags out those black dogs from the deepest reaches of your subconscious and imagination. And however intimidating that might sound, it is a most unforgettable experience.