In Between the Sheets and Other Stories
From the Fifteenth District
Ian McEwan has been recognized as an arresting new talent in the youngest generation of English short story writers. His subject matter is often squalid and sickening; his imagination has a painful preoccupation with the adolescent secrets of sexual aberration and fantasy. But in his accomplishment as a story writer he is an immediate master of styles and structures, his writing transfigures, and he can command variety in subject and feeling. His intellectual resources enable him—and the reader—to open windows in a claustrophobia which otherwise would have left us flinching and no more. Invention, irony, humor, a gift for satirical parody and curiosity give him the artist’s initiative. We do recognize an underworld—for that is what it is—and it is natural that he has evoked an, albeit distant, connection with Beckett and Kafka. His limitation is that his range of felt experience is confined to his love of his disgusts.
Two stories in his new collection, In Between the Sheets, suggest a new direction. I’ll come to those later. The book opens with “Pornography,” which begins as a comical account of what goes on between two brothers in a Soho porn shop where customers are nervously trying to get a free furtive glance at the glossy porn. The elder brother is hysterically trying to make a fortune out of his sexual peep show; the younger is crudely dedicated to cunt. He is itching and smells of “clap” and he is having it off with two nurses on alternate days. So far, obsessive observation of Soho grubbiness, cheap lodgings, filthy baths, sulky macho manners, nasty smells, bad food, cheap drink. Unhappily, Mr. McEwan surrenders to a well-known fantasy from the world of schoolboy smut. When they discover the young man is deceiving and infecting them, the nurses enact the fantasy of the tart who castrates her man. We leave them at this sadistic feast after one of them has raped the young macho, screaming out the war cries of Women’s Lib as she jumps him. The melodrama ruins a story whose strength lay in fact, not fantasy. One simply laughs off the schoolboy legend.
In “Reflections of a Kept Ape” McEwan is more subtle. It is a droll tale. A pet monkey has been briefly seduced by a young woman who has written a bestseller, and in his eager, lonely, animal way he tells the story of a lust that has faded. Surely his gibbering, his nit-catching, the fact that the affair has given her thrush and the itch, are not enough to justify the refusal of tenderness and love? From Cervantes to Kafka, now how many writers have tried the puzzled reflections of animals, though not their greedy sexuality; here we notice the change of prose style and especially the notes on the deceits of art. These will recur in McEwan’s work.
The ape reflects on the girl’s frantic virginal typing of her difficult next book:
Was art then nothing more than a wish to appear busy? Was it…
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