First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan
Taking another of my occasional forays outside of genre fiction, I followed the recommendation of a friend and gave First Love, Last Rites a go, the first publication of the renowned English author Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of the most respected writers in the English language of the last 50 years, so I was likely destined to come across him eventually. First Love, Last Rites is an interesting collection, containing possibly the most shocking and appalling scenes of depravity which I’ve ever read. I’d thought myself beyond being shocked, but Ian McEwan only went right ahead and did it. Seriously, this collection makes Blasted by Sarah Kane look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As I did with China Miéville’s Looking for Jake short story collection, I’ll briefly look at each story and give my thoughts.
The first story of the collection is also the most disturbing. McEwan’s unnamed narrator is a teenaged young man, schooled in depravity by an older friend, and has become fixated with the loss of his virginity. In a dispassionate and callous narrative, the narrator has sex with his ten year old sister in an unbearably graphic conclusion which affected me with a visceral horror. Now, it’s important to break taboos. In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the primary purposes of art. However, there must, must, always be a point to this. To do otherwise is simple nihilism, a world view which I consider abhorrent and I feel entirely unsympathetic to. I’m not convinced that McEwan is saying anything of substance here, that he isn’t simply setting out to shock; it must be taken into account that this story is the first story in McEwan’s first published work, and therefore the first that many in the literary establishment would have encountered of him. Perhaps this story is a statement of defiance, an aggressive posturing to say that ‘no, I will not write the way you want me to’, but it doesn’t stop this story from being an utterly miserable, lurid little mess which negatively colours the entire collection.
Happily, following my least favourite story in the collection came my favourite. ‘Solid Geometry’ is also told in the first person, and not from the point of view of a child as most of the stories in the collection are. The narrator is editing the diaries of his great-grandfather, and has become obsessed with them, and the mystery of the vanishing of ‘M’, an enigmatic figure who played a key role in the diaries. This obsession has come at the cost of his relationship with his wife Maisie, a rather pitiful and pathetic figure for whom her husband feels nothing but contempt. In his journey through the diaries, the narrator encounters the story of the discovery of a ‘plane without a surface’, a geometrical impossibility, which McEwan imbues with a palpably sinister energy. This story fundamentally unsettled me, and I found frightening in a way which actual ‘horror’ novels rarely achieve for me. Something about this story truly upset me, and bothered me on a profound level, precisely the reaction I suspect that McEwan was going for. He doesn’t do so through simply shock value as he does in ‘Homemade’, but through some incredibly clever writing and story development. If you only read one story from First Love, Last Rites, that story should be ‘Solid Geometry.’
Last Day of Summer
This story is an odd one, and one of the few lacking in overt sexual themes. Instead, we have a story which feels the most ‘respectable’ in the collection. ‘Last Day of Summer’ is the story of a young orphan, who lives with his brother in a sort of commune. Jenny, an obese and anxious young woman, joins the members of the commune, and over the course of a summer becomes something of a surrogate mother figure to our narrator and Alice, the daughter of a young woman whose priorities lie with her own social life rather than her child. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one, but it certainly is beautifully written. McEwan may be most interested in portrayal of depravity and perversion in First Love, Last Rites, but he does a good job conveying a beautiful nostalgia for an English summer.
Cocker at the Theatre
This story is very much the oddball of the collection, a very short little vignette set in a theatre. The show is a bawdy pornographic production, in which pairs of naked dancers simulate sex to raunchy music. Much to the horror of the director and choreographer, one couple aren’t simulating. I wasn’t quite sure why this story was included in the collection; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’ it still fits thematically with the rest, and this one really doesn’t; it’s quite baffling really. That said, it’s quite funny and good for a couple of giggles, a pleasant respite from the sinister horror which bookends it.
‘Butterflies’ deals with themes as disturbing as those in ‘Homemade’, but in a much more successful manner. Our narrator this time is a lonely, isolated man with a strange physical deformity, an outcast. He’s not a child in body, but in many ways he is one in mind. Our narrator is the last witness to the drowning of a young girl in a canal, and it’s not difficult to predict that there’s more to this event than what he claims to the police. The real horror of this story is the sympathy we are invited to feel for our protagonist, we empathise with his loneliness and wish him to find happiness. The revelation of the terrible crimes that our narrator has committed sits very uncomfortably with our earlier sympathy, in a profoundly disturbing insight into the mind of an extremely damaged individual.
Conversation with a Cupboard Man
This was probably my second favourite story after ‘Solid Geometry.’ It shies away from the depraved sexuality of the other stories, instead focusing upon cruelty and horror of a different sort. Our narrator is a young man who had been kept until the age of 18 at the developmental stage of an infant, by a truly disturbed mother. Although not actually mentally impaired, our narrator might as well have been, stuck with the temperament of a two year old for most of his life. Upon getting a new boyfriend, our narrator is kicked out of the house, and soon has to fend for himself in a world he is woefully unprepared for. It’s a fascinating, and horrifying idea, and more so than any other story in this collection it could be fleshed out to make a great full novel. The brevity of this story is actually a bit of a shame, I’d have loved to follow this character more, but what we do have is a highly interesting story, with a rather heartbreaking protagonist, clearly highly intelligent, yet entirely incapable of escaping the damage done to him.
First Love, Last Rites
The title story of this collection is an odd one; it’s definitely not one of the more interesting stories, but McEwan must have been particularly fond of it to name the collection after it. This story is of a young man living with his girlfriend, Sissel, spending most of their time loafing around and having sex. Sissel and our narrator are regularly visited by Sissel’s brother Adrian, a precocious little sod fleeing his broken home. Behind their wall, Sissel and our narrator have been hearing an odd scratching noise. I found it really hard to get to grips with this story; as much as I hated ‘Homemade’, it at least provoked a reaction from me, but this didn’t really give me anything. Perhaps a closer reading is in order, but I don’t necessarily have the inclination to do so; I’m far from certain that it would be worth my time.
The final story of the collection is another oddball; it is not told in the first person as in the others, which creates an odd sense of detachment from everything, quite unlike the horrific throwing into the midst and internal torrent that defines the rest of the collection. ‘Disguises’ follows a young boy named Henry, who has been adopted by his aunt following the death of his mother. Aunt Mina is an actress, perhaps once talented but now doing little more than television ads. She is also pretty much entirely insane. Every evening she dresses herself and Henry in strange costumes and role plays; Henry is acquiesces to this, until he is forced into cross dressing. This is another story about sexual awakening, but of a gentler sort to that seen in ‘Homemade’. Henry’s first stirrings of lust for a girl in his class is presented in a rather sweet way, as actually perfectly natural and healthy. Henry’s sexual identity seems to be doing fine on its own; it is the outside influence of Mina which threatens to complicate matters. Perhaps, after all of the horror which we have witnessed in this collection, McEwan is revealing that the innocence of children is not a lie, that this corruption is external, not internal. Henry is a victim. So is the Cupboard Man. In a twisted way, the rapist/murderer protagonist of ‘Butterflies’ is a victim too.
First Love, Last Rites is an uneven collection, but that said there are very few short story collections out there without their fair share of misses alongside the hits. ‘Solid Geometry’ and ‘Conversation with a Cupboard Man’ are excellent, and worth the price of entry alone, but that’s not to say that there isn’t anything else of value here. This is a very dark collection, profoundly disturbing and upsetting to read, but it has nonetheless piqued my interest in McEwan.