THE MORAL of the STORY: A DUET (A REVIEW of a STORY and an ERA)
A few weeks ago, a short story, by Ian McEwan, appeared in the New Yorker. The short story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. The short story concerns a boy, Roland, in an English boarding school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Roland’s “now,” in the short story, is him at the age of 14, as the Cuban Missile Crisis is being followed, by the papers, and read about, with exhiliration shading into terror, by the boys in the boarding school. The Cuban Missile Crisis backdrops a major development in Roland’s adolescence: a music teacher made flirty overtures when he was 11, inviting him to a lunch he was too frightened to attend. This teacher is still available when Roland gathers the horny courage to ride his bike to her cottage, and knock on her door, two or three years later. Roland knocks on the door motivated not, chiefly, by hormones but the fear of dying, in nuclear warfare, as a virgin. The title of this short story/ excerpt is A Duet. A Duet is 32 pages long.
The introductory paragraph of the story reads:
“Berners, like most schools, was held together by a hierarchy of privileges, infinitesimally graded and slowly bestowed over the years. It made the older boys conservative guardians of the existing order, jealous of the rights they had earned with such patience. Why bestow new-fashioned favors on the youngest when they themselves had tolerated privations to earn the perks of greater maturity? It was a long, hard course. The youngest, the first- and-second-years, were the paupers and had nothing at all. Third formers were allowed long trousers and a tie with diagonal, rather than horizontal, stripes. The fourth-years had their own common room. The fifth exchanged their gray shirts for drip-dry white, which they scrubbed in the showers and draped on plastic hangers. They also had a superior blue tie.”
The overarching theme of the story would appear to be sexual politics/ ethics but the introductory paragraph, of this introductory story, seems to be a metaphor for class (or its finicky shibboleths), McEwan’s favorite overarching theme. The phrase “infinitesimally graded,” from the first sentence of the story, could have come from McEwan’s novel “On Chesil Beach,” with Chesil Beach, the place, being McEwan’s tidy metaphor for class.
“He had read aloud to Florence from a guidebook that said that thousands of years of pounding storms had sifted and graded the size of pebbles along the eighteen miles of beach, with the bigger stones at the eastern end. The legend was that local fishermen landing at night knew exactly where they were by the grade of shingle.”
Infinitesimal gradings of hierarchy, power, privilege, status, intelligence, beauty, talent and sanity are the subtle numbers assigned to hapless characters in the mercilessly moral ledgers that are McEwan’s novels. The lower classes never come off well, in McEwan, made foolish, or revealed as psychotic, in their batshit strivings. Because A Duet is an introductory story from a novel (Lessons) that isn’t out yet, and the short story is scant on biographical details for its lead characters, I can’t yet tell how class is already deforming the action in A Duet. Because I was an avid reader, of pre-decline McEwan (back when he was “Ian Macabre”), however, the shortcomings of this story (which I think of as a trailer), however good the novel may turn out to be, are not mysterious.
The blatant shortcomings of A Duet are, in part, a hybrid function of the bizarre conventions of our era (the 2020s, if anyone is reading this gripe in 3000 AD) and matters of technique. The story is a catalogue of faltering technique and unconvincing observations, as lots of little off-notes accrue to scuttle the story’s force as any attempt at providing a lived illusion. A length of 32 pages entails technical requirements (having to do with the reader’s investment) which much shorter stories are free (even sometimes required) to skirt. After an investment of 32 pages of reading, the author, I feel, owes me the complimentary memento of some lingeringly idiosyncratic phrase, sensation, striking image… something. After reading DeLillo’s stand-alone intro to Underworld, I’m still left with the Sinatra character referring to the J. Edgar Hoover character as “Jedgar” (and I can still hear it in Sinatra’s actual voice), I’m left with memories of the segregationist blanket draped between White and Colored radio broadcasters at the ballgame, I’m still left with Jackie Gleason’s expressive organic flannel pajamas and so on.
I tend to enjoy reading stories that don’t trip me up on my mission to conspire with the author to temporarily delude myself that the protag’s wants, needs, experiences are my own or that the book’s themes are pressing. It seems that McEwan blew his allotment of “verisimilitude,” in this story, on the description of Roland’s boarding school, leaving very little particularizing detail, or Realism, for the description of the sexual attributes/ abilities of a 14-year-old boy, or the natural dynamic between an experienced woman and such a boy.
Hobbling the “verisimilitude,” too, is McEwan’s chronically lazy expedient of making the principle duo in this narrative so camera-ready: Miriam is unusually beautiful (as ever, with McEwan’s female leads) and Roland (who I keep wanting to call “Kevin” because I can’t stop thinking of the unfortunate ginger, seduced by Amanda Donohoe, in “Lair of the White Worm”) just happens to be acne-free, as McEwan makes sure to notify us, on the big day. Luck was with our Kev! Well, it wouldn’t feel so cheesy if one wasn’t aware that almost all novels are written as treatments for prospective screenplays, these days. The better, stronger, crueller McEwan of the 1990s would have given our Kev a bleeding zit on his forehead, at least, to add some animal texture to the High Concept premise and spoil the Hollywoodisms with rich rude (verisimilitudinous) Life.
To return to the technique- external problem of the ” bizarre conventions of our era” I mention: McEwan wraps up the 32-page trailer, after several very thinly-reported bouts of fucking, with a dolorously prophetic and flatteningly voice-over-ish “But now, here at the sunlit lunch table, many layers below his outward decorum, and barely available to the ignorant boy, was a mere suspicion that he had been cheated of something”. That just feels awfully dashed-off, doesn’t it? The way voice-overs are often added, after a poor test-screening, in an attempt to “fix” a confusing movie script. McEwan wants to hammer home the point his story really doesn’t actually seem to be making. Was it the point he started with?
The character of Roland has just had his brains fucked out by a beauty, of McEwan’s design, who is clever enough to be using birth control: out of what, exactly, has he been cheated? A pregnancy scare with a(n) (“appropriate”) girl his age? A forced marriage to such a girl his age? The guilt of a botched abortion? A disposable practise-romance and an awkward break-up? Histrionics? Retroactively disenchanted accusations of rape? One can only hope that that the rest of the novel reveals that Miriam was enough of a psycho (or a member of the low-enough classes*) to justify the anxiety-inducing foreshadowing of that cited sentence. Because the mere fact, of the several thorough acts of coition, preceding that cited sentence, doesn’t seem to justify it. Unless, of course, we’re all wearing our 2020s “Sexual Abuse” goggles. Which grim reality McEwan drives home when he drops the concerning word du jour, in an interview, accompanying the story, which I attach at the end of this review: “grooming”.
Could Ian chase Twitterian approval any more shamelessly?
There was lots of talk regarding the modern vice of “Presentism,” back in c. 2010, though that wasn’t the term for it then. I can’t remember if there was a term for it, back then, other than something like “Moral Anachronism”. The concept was usually invoked when some Libertine was defending, say, Gilles De Rais from accusations of, say, age-ism. Or: Was Hitchcock’s Psycho homophobic? No! You can’t judge Norman Bates by modern standards… and so on.
Nowadays, in the 2020s, we like our Presentism as a cudgel with which to bash pre-Millennial Eros. Which is to say that pre-Millennial Eros is now seen as offensively erotic. Mrs. Robinson was “grooming” Benjamin, we are now told, Henry Miller was assaulting all those street-walkers he fingered in all those pissoires, “The Summer of ’42” film (and every “coming of age” tale involving sexual initiation between the knowing and the clueless) was a horror story of pure predation. Did Brodkey’s Wiley ask permission before giving Brodkey’s Orra her first orgasm? Was Philip Roth’s Coleman Silk (71), in his relationship with Philip Roth’s Faunia Farley (34), triply-guilty of “abuse” because of the age, wealth and intellect gaps? Almost every Heterogeneously Heterosexual detail, from the hominid timeline of the past 30,000 years, was morally reprehensible, as it turns out, which certainly goes a long way to recuperate the once-mocked concept of Original Sin. The Righteous Future is Homo Everything : gender/ age/ weight/ color/ looks/ IQ/ class.
I can’t wait.
Well, no: Boys and Girls are not the same and an avid 14-18 year-old boy, who seeks and gets a non-violent introduction to Sex, by an older woman who isn’t riddled with STDs, is or was generally being given a gift. 14-year-old girls aren’t longing for the brute fact of Sex (neither are many grown women), they’re longing for a collectible, status-conferring, waltzingly rich and handsome Prince Charming, a cartoon, a sexless pastel Disney golem with no possible analogue in real life. That’s how a 14-year-old girl is groomed, if she’s groomed: with the wicked offer of an impossibly “magical” experience by a predator who knows, all too well, that the offer is a lie the victim will easily fall for… for just long enough. That is the difference. The difference, if no other horrors occur, is about a cruel bait-and-switch and a heartless theft.
Henry V took an arrow to the face, at 16, at Agincourt, and survived; I think a modern 14-year-old boy can survive a blowjob from an older woman he finds attractive.
But are we meant to believe that Kev’s… I mean, Roland’s… interest in losing his virginity, to Miriam, is driven primarily (or exclusively?) by the Cuban Missile Crisis? Well, yes: McEwan justifies this weird proposition by foreshadowing it on page 3 of the trailer:
“Fulfillment lay ahead of them, they were cocksure of that, but they wanted it now. In a rural boarding school for boys, not much chance. How could they know what “it” really was when all their information came from implausible anecdotes and jokes? One night, a boy said into the darkness, during a lull, “What if you died before you had it?” There was silence in the dormitory as they took in this possibility. Then Roland said, “There’s always the afterlife.” And everybody laughed.”
Teen boys are not motivated by Nature’s megaphoned itches, in this trailer: they’re driven by Ian McEwan’s conceits. Fair enough: it’s McEwan’s movie. But am I convinced by it? Or am I being tripped up on my mission to conspire with the author to temporarily delude myself that the protag’s wants, needs, experiences are my own? That’s only a worry if Ian wants to hook me in the manner of the Old Timey kind of Craftsman he once was, far too writerly, far too nearly-genius, to subordinate his refined Literary Tech to tatty ideological diktats. I miss that younger, more talented, less complacent (and conformist) Ian McEwan.
“Suddenly, she pushed the bed covers away and rolled on top of him, sat up—and it was complete, accomplished. So simple. Like some trick with a vanishing knot in a length of soft rope. He lay back in sensual wonder, reaching for her hands, unable to speak. Probably only minutes passed. It seemed as if he had been shown a hidden fold in space where there was a catch, a fastener, and that as he released it and peeled away the illusory everyday he saw what had always been there. Their roles—teacher, pupil—the order and self-importance of school, timetables, bikes, cars, clothes, even words: all of it a diversion to keep everyone from this. It was either hilarious or it was tragic that people should go about their daily business in the conventional way when they knew there was this. Even the headmaster, who had a son and a daughter, must know. Even the Queen. Every adult knew. What a façade. What pretense.
Later, she opened her eyes and, gazing down at him with a faraway look, said, “There’s something missing.”
His voice came faintly from beyond the cottage walls, “Yes?”
“You haven’t said my name.”
“Say it three times.”
He did so.
A pause. She swayed, then she said, “Say something to me. With my name.”
He did not hesitate. It was a love letter, and he meant it. “Dear Miriam, I love Miriam. I love you, Miriam.” And as he was saying it again she arched her back, gave a shout, a beautiful tapering cry. That was it for him, too. He followed her, just one step behind, barely a crotchet.”
To zoom in on the embodiment of McEwan’s observational errors here: I’d have thought he was describing intercourse between two relatively-experienced twenty-somethings. McEwan tries to have it both ways. Making Roland 14 is a way to define the Sex, in itself, as unambiguous criminal evidence in support of McEwan’s outraged moral thesis… but the 14-year-old Roland, implausibly capable in his performance as a grown woman’s Sex partner, helps to make the Sex scenes work against McEwan’s intended message. It may be a movie in part about the moral error of the older female “grooming” a younger male but the Sex scenes still needed to be hot, I guess.
Had Kev not been ready for Sex; had he squealed or flinched or retracted from Miriam’s naked touch with innocent horror, crying to be driven home to his school or his mother, McEwan could have made the point he was, with strange cluelessness, attempting to make using an improbably smooth young stud Miriam was able to milk, without a hitch, for her selfish pleasure. No, that would have been a very different novel: where to go, with the plot, after an appropriately-written-as-too-childish-for-Sex male character starts crying for his mother… ?
Kev has to be shown to “think” he likes it, he has to do it several times in a row without being forced to, all the “damage” has to “hit home” later, after Kev has performed deceptively well, as a love slave, to everyone’s immediate satisfaction. The text contradicts itself, just as the Era (our Era), that the text was designed to pander to, does. Ours is the Era, after all, in which a Kev (sorry: Roland) character will be seen to have been a victim of grooming at the same time as the Culture, of this Era, Itself, is grooming a certain and rising percentage of schoolboys to go get their little dicks lopped off. Lopped in exchange for having the glorious prize of a very crudely-done, surgical pseudo-vagina that is nothing but a glorified wound the body tries to heal… forever. Moral progress that would make MLK proud.
Between a thorough shagging, with a foxy lady, plus a good meal afterwards, at 14 (included, albeit, with minor bouts of bossiness most men will be shruggingly familiar with)… or having my dick lopped off at 9, I can confidentally state which result of “grooming” I’d consider the most criminal and which I would have opted for.
More than one older woman tried seducing me when I was young (between the ages of 16-30), and I only turned them down because I was too fucking picky (and this includes Suzanne Verdal, of the Leonard Cohen song, when I was 21, detailed elsewhere on this site). I was also, in those younger states, totally unaware of just how bad I was in bed. Very, very bad in bed.
The last time I lost my virginity (at 18, in 1977), I lasted about 30 seconds before exploding with all the genetic material I had somehow failed to drain myself of that morning. I barely felt the “orgasm”. I was erect (and profoundly ticklish), again, within minutes and baffled by the empty ordinariness of the experience. Years of wet dreams and diligent self-stimulation, with its corollary theater of the mind’s great orgy of inexperienced fuck-pictures, had not prepared me for it: is that all there is? is what I remember thinking.
The event (between myself and an older, more experienced, woman of 19) was an explosively climactic anti-climax. The girl hosting the ritual sacrifice of my virginity was at least as disappointed as I was and for the opposite reason: she was disappointed because she knew that something much, much better was possible. I didn’t get good enough, at that elemental activity, to have sustained, nicely-paced and sensually-intense intercourse until a few years later. Locker room talk in the intervening decades supports the notion that my initial sexual worthlessness was no fluke; I was no outlier. Virgin boys are reliably bad lays. Taming one’s dick requires help and practise.
Ah but perhaps our Kev was a sexual savant?
I once accused McEwan of being a writer with a dearth of sexual experiences, to draw on, after reading the “Sex scene” in his novel Atonement. This cited Sex-passage, in A Duet, doesn’t mitigate against that suspicion. The pink unicorn of near-simultaneous orgasm is elusive enough between experienced couples (by the time I was 25 I was defaulting to cunnilingus as the orgasm-producing trick-shot that never missed); between an older woman and a virgin boy of 14, near-simultaneous orgasm is categorically impossible enough, anywhere outside the Fiji Islands, to spray cold doubt upon the reliability of the tale-teller.
As with McEwan’s atrociously ill-conceived novel Saturday, which was the first wholly unambiguous evidence that McEwan was not above sacrificing both Craft and Art to the social expedient of sucking the Government’s Propaganda Dick in public, there is a geopolitical box to tick with A Duet (Lessons). After Miriam has screwed, blewed and tattooed tender Kev, with the merciless skill of a Kosher butcher, for the second time, and over the Persephone bargain of a seductively-tasty postcoital meal she lays out for the fuck-famished teen, Miriam barks her authoritative take on the Cuban Missile Crisis:
“I think Kennedy and all of America are behaving like spoiled babies. Stupid and reckless. And the Russians are liars and thugs. You’re quite right to be frightened.”
Is that supposed to be balanced, allegorical commentary on today’s Geopolitics? How different are “thugs” and “babies” and with which would your subliminal sympathies automatically lie?
Our contemporary “Ukraine situation” has only been acute since the late-beginning of the year, so either the leitmotif of the Cuban Missile Crisis, central to this trailer, was a lucky guess or the opening of the soon-to-be-released novel was re-worked, in a rush, to accommodate a trending topic. The latter could explain the flatness of the prose. Flat prose from an author once capable of squeezing rich literature from the curated diction and rhythm of deceptively plain sentences (this sample from 1990’s The Innocent, another narrative about a manipulated virgin):
“The line went dead while Leonard was repeating the address in his friendliest voice. He felt foolish. In solitude he blushed. He caught sight of himself in a wall mirror and approached helplessly. His glasses, stained yellowish by evaporated body fat—this, at least, was his theory—perched absurdly above his nose. When he removed them his face appeared insufficient. Along the sides of his nose were red pressure streaks, dents in the very bone structure. He should do without his glasses. The things he really wanted to see were up close. A circuit diagram, a valve filament, another face. A girl’s face.”
The language of A Duet is laconic but not, in parallel to that, rich, because it’s not as carefully worked. It feels rushed. Perhaps elder Writers feel the clock’s taunts more pressingly. Perjaps they need more money. The language of A Duet gets the reader to various narrative joints along the direction of the plot’s movement. It manages to appear more precise and assured than it is because McEwan starts the trailer with a head of steam that peters out rather quickly before handing the reader off to what feels like an almost mechanical, or automated, narrative process.
“After three years of two hours a week with Mr. Clare, Roland was a promising pianist. He was working his way up the grades. After scraping through Grade7, Roland was told by his teacher that he was “almost precocious” for a fourteen-year-old. Twice he had accompanied hymns on Sunday, when Neil Noake, by far the school’s best pianist, was down with a cold. Among his peers, Roland’s status hovered just above average. Being mediocre in sport and in class held him back. But he sometimes said something witty that was repeated about the place. And he had less acne than most.”
Stylistically I’d call this kind of prose “sing song”. Or perhaps “detective’s memo pad”. That last little sentence fragment in the cited paragraph: was that really written by THE Ian McEwan? Or that penultimate sentence: couldn’t be bothered to invent a characterizing example, Ian?
McEwan was once an adept of characterization. Here, below, Leonard, the self-chidingly insecure English protag of The Innocent, meets the American character Bob Glass and we, the readers, meet him, too:
“He spooned the sugar from a paper package and dried milk from a jar, and stirred the cups so vigorously that coffee slopped onto nearby papers. The moment the drinks were ready he turned off the razor and handed Leonard his cup. As Glass buttoned his shirt, Leonard had a glimpse of a stocky body beneath wiry black hair that grew right across the shoulders. Glass buttoned his collar tightly round a thick neck. From the desk he picked up a ready-knotted tie attached to a hoop of elastic that he snapped on as he stood. He wasted no movements. He took his jacket from the back of a chair and walked to the wall map as he put it on. The suit was dark blue, creased and worn in places to a shine. Leonard was watching. There were ways of wearing clothes that made them quite irrelevant. You could get away with anything.”
What a pleasure to read. McEwan gives us a thorough sense of the density of this character as a physical and personality-packed presence; you can hear his footfalls shaking the glass in the windows as he lumbers purposefully around the room; giving also, simultaneously, a sense of the shrinkingly diffident protag, his witness, our interpreter, in contrast. All in a meaty little paragraph in which actions are just as particularizing, of the character, as explicit description can be.
But in A Duet, which is, by gross measurement, less engaging than the standalone story with which McEwan prefaced another novel, 1997’s “Enduring Love,”** the characters remain blanks for me. They are ciphers conscripted to obey the needs of a pre-conceived theme. Maybe McEwan’s agent, or publisher, suggested the theme to him. I can’t summon a single particularizing detail. Miriam is “beautiful” and Kev… I mean, Roland… is a fit and acne-free 14.
Is Roland taller than Miriam? Are they roughly the same height? Are Miriam’s breasts lopsided, freckled, fetchingly tan-lined, sweaty-smelling, explicit with splattery aureolas, powdered or rashy or disappointingly free of actual milk? Is Roland’s dick silly or desperate or like the boney appendage on a prehistoric and flightless bird? It’s all very vague. When McEwan writes, of Kev-Rol, on page 12, “There was something indefinably unwholesome about him. Something lean and snakelike,” is that a bit of description left over from an earlier draft of the story? It doesn’t seem to fit in the context of Kev’s actions later, or the explicit message that Kev has been used/ abused by Miriam. Was Kev-Rol originally conceived as a bit older and more knowing? A bad boy? Was his age lowered and his persona tweaked to pander harder to contemporary connoisseurs of outrage? It’s hard to say, with only the short story’s lack of characterization as evidence. I suspect an ugly little literary crime has been committed, here. I’d like to get to the bottom of it. The vagueness is a tracks-covering gambit, maybe.
Though perhaps such vagueness is a tacit modern literary standard when writing a novel one hopes will be made into a film. Perhaps the modern novelist keeps the character-delineated silhouettes open for optimum casting flexibility. We all remember (no we don’t) how jarred we were when Louis Malle miscast Deborah Winger, as Kit Moresby, in The Sheltering Sky, hot on the heels of Winger’s Oscar (I’m just guessing she won one, explaining Malle’s bizarre choice) in the mawkishly crappy Officer and a Gentleman. Maybe McEwan is doing prospective directors a favor by failing to bother to flesh his characters out. Roland will be played by Timothy Chalamet or Harry Styles, I suppose. Or whoever slouches along by 2025. Miriam by Scarlet Johannsson.
To read great writing is a physical pleasure: the sensation is that of having one’s mind very efficiently re-organized, freeing up space. Ian McEwan was once able to provide such a service for me, with every new novel, but that was quite a long time ago. Sadly, it’s not only McEwan who fails me, in that regard, in the 2020s. The service itself seems forbidden. Great Lit is my medicine but it’s also the bane of tyrants who’d prefer, when Duh Masses dream, that they dream stupid.
In 1978, McEwan published his little masterpiece The Cement Garden. The Cement Garden was often compared to The Lord of the Flies, when it premiered, but I’d extend the comparison to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Gilligan’s Island, too. The real Gillgan’s Island but with indoor plumbing, still. The sense of infinite post-Civilization possibility reaching stealthfully back toward Atavism.
As if to highlight the gradual and grisly inversion, and taming, of McEwan’s talent, from 1978 to 2022, and the concomitant cultural inversions that informed the taming, the following passage, from The Cement Garden, is the first person account from Jack, another 14-year-old protag of McEwan’s making. Jack is channeling a text that would be considered extremely beyond the pale today. Three siblings are indulging in a game in an upstairs bedroom as their doomed and downscale (class, again) parents argue about money:
“Sue lay on the bed giggling with her knuckles in her mouth while Julie pushed a chair against the door. Together we rapidly stripped Sue of her clothes and when we were pulling down her pants our hands touched. Sue was rather thin. Her skin clung tightly to her rib cage and the hard muscular ridge of her buttocks strangely resembled her shoulder blades. Faint gingerish down grew between her legs. The game was that Julie and I were scientists examining a specimen from outer space. We spoke in clipped Germanic voices as we faced each other across the naked body. From downstairs came the tired, insistent drone of our mother’s voice. Julie had a high ridge of cheekbone beneath her eyes which gave her the deep look of some rare wild animal. In the electric light her eyes were black and big. The soft line of her mouth was just broken by two front teeth, and she had to pout a little to conceal her smile. I longed to examine my older sister but the game did not allow for that.”
“Vell?” We rolled Sue onto her side and then onto her belly. We stroked her back and thighs with our fingernails. We looked into her mouth and between her legs with a torch and found the little flower made of flesh.
“Vot do you think of zis, Herr Doctor?” Julie stroked it with a moistened finger and a small tremor ran along Sue’s bony spine. I watched closely. I moistened my finger and slid it over Julie’s.
“Nothing serious,” she said at last, and closed the slit with her finger and thumb. “But ve vill votch for further developments, ja?” Sue begged us to go on. Julie and I looked at each other knowingly, knowing nothing.
“It’s Julie’s turn,” I said.
“No,” she said as always. “It’s your turn.”
Still on her back, Sue pleaded with us. I crossed the room, picked up Sue’s skirt and threw it at her.
“Out of the question,” I said through an imaginary pipe. “That’s the end of it.”
I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath with my pants round my ankles. I thought of Julie’s pale brown fingers between Sue’s legs as I brought myself to my quick, dry stab of pleasure. I remained doubled up after the spasm passed and became aware that downstairs the voices had long ago ceased.”
To be honest, this passage is a bit terrifying to read, isn’t it?
Would you want to be caught reading it? Would you share it with friends on FACEBOOT? Would you Tweet it?
Here’s a very old review of it, from a different Era, in which material like this (showing nothing Evil but touching on the forbidden; touching on aspects of the forbidden that could easily and illiterately and enthusiastically be construed as Evil) is treated matter-of-factly, as part of Art, as Literature with a confrontationally psychosocial depth, featuring queasy-making elements of horror and transgression which all have a valid structural and/or aesthetic point:
One of those desires, which McEwan portrays with profound complexity, is incest. In his searing novel “The Cement Garden,” four orphaned siblings, after taking extreme measures to hide the death of their mother, form a feral nuclear family. Encouraged by the eldest sister, who has been elevated to the role of matriarch, the siblings retreat into an insulated domestic world that, removed from the mores of outsiders, grows increasingly depraved. Secrecy and desire bind them as they regress into various states of infantilism, morbidity, and madness.
McEwan’s evocative detail and perfect British prose lend a genteel decorum to the death and decay that surround the family. Weeds growing through the rockery of an abandoned garden mark the passage of time. Antique pieces of furniture are placed in childlike arrangements for dining or entertaining, rarely in the rooms designed for such purposes. The smell of trash and rotting food, overflowing from a bin in the untended kitchen, mingles with the sweet, sickly human odors that fill the house. Each detail elevates the story from merely bizarre to hauntingly detestable. In fact, by the end of the novel, the minutiae of the environment—rather than the characters’ actions—seem to be driving the story. McEwan, stirring disgust and rapture, builds to an exhilarating conclusion in which the siblings find themselves beyond the point of redemption but completely enthralled by one another. Like Brontë’s Heathcliff, McEwan’s lovers are loathsome, a far cry from the romanticized versions in the 1993 film adaptation. But they’re all the more captivating for it.
Can you imagine? How mature/ intelligent/ not given to witch-hunts/ fearless were they back then? How much has Culture changed in 40 years?
Actually, I’ve misled you a little: that level-headed review of The Cement Garden, a text that now feels anthema, too dangerous to read, nearly illegal, was published in the New Yorker in 2018.
How much have we changed in 4 years?
Here, below, is the earlier-mentioned, lily-gilding, italics-underscoring interview, of Ian McEwan, regarding A Duet.
In a moment of heightened emotion and suspense—as he waits for Khrushchev and Kennedy to start a nuclear war—Roland responds to a sexual overture that his former piano teacher, Miriam, made a few years earlier. Why do you think he is drawn to her at that moment, when he’s spent the previous two or three years avoiding her (while fantasizing about her)?
At the age of eleven, Roland was already partly groomed by his piano teacher, Miriam. Now, as the world “teeters on the brink” of civilization’s end, he heads off on his bike to her house. She is, in a sense, reeling him in, thanks to the damage she did three years before. Roland believes that he is the initiator. But I don’t think there can be such a thing as consensual sex with a fourteen-year-old.
Roland is sexually abused by Miriam, although he is too young to identify it as such. But, beyond the sexual act, her behavior—the way she alternates between seductress/lover and dominating teacher/authority figure—seems almost expressly crafted to cause psychological damage. How do you imagine Miriam views what she’s doing?
The story is drawn from my novel “Lessons,” which will be published in September. In a later section of the book, Roland confronts Miriam forty years on. She attempts to explain herself. To her horror, she says, she found herself falling in love with an inky little boy at a boarding school. She couldn’t escape the power that her feelings had over her. She tried to explain them away, but in the end she used all her psychological superiority to insure that Roland could never leave her. She was a brilliant woman, but she was unhinged, and whether that was part of her nature or caused by her passion I leave to the reader to ponder.
*Ian has been known to have a thing about the lower classes behaving badly as they interact with their haplessly innocent betters.
** In fact it was in the rest of Enduring Love, after its jarringly standalone intro-story, that McEwan’s decline became evident to me, as I wrote HERE. The intro story is so damned good and the rest of the novel is so damned not.