Unsettling Chapters: Ian McEwan

This feature is dedicated to dark, existential works that disturb the reader’s foundation. For me, this is atmospheric writing with human monsters rather than otherworldly—that explore the darkness within rather than without.

So who better to feature, of course, than Ian McEwan.

McEwan was an early influence of mine, bringing a smart, lyrical sensibility to stories of depravity and darkness. He’s better known these days for his more subdued novels, but in the early days he was known for producing a twisted brand of literary dysfunction. None so dark as the offerings in his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, in particular its disturbing opening tale, “Homemade.”

It’s a touching tale of sex-crazed adolescence and a boy determined to lose his virginity. Worried he won’t be very good in bed, and that the woman he desires would lose interest, he decides to practice on his younger sister.

OK, those who haven’t read this story might think there should have been a “spoiler alert” before that last part. But what makes this story most disturbing is not the horror of the act of incest and sexual manipulation of a minor. It’s the ease with which McEwan spins the yarn—or rather the ease with which the reader assumes the voice of the narrator.

I have read this story a few times and tried to understand what makes it so troublesome, and I believe it comes down to these five elements:

Strong narration. “Homecoming” is told from the perspective of its “monster,” and this is a great example of the power of first-person narrative. With a third-person POV, it’s easy to dismiss a child rapist as a villain. But, as with much of Poe’s writing, it’s much harder to dismiss the character when you’re inside their head. The brother follows a “logical” thought process, slowly luring the reader deeper into his psychosis.

Passivity. The narrator is not the seeker of forbidden pleasures—at first. It is the narrator’s best friend who introduces him to alcohol, cigarettes, shoplifting, masturbation and, ultimately, the race toward sexual initiation that inspires him to rape his sister. He appears to be a relatively innocent and endearing kid—this is McEwan’s trap.

Normalcy. McEwan is the master at presenting the abnormal as normal, and treating evil as a continuum rather than a separate reality. He walks us through the psychological process of a regular teenager who devolves to the point that he commits incest. What makes the horror so disturbing is that it actually makes sense! (At least in the world the narrator devises.)

Unflinching. To quote Akira Kurosawa: “The role of the artist is to not look away.” McEwan never flinches as he guides us step by step through the seduction of Connie, the sister, first through childhood games and finally through play-acting “Mummies and Daddies.” It’s a very, very difficult read. Expect to do a lot of cringing.

Inevitability. There is no neck-bending reveal in “Homemade.” The narrator declares his intentions nine pages from the end, and the power of the ending is not its surprise but its inevitability. Of course it ended this way. It had to. The worst is that we’re left with no resolution, only the realization that the characters are now stuck in this world where this awful thing happened. Now what?

And isn’t that the way all unsettling fiction ends? Now what? It’s not death that’s scary. It’s the life that follows. It’s the existential anguish that cries, “How can I go on living after this?”

And this is why I’m such a fan of dark fiction. Don’t give me vapid redemption. Give me Sartre. Give me Camus. Give me Dostoyevsky. Give me McEwan. These are authors bold enough to look honestly at the world, to explore its shadowy corners, and rather than redemption, leave us with the burden of irredeemable lives. (Another great example is McEwan’s marvelous Atonement.)

“Homecoming” is one of McEwan’s many forays into incest. There was his debut novel, The Cement Garden, and much of his early work revolves around violation, usually sexual in nature (The Innocent, The Comfort of Strangers).

I highly recommend all of McEwan’s early work, but for chills on the back of your neck (and queasiness in the tummy), you can’t go wrong with “Homecoming.”

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