Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder” from The New Yorker, 4/30/12

New Yorker illustration by Annette Marnat

New Yorker illustration by Annette Marnat

He had made another choice, too. He had chosen to cast himself as the victim, the wronged, the deceived, the rightly furious. He had convinced himself that he had said nothing to me about the laundry basket. That memory had been erased, and for a purpose. But now he didn’t even know that he’d erased it. He wasn’t even pretending. He actually believed in his disappointment. He really did think that I had done something devious and mean. He was protecting himself from the idea that he’d had a choice. Weak, self-deluding, pompous? All those, but, above all, a failure of reasoning. High table, monographs, government commissions — meaningless. His reasoning had deserted him. As I saw it, Professor Canning was suffering from a gross intellectual malfunction.

As the first chapter of McEwan’s forthcoming novel, Sweet Tooth, this is great: a smooth-reading setup of an interesting situation (a young woman recruited as a British spy), a nice introduction of the main character in a setting that shows characteristics that will no doubt become crucial in the novel.

As a short story, it doesn’t work at all. Unlike “Transatlantic,” last week’s story, which, with the exception of one thread that didn’t quite belong, worked quite well, with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end, this reads like a first chapter. There is a plot, and it does conclude, but the conclusion is clearly the beginning of something, and we are left hanging, waiting for Act II. The end of the affair is, in terms of plot, only a way to get the professor out of the way, so Serena can begin her spy career with some interesting baggage.

However, I have to admit I enjoyed the read. It’s available online, and it’s very straightforward, so I’ll be brief. Serena Frome is an English university student in 1972 who, following a failed romance with a man who turns out to find his soulmate in a (male) violinist elsewhere, has an affair with a married professor who preps her intellectually for spyhood. Lots of nice touches here. The portrait of Serena is of someone eager to please and “easily led.” There’s some discussion of England’s place in World History; the Book Bench interview follows this theme even more. It’s quite interesting.

There’s some interesting rumination on age, along with one of the two references to Serena’s current age, setting up the voice of memoir, of recollection via hindsight:

His poor naked foot looked like a worn-out old shoe. I saw folds of flesh in improbable places, even under his arms. How strange that, in my surprise, quickly suppressed, it didn’t occur to me that I was looking at my own future. I was twenty-one. What I had taken to be the norm — taut, smooth, supple — was the transient special case of youth. To me, the old were a separate species, like sparrows or foxes. And now what I would give to be fifty-four again!….Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock-climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair. There was a white four-inch scar to the right of his chest reaching toward his neck, whose history he would never explain. But if he was slightly . . . foxed, and resembled at times my old worn Teddy back home in the cathedral close, he was also a worldly, a gentlemanly lover.

But mostly it’s a romance. The above quote comes from the breakup scene: Serena’s lover accuses her of deliberately leaving a blouse in the laundry basket for his wife to find, when he actually told her to put it there. I’m guessing this capacity to erase memory – to not lie but change one’s perception of reality so that lying is not necessary – will come back in future chapters, either as she adopts the technique, or as she recognizes another man using it in a different situation, a more spy-specific situation.

As background and character exposition in the form of a romance, it’s quite well-done. But it’s not a short story. And maybe I should thank The New Yorker for teaching me to tell the difference; it’s something I’ve become more adept at, thanks to them.


5 responses to “Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder” from The New Yorker, 4/30/12

  1. I disagreed with you and Trevor on this one — i.e., that it’s “not” a short story. (And I’m usually very critical on unfinished/rushed excerpts.) If you take it as a story about an affair — with some interesting circumstances — it’s as complete as any other. And if it leaves you wanting to know more about the life Serena will go on to lead in MI5 with this baggage, then it’s an even better story. For me, what ruins an excerpt is when there are questions relevant to the moment being described itself that are unclear or unanswered: here, everything that McEwan is focusing on is resolved. The future is, as always, murky, but that’s true of most stories — especially the ones The New Yorker tends to run. (For instance, the Junot Diaz story, which isn’t a novel, but is a continuation of linked shorts about “Yunior” — there’s so much that’s unresolved there, and yet it seems to not fall under the same scrutiny as it would if Diaz were to announce that they were being collected in book form, as Justin Torres did.)

    But I find the parallels between the MI5 “hand on the shoulder” recruitment process and between this father-figure’s guiding “hand on the shoulder” to be more than fleshed out enough with the limns of this short, and as you point out — it reads really well, even the tangents (on age, on food, etc.).

  2. Hi Aaron – thanks for chiming in, the best thing about having lots of opinions is that it makes me figure out exactly why I have the reaction I do.

    The story as presented is not about the affair; it’s about the recruitment, which is put out there right in the first sentence. It isn’t “My name is this and I had an affair with a spy recruiter.” That focus to me is strengthened by the section about the “hand on the shoulder” (a phrase I’d never heard before in that context; I was thinking more of secret police apprehending someone; forgot to mention that originally).

    The recruitment seems incomplete to me, and since I see it as the “gun on the wall,” it doesn’t feel like the story did what it set out to do from the first sententce – to show her recruitment. Now, I can agree that the affair is part of the recruitment. And there’s the implication (as you say, typical of TNY stories) that she went on the interview the next day and entered the service – but somehow the story just seems to project into a future that never happens, and becomes less meaningful. What difference does it make what interesting baggage she has if we don’t see how she packs it next time?

    Now, because this was such a good read, I was tempted to let it slide, but then I get my back up about the marginalization of the short story as a form and damn it, I just let “Transatlantic” slide and they go and do it again… so sure, I’m probably being a little obstinate and hopping up on a soapbox for reasons that have nothing to do with the story.

    But I still say the gun wasn’t fired. 😉

  3. The New Yorker has taught me to really dislike stories that are excerpts if I don’t know they are excerpts. I often complain that the story was terrible, only to find out later that it will be much better once the other 250 pages are added to it 🙂

    I did assume ths was an excerpt though mostly because I don’t think McEwan writes short stories.

    • You know, that’s all it would take to solve the whole issue – a little subtitle “From the forthcoming novel” under the title. It’s like they’re determined to keep it a secret in the print issue. Maybe this is why some people think they don’t like short stories.

  4. Pingback: Ian McEwan: “First Love, Last Rites” from his collection First Love, Last Rites, Random House 1975 | A Just Recompense

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