Ian McEwan: “First Love, Last Rites” from his collection First Love, Last Rites, Random House 1975

I was drawn into fantasies against my will, fantasies of the creature, and afterwards when we lay on our backs on the huge table, in those deep silences I heard it faintly running and calling. It was new to me, all this, and I worried, I tried to talk to Sissel about it for reassurance. She had nothing to say, she did not make abstractions or discuss situations, she lived inside them…. Sissel did things as they came to her, stirred her coffee, made love, listened to her records, looked out the window. She did not say things like I’m happy, or confused, or I want to make love, or I don’t, or I’m tired of the fights in my family, she had no language to split herself in two, so I suffered alone what seemed like crimes in my head while we fucked and afterwards listened alone to it scrabbling in the silence. Then one afternoon Sissel woke from a doze, raised her head from the mattress and said, “What’s that scratching noise behind the wall?”

This is the last of the “Birnam Wood” trio – meaning it, and “Chef’s House” (which I’ve already discussed) were recommended as a contrast to the original TC Boyle story by Prof. Charles May in his blog post.

It’s the title story from McEwen’s first collection, written as his grad school thesis; it won him the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976. I only became aware of him earlier this year through his novel excerpt, “Hand on the Shoulder” printed in The New Yorker. But this is a whole other ballgame.

This story was an interesting experience for me for several reasons, the most superficial of which is: I’m trying out the Dragon speech recognition software in an effort to save my aching thumbs (Sure, Zin thinks it’s a joke, but it hurts and it’s improved noticeably since I started dictating significant chunks of text. It just takes a lot longer to get anything done). Since I couldn’t find this story online (I did find it eventually, and I highly recommend reading it before continuing here), I checked out the library copy of McEwan’s collection and read it aloud into a Word document so I could highlight it and more easily pick quotes.

This process, time-consuming and ultimately unnecessary as it was, helped my reading in some ways; in fact, I might do this more often. When I first sat down with the story, I had trouble with the style, he uses a lot of run-on sentences, he doesn’t seem to believe in semicolons he uses commas instead except sometimes he skips them, I found it very annoying, see what I mean? I’m assuming that has meaning – going back to the grammar school definition of “a sentence is a complete thought.” Or maybe it’s a tendency to keep going and going to avoid stopping, or an impatience indicator, or something else entirely. But the effect on me as a reader was to create a tendency to just skip over lines until I realized I’d “read” a paragraph without actually reading it at all. Reading aloud forced me to pay closer attention, and to notice every single word. Sections were much more powerful – some downright uncomfortable – because I was reading them aloud. I was also more aware of word repetitions and patterns. Not to mention, Dragon expanded its vocabulary considerably in directions it otherwise might not have encountered.

I seemed to be reading a different story than everyone else, and I’m not sure why. Or even if. After all, I haven’t really read any review stating, “This story is about a relationship that starts out great then fails over the course of the summer.” Maybe that was just my assumption, based on Prof. May’s inclusion of it in his Birnam Wood comments. Because I don’t see it as a relationship that fails at all. I see it as a relationship that falters, but recovers. And I inferred a whole subplot that isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the text.

The narrator is an unnamed 18-year-old boy living with Sissel, his girlfriend, in London. At the start of the summer, life is good, as he and Sissel make love with abandon on a mattress set on the table in front of an open window:

We pressed our palms together, she made a careful examination of the size and shape of our hands and gave a running commentary. Exactly the same size, your fingers are thicker, you’ve got this extra bit here. She measured my eyelashes with the end of her thumb and wished her were as long, she told me about the dog she had when she was small, it had long white eyelashes. She looked at the sunburn on my nose and talked about that, which of her brothers and sisters went red in the sun, who went brown, what her youngest sister said once. We slowly undressed. She kicked off her plimsolls and talked about her foot rot. I listened with my eyes closed, I could smell mud and seaweed and dust through the open window. Wittering on, she called it, this kind of talk.

He’s working with Sissel’s father on an eel-fishing scheme, and her little brother Adrian visits frequently; their parents have recently separated, and he’s having trouble dealing with it. He’s loud and intrusive, but in a cute way.

It’s all highly sexual, in a way eighteen-year-olds can be when they think they alone have discovered love and sex. But McEwen chooses to include this paragraph, which is where I started reading the phantom subplot:

Then once I was inside her I was moved, I was inside my fantasy, there could be no separation now of my mushrooming sensations from my knowledge that we could make a creature grow in Sissel’s belly. I had no wish to be a father, that was not it at all. It was eggs, sperms, chromosomes, feathers, gills, claws, inches from my cock and the unstoppable chemistry of the creature growing out of the dark red slime, my fantasy was of being helpless before the age and strength of this process and the thought alone could make me come before I wanted. When I told Sissel she laughed. Oh, Gawd, she said. To me Sissel was right inside the process, she was the process and the power of its fascination grew. She was meant to be on the pill and every month she forgot it at least two or three times. Without discussion we came to the arrangement that I was to come outside her, but it rarely worked.

The narrator notices the scrabbling in the wall first; then, as described in the opening quote, Sissel hears it, too. I think it’s a little heavy-handed, this symbolization of his concerns, but what he does with the image is quite unforgettable. Once I read about the birth control issues, however, I became convinced the scrabbling was an unwanted pregnancy and impending abortion, not just about their deteriorating relationship, and these issues, undiscussed (it’s stated several times that Sissel does not discuss things, so it’s not a surprise she doesn’t discuss) are what is causing the relationship to deteriorate. But I seem to be the only person reading that, so I have to assume I’m overreading.

Maybe it’s because I was reading the story aloud, but the deterioration of the relationship is one of the most effective descriptive passages I’ve ever read:

But Sissel and I were touching less and less now, in our quiet ways we could not bring ourselves to it. It was not that we were in decline, not that we did not delight in each other, but that our opportunities were faded. It was the room itself. It was no longer four floors up and detached, there was no breeze through the window, only a mushy heat rising off the quayside and dead jellyfish and clouds of flies, fiery grave flies who found our armpits and bit fiercely, houseflies who hung in clouds over our food. Our hair was too long and dank and hung in her eyes. The food we bought melted and tasted like the river. We no longer lifted the mattress on to the table, the coolest place now was the floor and the floor was covered with greasy sand which would not go away. Sissel grew tired of her records, and her foot rot spread from one foot to the other and added to the smell. Our room stank. We did not talk about leaving because we did not talk about anything. Every night now we were woken by the scrabbling behind the wall, louder now and more insistent. When we made love it listened to us behind the wall. We made love less and our rubbish gathered around us, milk bottles we could not bring ourselves to carry away, grey sweating cheese, butter wrappers, yogurt cartons, overripe salami.

Try reading that aloud. See if you don’t squirm, or start to worry about the trash in the kitchen or the cat fur on the floor or how your clothes just don’t fit right or the lumpiness of the couch where you’re sitting. The rat in the wall is the least of it. And god, don’t even think about cheese.

The beginning of the end comes when the narrator and Sissel’s father go out and check the eel traps for their first catch. The haul is one eel. He’s the losing interest in the project, like he’s been losing interest in everything else, and this is pretty much the end of it. But neither he nor her father discuss it; these are not discussing people.

I understand this is been made into a not-very-good movie ; I’m tempted to find the movie, just to see how the climactic scene was handled. It’s another scene to read aloud. But it’s more than just a showdown between narrator and rat (if you can use the word “just” to describe any scene in which a man beats a rat to death with a poker while his girlfriend and her 12-year-old brother watch):

It dropped to the ground, legs in the air, split from end to end like a ripe fruit. Sissel did not take her hand from her mouth, Adrian did not move from the chest, I did not shift my weight from where I had struck, and no one breathed out. A faint smell crept across the room, musty and intimate, like the smell of Sissel’s monthly blood. Then Adrian farted and giggled from his held-back fear, his human smell mingled with the wide-open rat smell. I stood over the rat and prodded it gently with the poker. It rolled on its side, and from the mighty gash which ran its belly’s length there obtruded and slid partially free from the lower abdomen a translucent purple bag, and inside five pale crouching shapes, their knees drawn up around their chins. As the back touched the floor I saw a movement, the leg of one unborn rat quivered as if in hope, but the mother was hopelessly dead and there was no more for it.

Sissel knelt by the rat, Adrian and I stood behind her like guards, it was as if she had some special right, kneeling there with her long red skirt spilling round her. She parted the gash in the mother rat with her forefinger and thumb, pushed the bag back inside and closed the blood-spiked fur over it.

Can you see why reading this story aloud was a special treat?

Again, I’m compelled to say the long red skirt is slightly heavy-handed. But damn, this is effective writing.

The dénouement is very short and literally cleans up. But it’s how things end between the two lovers that strikes me as a happy ending:

We lifted the mattress onto the table and lay down in front of the open window, face-to-face, the way we did at the beginning of summer. We had a light breeze blowing in, the distant smoky smell of autumn, and I felt calm, very clear. Sissel said, This afternoon let’s clean the room up and then go for a long walk, a walk along the river dyke. I pressed the flat of my palm against her warm belly and said, yes.

Combined with the early paragraph about hit-or-miss birth-control methods, Sissel’s gory tenderness towards the rat she had so feared, and in light of the clear pattern of non-communication, I read this as a commitment on both their parts to the unwanted pregnancy: her decision not to have an abortion, his acceptance of the role of impending father. But, I have to admit, the title of the story makes me wonder. A first love story typically doesn’t end with “Yay, we’re going to have a baby and live happily ever after.” But first love stories typically don’t include beating rats to death, either. Sheesh, what’s the second love going to be like?

I think, though, it’s clearly a hopeful ending for the couple, no matter how you read it. Unlike “Birnam Wood,” which was not specific but felt like the end, and “Chef’s House,” which was clearly the end of the relationship, everything about this ending indicates the relationship has survived a difficult summer. To read it without the pregnancy angle, if the rat symbolizes the discontent they both feel in their relationship, and killing the rat is analogous to rising above that discontent.

I can’t remember the last time I read such a visceral (in every sense of the word) story. I’m also stunned that this was written by the author of “Hand on the Shoulder.” Versatility is a good thing, and I’ve always been grateful that maturity allows a certain mellowing. But I’m reminded by the story as well as by the characters, that there’s nothing quite like the reckless assurance of youth.

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.