Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cannonball Read #4: First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

The first book I ever read from Ian McEwan was Atonement, and I remember nothing about it except that there was a pervasive feeling of frustration during my reading of that. I don't remember details, or plot points, or even character names – but I just left that book feeling... unsatisfied. I felt like there should have been more (keep in mind that I remember nothing about that book so more what? I cannot say) and that I have somehow been deceived and cheated from having a good time.

With First Love, Last Rites, that feeling came quicker, and with much more severity. It's a collection of short stories which, by the the second, I felt so repulsed with that it turned me off to the rest of it. After that, I couldn't help but feel like there was an underlying current of misogyny in McEwan's words. If I have to pinpoint a theme between all these different short stories, it would be that McEwan has written them from the point of view of men who are misunderstood in their public lives, and whose inner monologue are presented to the readers as an explanation for their awful behavior. I think McEwan is trying to get us to sympathize with these male characters with his beautiful language and sentence structure, and even with the horrific circumstances. Maybe in 1975, when this was first published (I think it's his first collection ever, and he was in his twenties) that might have been what people told themselves when they read. "Because he's so fucked up... right, right, I get it." I don't know. Reading it now, I just kept thinking, "Seriously? No sympathetic female characters whatsoever??"

The other problem is that because these are short stories, McEwan doesn't really get ten chapters to get into his character's psychosis and get us to understand his actions. And a lot of their doings/thinkings have severe consequences, and then... the story just ends! I think, "Wait... that's it?" and I just feel angry. I don't feel sympathy for his lonely/fucked-up/repressed/immature main characters – there wasn't time for me to truly understand them. All I'm left with is thinking that they are a bunch of psychopaths and McEwan is a fucking misogynist, and fuck his beautiful words and sentence structure.

I'll give you an example: the first story (why would this be his first story?? To show how controversial he is?? How ironic he can be??) opens with a young girl crying in a bathroom and a young male, the narrator, looking in the mirror, pleased with himself. We're not sure what's going on, but the narrator draws us in by telling us how he has an older friend who constantly challenges him about his youth by showing off some thing that "grown-ups" do. Like smoke cigarettes, or steal, or drink whiskey. Then one day, the older friend mentioned sex, and of course the young narrator had to feign knowledge of it, like he's actually experienced it somewhere. So he goes home with a taste of it in his mind and an urge in his loins, and look – he has to babysit his little sister. Oh, can you see where this story is going? The end result, which is actually mentioned in the beginning, is that his first foray into sex has made him a sexual adventurer, someone who others look up to in sexual prowess. Maybe McEwan was trying to say, "Oh hahaha, these boys are fucked up, but boys will be boys, and look – now, he is a man" in a mocking voice to show how truly misguided youths can be, and I might take him at his word.... except all the other stories are similar, in terms of women being subjugated, mistreated or just terrible human beings in general and so they probably deserved it.

Here's another one: A man studies his great-grandfather's diaries, and his wife is jealous of that because he spends hours and hours poring through the contents and no longer pays attention to her. The man wishes she would stop nagging and shut up, the wife breaks a precious family heirloom in a fit of anger (it came with those incredibly captivating journals from his great-grandfather) and then storms out of the house. The man – MIRACULOUSLY AND WHAT GREAT TIMING! – finds a solution that could potentially make a person disappear. So he tricks his wife into such a situation. And she disappears.

Bam! the story ends! (By the way, I did not the spoil any of these stories because I am leaving out so much of the terrible, horrific details.) No explanation, no fall out, or anything. I FUCKING HATE THESE CHARACTERS.

The only story in which a women is presented in a neutral light is still insulting. This short story is where McEwan takes the title of his entire collection, and it's about a young couple whose relationship changes as the season changes. The girl doesn't die or cry in the end; she isn't sexually or emotionally abusive; and she isn't a shrewd or a minx. What she is, however, is nothing. McEwan barely fleshes out her character, and if so, it is only done in the point of view of the boyfriend and even her boyfriend did not really understand her. There also didn't seem to be any real intimacy or affection between both characters, unless if you count their excessive fucking during the summer season. She was just an object in which McEwan used for a metaphor as their changing relationship in the boy's eyes. All I could think after that story ended was, "Well, at least she wasn't raped or made to disappear." But "at least" really is not good enough, especially in the midst of its sister (or i guess I should say brother) stories.

Honestly, I picked up this book at random (my criteria was 1. an author's name I recognized and 2. a paperback) so I really was not expecting much out of it. After the third story, I honestly wanted to just throw the book down and write "I HATE THIS CRAP!" over and over again. But I thought, "Let's stick it out. After all, he can't have become a famous writer off of just these kind of stories." I kept hoping that a strong/favorable female character would appear, and maybe be wrongfully killed/murdered/raped/abused. That absolutely did not happen.

I am not going to touch anything by McEwan for a long time.


Nicole said...

My first two McEwan novels were Atonement and Saturday, which I loved, so I thought I had found a new favorite author. I finished reading Amsterdam last night, and I've read a couple others, and the glow has just worn off. It's so miserable and repetitive and ugh. I'm like you' I'm swearing off of him for a while.

blakspring said...

i read atonement a while back and, like you, don't remember much in terms of plot or details, but i remember wondering what the hype was about. after your post i don't think i'll bother with anything else by him. there are so many other awesome books to read.

denesteak said...

I wanted to read him after Phillip Stephens' review of On Chesil Beach on Pajiba. I think this was another case of way-too-high expectations from everyone raving about him. But glad to know I am not alone in this.