books you should have read by now: first love, last rites
McEwan is among my favourite writers. I first came across him through his novel Atonement (2001), which I found profoundly touching. I then watched the very good film adaptation of this novel directed by Joe Wright and fell even more in love with the story. However, what I didn’t know about McEwan was that his early writing had been defined by critics as grotesque, disturbing, and macabre. These words aptly describe McEwan’s collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. If you want to get a real thrill out of reading or want to be disturbed, this is the place to go (!).
McEwan began writing First Love, Last Rites in the wake of the 1960s: a decade characterised by many as a period of new beginnings. In Britain, it was seen as a time in which a redefinition of issues surrounding gender, sex and the relationship of these to power took place. Moreover, it is understood as a period that saw a positive growth in countercultural energies, and there was much praise of a flowering of a new kind of libertarianism and a more progressive society; one which had more time for leisure and sexual permissiveness. The act of embracing promiscuity and sexual liberation was seen as a form of political and progressive transgression. Alongside this view, however, was a discourse of despair, concerned with the lapse in morals such developments entailed. McEwan’s collection of short stories do not demonstrate an interest in this new landscape of hedonism and libertarianism nor do they long nostalgically for a time antecedent to it; in fact First Love, Last Rites is remarkable for its lack in moral judgement.
However, McEwan’s stories do suggest that ethical limits exist; he is merely taking us beyond those boundaries. His focus is not on the progressive possibilities of sexual liberation and empowerment; rather on its more sinister outcomes. He examines and explores the conditions of a world freed from its traditional and conventional structures and often presents us with narratives that lack any firm moral centre. The story ‘Butterflies’ in the collection is a remarkable example of an individual living adrift from society and in isolation: here McEwan explores the implications of loneliness, inviting us to make a connection between the narrator’s feelings of loneliness and his sexual depravity.
“Butterflies” seems to dramatize the implications of living a life of loneliness, anomie and alienation; in this story McEwan takes them to an extreme. The narrator is adrift, with too much time on his hands. He is so unaffected by emotion and indifferent to the pain of others that he, seemingly without any moral scruples, coerces, abuses, and lastly kills a child. At the beginning of “Butterflies”, McEwan immediately establishes a strong sense of the narrator’s isolation: of friends he has none, he speaks to no one except Charlie, a man to which he is neither related nor with which he has any personal friendship.
Furthermore, the narrator asserts that others regard him with suspicion because his neck and chin are ‘the same thing’ and they ‘breed distrust’; details which convey his alienated position in relation to others and the world at large. His own mother was an isolated woman too and the reader begins to wonder what kind of world the narrator lives in in order to have been ‘indifferent’ to his mother’s death. He lives apart from others and is seemingly so cut off from any contact with other people that his heart beats with excitement when he encounters a group of boys playing outside. For a fleeting moment the narrator feels he will join them, and thus enter into a ‘normative’ set of relationships. But the possibility is soon extinguished and he returns to being alone. The narrator also states that he relishes the little girl’s company once she starts walking with him, even if she is only a child and eventually he does not want to let her go. In what soon becomes the behaviour of a perverse psychology, he does all he can to keep her with him. What is particularly interesting is that the narrator’s abuse of the girl is presented to us in a way which makes a link between his loneliness and his sexual depravity; here is sexually aroused: ‘All the time I spent by myself came pumping out, all the hours walking alone and all the thoughts I had had, it all came out into my hand’. It would appear that the narrator’s state of severe loneliness and alienation has led him to find perverse sexual pleasure in the girl’s effect on him. It seems that McEwan is taking things to an extreme, demonstrating how sex and power can turn into perversity and manipulation.
McEwan’s characters are frequently isolated and alienated individuals. Their lives are conducted on the margins of society and seem unconcerned with larger social or political questions, let alone ethical ones. The stories in First Love, Last Rites present us with an array of private subjectivities, concerned only with their own immediate surroundings, feelings and obsessions – in a way that is frequently perverse, grotesque, or to say the least, unsettling. McEwan thus takes into ‘the contemporary’: he imaginatively explores the cultural and moral vacuum that was created in the wake of the 1960s. His characters demonstrate what Zigmunt Bauman has called ‘the ethical paradox of the postmodern condition’, the understanding according to which individuals, whilst being free to make their own decisions, can only fall back on subjectivity as their sole ethical authority. Indeed, McEwan constructs narratives that clearly lack any moral or ethical framework in First Love, Last Rites and in ‘Butterflies’ this is especially evident in the bloodless, clinical, unaffected language of the narrator, as well as in the atmosphere of moral destitution that pervades the story. Added to this is the fact that the prose of the text is absolutely devoid of any moral judgement, which renders the already shocking details of the girl’s death more disturbing; one could even say that the style in which the events are told is where the real horror lies. This gestures towards what Jameson has identified as the waning of affect in postmodern culture, for the narrator of ‘Butterflies’ registers no moral shock; his words are entirely unaffected by sentiment or moralism.
McEwan’s short stories are well-equipped to explore themes of alienation in particular because of their frequent use of the child or young adolescent point of view. Indeed, the majority of characters in First Love, Last Rites are male adolescents caught in between that often difficult and disturbed space that is situated in the transition between childhood and adulthood. For McEwan, fiction ‘can thrive on a point of view that is somehow dislocated, removed’. This condition is somehow heightened in the contemporary context, for in a society that seems to lack any clear moral compass it is far more difficult to gain a sense of one’s own identity and place in it.
It is possible to view McEwan’s writing as perverse, or even to take him as an amoral writer. However, as critic Dominic Head argues, McEwan’s ‘interest in the marginal and the perverse has always aimed at defining ethical limits’. Perverse and disturbing though it may be, this collection is one of the most interesting ones I have ever read.
By Camilla Patini