A few years ago, I read Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a truly incredible book that pretty much floored me on every imaginable level. Ever since then, I’ve been curious to check out more of McEwan’s work, to see how it compared to that modern masterpiece, and learning that First Love, Last Rites was a collection of short stories sounded like a great place to start – it would give me a bit more of a sampling of his work, a wider array of experiences that McEwan could create.
Now, I didn’t realize when I picked it up that First Love, Last Rites actually represented McEwan’s first published writings, and that they largely represented the author’s attempts to experiment and find his voice. Had I known that, I doubt I would have jumped in here; I’d probably have gone with something more polished, or something closer in his career arc to Atonement, at least chronologically. As it is, First Love, Last Rites is a pretty far cry from Atonement in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the grim, disturbing subject matter. At the time, McEwan had the nickname “Ian Macabre,” and it’s not hard to see why – this is a collection of horrors, from incest to sexual abuse, from rapists to murder, almost always told from the point of view of the criminal. And, as he did in Atonement, McEwan immerses himself deeply in the characters’ perspectives, which means that there’s no moral judgment, no sense of justice or morality. These characters often get away with their actions, without even a sense of guilt, and that can make these hard to take. (That the eBook version I read opens with the story “Homemade,” which involves a confident, amoral teenager’s efforts to rid himself of his virginity through deeply upsetting means, didn’t help me to get adjusted into the book quickly; indeed, it almost put me off reading the rest, just because I wasn’t quite aware of what I was getting myself into, and because the story’s perspective is so vile.)
And yet, in a lot of ways, you can see many of the same skills that McEwan would put to work in Atonement getting their trial runs here. His empathy and ability to truly step into someone’s mind; his knack for watching events unfold without introducing morality or judgment into the writing; his insistence that the reader interacts with the text to unpack some of the meaning. And at times, as repulsive as his characters are, McEwan still knocks you out; my personal favorite is “Conversation with a Cupboard Man,” a long confession by a deeply damaged man whose mother infantilized him to a toxic degree and left him barely able to function in the real world – it’s a story that reminds me of the depth and nuance that someone like, say, Thomas Harris would bring to a similar character.
There’s little way to walk away from First Love, Last Rites and not feel like you need a bit of a shower. The actions depicted here are toxic, and even if McEwan is accurate in the way masculine drives and the demands of society so often push them in horrible directions, that doesn’t make the collection any more pleasant to read all in a batch like this. But there’s no denying the talent that McEwan was bringing to bear even here, in his earliest work, and it’s to his credit that the stories are as engaging as they are, even as they disturb. They’re not perfect by any means – the title story gets too pretentious with its symbolism for my taste; “Cocker at the Theatre” really only has the advantage of being short; several feel like experiments in amoral perspectives more than they feel like full stories – but they’re fascinating glimpses as to some of what would make Atonement great. I still think my next taste of McEwan will be something more modern than this, though.