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Approaching Ian McEwan for the first time, it seemed only natural that I begin with this collection of eight short stories, his first published work. I must say that McEwan leaves quite an impression on the reader. In fact, these stories are quite unlike anything I have ever read. One is hard pressed to determine just how to feel about the stories told here, attempting to integrate shock, sympathy, understanding, depression, ennui, enlightenment, and all manner of other reactions into some sort of vision of enlightenment. The first thing that becomes apparent is McEwan's boldness and unique vision; he uses some words that never find themselves into the published works of most other writers, but his employment of them seems to be a matter of craft rather than an act of gratuitousness. The very first story, Homemade, is a somewhat disturbing and surreal account of incest, with a lad seeking to understand the type of world his adventurous friend lives in engaging his younger sister in an act of sexual exploration. The story ends quite suddenly, leaving me to interpret the deeper meaning completely on my own. Solid Geometry is sort of the odd duck in this collection, with its theoretical mathematics feel distinguishing it from its counterparts. The story works quite well in describing the protagonist's uneasy relationship with his wife, but the kicker at the end comes off as just a little too esoteric. Cocker at the Theatre is the most outré (and short) story in the collection; personally, I didn't get a lot out of it, but it does demand attention.
For the most part, the reader stays on morbid ground. Some have described these tales as having a definite aspect of horror to them, but I would not equate them with horror at all. Each story seems to bear the weight of an imperfect world on its shoulders, and the visions of reality that pour forth throughout the book are maudlin and disturbing without being horrifying in the normal sense of the word. Last Day of Summer is a perfect example, and as such it is clearly my favorite of the bunch. We gain insight into the lives of ordinary people in a setting that is slightly out of the ordinary, and the story seems to me to bristle with a few soft strokes of existentialism, particularly at the end. Butterflies is an almost equally atmospheric offering, creating an atmosphere of moral decay and slight madness around the drowning of a young girl and the unfolding account of the protagonist's insight into that death. Conversation With a Cupboard Man is quite impressive, telling the story of a man so over-protected by his mother for the first two decades of his life that he cannot adjust to modern life on his own, longing to return to a childhood in which his needs are met and he is sheltered. The title story is a relatively weak piece compared to its companions here, failing to provide me with the insight I was expecting from it. Finally, there is Disguises, yet another disturbing story of over-protection and sexual innuendo, covering a boy's desire to break away from the significantly odd atmosphere of his home life and his struggle to adjust at the crossroads of his public and private worlds.
McEwan exhibits what I consider something of a singular style in his writing. Oftentimes throwing together a string of fairly short sentences, he nevertheless avoids any sign of choppiness and proves amazingly efficient at making even the shortest sentences say a great deal. The subject matter of a few of these stories might bother some readers, particularly the incestuous relationships that are implied if not laid out in a few of the stories, but McEwan unwinds his short dramas in an impressively literary style, granting even the most controversial of subjects a lofty plane on which to evolve. The most disturbing aspects of this collection actually have nothing to do with any overt acts themselves but rather with an evocation of the psychological depths of a number of quite interesting characters. First Love, Last Rites won't pick you up when you're feeling down, as it can cast quite a maudlin spell over the sensitive soul, yet it offers quite a uniquely illuminating study of human nature and the loss of innocence.