Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!: Day 8 - A Horrible Obscenity

Ian McEwan seems to have turned his back on the weirder part of his imagination, but for a while there he looked like he was gearing up to be a very high-end horror writer. Early short stories, and novels like The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers (for the record, I didn't care for the former, and I really liked the latter) had an unsettling Gothic quality, not unlike Shirley Jackson's work. McEwan has said that he consciously put that stuff behind him, marking it off as a sort of young man period, and has since, obviously, gone on to be one of the most highly respected writers in the English language today. Enduring Love, one of his novels from this more "mature" period, is a personal favorite of mine, and most people in the Western world are aware, in one form or another, of Atonement.

Both of those novels are unusual, original works of fiction, but I'll be damned if some of his early stories weren't flat out bizarre. Take "Solid Geometry", from his collection First Love, Last Rites. It's about a guy -- another goddamned unnamed narrator -- who has taken to spending all of his time editing his great-grandfather's numerous diaries. The man's marriage is falling apart (he's very cruel to his wife, Maisie) for various reasons, among them a non-existent sex life, his disdain for his wife's interest in New Age thinking, and his apparent obsession with the diaries.

To be fair, this great-grandfather seems to have been a fairly interesting guy. While he might not have spent a lot of his life actually doing things, he was fascinated by a variety of topics, and kept abreast of the world's goings-on with the help of his friend, referred to in the diaries only as "M". To give you a better idea of these two, here's how "Solid Geometry" begins:

In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an aution of articles of "curiosity and worth", my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873. It was bottled in a glass twelve inches long, and, noted my great-grandfather in his diary that night, "in a beautiful state of preservation". Also for auction ws the "unnamed portion of the late Lady Barrymore. It went to Sam Israels for fifty guineas." My great-grandfather was keen on the idea of having the two items as a pair, and M dissuaded him. This illustrates perfectly their friendship.

The fact that our narrator keeps that jarred penis still on his desk as he pores over the diaries perfectly illustrates certain unpleasant, eerie and generally off-putting aspects of his personality.
Eventually, our narrator becomes as obsessed by one aspect of the diaries. His great-grandfather and M used to dine together several times a week. One day, that simply ended, with no explanation given in the diary. Further, shortly before that, the diary mentions a science conference M attended, at which he heard about a Scottish geomitrist named Hunter, who claimed to have found "a plane with no surface". Hunter announced this without warning at an informal gathering between seminars, and the first part of his demonstration, involving a piece of paper which, through careful cutting and folding, he was able to make vanish, deeply angered his audience. The second part stunned them into silence. The great-grandfather wanted to reproduce Hunter's results, and was dilligent in his note-taking. Our narrator becomes similarly obsessed, and finds himself following the same instructions, with similar results.

Horror writer (and son of Stephen King) Joe Hill, in an overall rave of First Love, Last Rites, made passing mention of "Solid Geometry", calling it a "straight-forward Lovecraftian horror tale". Okay, first, it's straight-forward-ish, in that you can chart the story's course easily enough. But it's also a story that uses geometry and a jarred penis as its central metaphors. Second, if Joe Hill (who I don't want to bash, really -- his story "Best New Horror" is well worth a look) wasn't who he is, I would think he'd never read a Lovecraft story in his life. Other than some very glancing similarities, "Solid Geometry" has nothing to do whatsoever with Lovecraft. Lovecraft was about massive, cosmic horror returning to wipe out mankind. "Solid Geometry" is about science, sex, and failing marriages. It is, however, a horror story, of sorts. I guess what I'm saying is, it's just the damndest thing, this one.

What I wondered, when I finished this, is how McEwan even came up with it. I have to assume the inspiration started with geometry, but when the story as it exists came to him, where did he find the confidence to not only write it, but to commit to it enough to write it straight? What I'm getting at is that this is a very strong, very unusual short story, imaginative in a way that very little fiction of any kind is, and I know from my own struggles writing fiction that confidence in your own ideas is a tough hurdle to leap over. Had any other writer come upon this idea, I have to think they would have tried to make it comic, because the received wisdom seems to be that bizarre stories must contain winks and self-concious nods to the audience: don't worry, we know this is pretty weird! This ends up muting the effect, and, I think, shows a lack of commitment by the writer.

But McEwan committed, in a way very few writers do. This story, unpleasant as it is, was a breath of fresh air for me. Check it out.
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PS - I should have put this in my last post, but if, for some ungodly reason, some of you are bemoaning the increasing brevity of my last couple of entries to The Kind of Face You SLASH, allow me to apologize. Most of my blogging for this had been done during my lunch break at work, but exploding toilets near the law library where I take that break have, for the time being, removed that option. So, I have more time to read, but less time to write. This weekend, I'll have plenty of time, but we'll have to see how next week goes. Again, sorry. If you don't mind, even prefer, short posts, then fuck you, you bunch of dicks.


Maxim said...

Interestingly and oddly enough, this story was filmed a few years back with Ewan McGregor in the lead - and directed by his uncle, Denis Lawson.

bill r. said...

Wow, I had no idea. Have you seen it? Is it any good? At 24 minutes, I'm not going to hold my breath for a DVD release, but I'd love to find some way to see it.

Greg said...

Who's complaining about the brevity of your posts? Even though I'll get a "fuck you" for saying this, I like short posts. I'm really not a fan of bloggers who think all I want to do all day long is read their dissertations where you have to scroll down 27 times through 45 paragraphs to get to the bottom of the post. No offense to any long winded bloggers out there who might see this, but in very rare instances, none of you are James Agee, and even if you were most people read blogs at work and like to visit several a day. So when I find one that consistently puts up 5,000 word posts on what they thought of this or that movie, expecting to devote an entire lunch break pouring over their golden prose, it's just a turn off. It feels egotistical and given how many blogs people surf during the day, and usually at work, a little inconsiderate too.

bill r. said...

Well, I don't think a blogger should taylor what they write around the fact that people might be reading at work. If a piece needs to be long to say what you want to say, so be it, and if people don't want to read it because of that, that's their choice.

Having said all that, I would like to figure out a way to pare some of my posts down. I think they can get a bit windy.

Greg said...

I'm not accusing you of that just so you know. And like anything else I understand that sometimes an idea requires a bit more than a paragraph or two. But sometimes when I read a very long post, where the blogger dissects every fucking detail of every scene and takes forever in getting around to, if ever, the point, it annoys me. Very long posts usually signal to me that the blogger in question thinks he or she is a better writer than they are.

bill r. said...

I didn't think you were accusing me of that, so no worries. But if I like the blogger, think he or she is a good writer, and am interested in the topic, I don't really care how long the post is.

Brian Doan said...

s. I'm really not a fan of bloggers who think all I want to do all day long is read their dissertations where you have to scroll down 27 times through 45 paragraphs to get to the bottom of the post.

Damn, Jonathan, why the personal attacks? I mean, I know I forgot to get your Criterion Collection double-disc of RENT back to you on time, but I didn't think you'd hold that against me so long... (:

Seriously, as someone who sometimes engages in long-winded puffery, I think one of the great things about blogs is that there's no set length or format the way there might be in a magazine or newspaper (I mean, unless you've somehow reached the Blogger maximum percentage of space, which seems unlikely). Short posts, long posts, image-driven posts, text-driven posts, YouTube-- it's all good, as the kids say these days, as long as it's good. What I actually find annoying-- and let me immediately say I do NOT think this is what Jonathan, one of the true princes of the film blog world, was saying above-- is people who insist on one length or format. My feeling about blog posts is like something (I believe) Roger Ebert once said about movies, that length is relative-- if it's a good movie, you don't notice the length, if it's a bad one it's interminable regardless of the length.

Actually, more than anything, I find double-digit comments sections kind of intimidating. I think it's great when folks get them, but it makes me hesitant to dive in and read if someone has, like, 63 comments or something.

Brian Doan said...

Back to Bill's topic-- this is a really great post! I like McEwan, although I'm more familiar with his recent stuff than the texts you mention here. Could we argue that ATONEMENT is kind of a horror text? There are no zombies or haunted castles, but there is a child monster, death, eerie doings at a country house-- and certainly its denouement is as scary and sad as any in a more traditional horror novel.

bill r. said...

Hey, Brian. You can argue that Atonement is sorta-kinda horror if you'd like, but to me that's stretching the definition of the term far beyond reason. Even placing McEwan's The Cement Garden with that genre is stretching it a bit for me (The Comfort of Strangers fits comfortably, though, I think).

I've heard Briony described as a kind of monster, but although she's unquestionably wrong, she's not wrong on purpose. She's a kid who thinks she's smarter than she is. As an adult, her younger self disgusts her.

And you found the ending scary? Sad, sure, but I don't know about scary.

Brian Doan said...

Bill, agreed on Briony's self-awareness at the end, which is one of the fascinating things about the book (and is made even clearer by Redgrave's sad, expressive face in the movie). In calling her a "monster," maybe I painted her with two broad a brush, but what she does is certainly monstrous-- in part because of its absolute certainty (I think that's what McEwan's almost cubist-like writing style reflects-- that the great monstrousness is in believing in the absolute rightness of your perspective).

I think the end is sad AND scary, because the act in the middle is so horrible. I don't know-- I think McEwan really captures the horror of war in the book, and maybe that's the fear I still feel at the end. But certainly, you are correct to trace it back to that event in the middle.

Sorry for vague phrasing! I'm trying to explain my emotions without spoiling the book/movie for folks who haven't encountered it yet. It's really a tremendous read (and a good adaptation of difficult material).

bill r. said...

No problem, Brian. It is a hell of a book, although I have my own quibbles about the ending, which have less to do with what happens then how it was presented. But that's too much to get into now.

My favorite part of the book (and film, which I agree was pretty strong) is the first section, when Briony is a child. That's just tremendous stuff, wonderfully written, and very involving. McEwan has great openings to his books. Have you read Enduring Love? I would kill to have written that opening. The film version of Enduring Love does a pretty good job with that section, although overall I thought the film simplified things too much. I saw it very soon after reading the book, which as I said is one of my favorites, so I should watch it again, now that I have some distance.