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.