Tuesday, September 16, 2003

McEwan's In Between the Sheets: Short, but strong, stories

The title of Ian McEwan's collection of seven short stories can be interpreted two ways. 'In between the sheets' could refer to what goes on between lovers or people involved in some other form of sexual congress. But, a writer almost automatically thinks of another kind of sheets -- paper. The title can also evoke what writers put on and between the sheets that lurch or pour from our computers. The book supports both interpretations.

Several of these short stories feature writers involved in the fight to write. One of the oddest is told from the perspective of the pet ape and former lover of a woman writer. She has achieved the kind of notoriety that sometimes strikes once for mediocre writers of pedestrian fiction. Her novel gave voice to the timely issue of infertility among otherwise healthy, middle-class couples. It became a flash-in-the-pan success in the market for commercial fiction. Her challenge is to write another book without the help of exceptionally good luck. As she slouches toward a return to obscurity, the writer briefly attempts either a diversion or the embrasure of a different kind of muse. She has a sexual relationship with her chimpanzee. The episode lasts only a week, but is the most important event in the intelligent animal's life. His inability to give voice to his desires becomes as suffocating as hers in "Reflections of a Kept Ape."

There isn't a writer in one of best of the seven selections, "Two Fragments: Saturday and Sunday, March 199-." However, the story is revealing of what a virtuoso like McEwan can do between the sheets. An unspecified apocalype, perhaps a nuclear war, has occurred, leaving British society bereft of housing, transportation, food and even water. Henry, the narrator, has managed to retain a low-level job as a government functionary, but society is degenerating into mayhem all around him, as people struggle to survive. Among his experiences is observing a man exploit his teenaged daughter to earn a few coins. Himself the father of a toddler, he is forced to consider just how far he will go to keep bread on the table and a roof over their heads. But, McEwan is too fine a writer to focus exclusively on the bleakness of life in a post-apocalyptic setting. He dares consider what people can risk doing for each other even when there are few resources and little chance of recompense.

In "Psychopolis," we are in the head of another writer. The British narrator is visiting the United States. He decides to explore what he has heard is one of America's most fascinating cities, Los Angeles. He lives a borrowed life there, from the flat he sublets to the friends he acquires, but feels ambivalent about. He finds the metropolis an exercise in excess and boredom. However, some of the people he observes and associates with catch and hold his attention. There's Mary, his immediate lover, who insists he chain her to his bed and not let her go for a weekend. George is the manager of the shop across the street, which specializes in party goods and rehabilitative care items -- wet bars and bedpans. Relationship-obsessed Terence is so malleable he will do anything to please the women he pursues, including urinate on himself in a public place. The protagonist decides L.A. is a city that represents the contemporary psyche gone awry. He experiences an epiphany -- rather than allow his life to become mired in the illusions and delusions he is observing, he must break away from the pattern of avoiding change he has fallen into.

Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize for his novel, Amsterdam, in 1988. His longer fiction benefits from the same unblinking observation of not so much what people say as what they do, that makes In Between the Sheets a book a reader will think about long after she has finished it. McEwan offers us a smorgasbord of stories that shows his range as a writer and whets one's appetite for more. His works are sometimes described as dark or even freakish because they intertwine the stuff of nightmares, daydreams and reality. McEwan is a British heir to Sherwood Anderson. If you find grotesquerie disturbing, he is not your cup of Earl Grey.

I acquired this book in one of the best ways possible. A pal who had read and enjoyed it passed it on. However, even if it means parting with a few dollars, I believe you will find McEwan's short stories worthwhile.

My civil rights blog, where I write about some of the books I've read, is Silver Rights.

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