Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Writing sex and death

Ever since I saw the movie Atonement I wanted to read the book. I find out about a lot of writers by watching adaptations of their work. I finally had some time and had Ian McEwan's book, so I sat down and dove into the story.

Much of the movie stuck pretty close to McEwan's book -- until the end. That's when everything changed. Briony, in her seventies and just diagnosed with a slow decline into senility, has rewritten and sent her story to the publishers who have brought out all her previous work. The first draft of the book was written fifty years and five years after she accused Robbie Turner of raping her cousin Lola the night the twins ran away. She finally understood what was going on between Robbie and her sister Cecilia and wants to make amends. She will recant the testimony that put Robbie in a mental hospital for nearly four years and he can come back and pick up his life where he left off, go to medical school and be a successful and respected doctor without the specter of rape and mentally ill hanging over him and Cecilia. They can be happy and get married and move on with their life. She will have atoned for her sins.

That's not how it ends.

Robbie did indeed die of a septic wound from shrapnel and Cee died in a bombing that took out the tube station near where she lived. Briony's book cannot be published because Lola and Paul Marshall are now married and very wealthy and would sue the publisher for libel. You cannot libel the dead, but Lola and Paul aren't dead and Briony's mind and life are raveling out so fast it isn't likely she will survive to see her book published and Robbie vindicated posthumously. The bad guys win or, in this case, the bad guy and girl win.

From what little I've read of McEwan's work, and some of the reviews of his other books, the bad guys usually win in the end. McEwan has a fascination with sex and death that permeates everything I have read so far, including the stories in first love, last rites, most of which are crude and shocking in their descent into the depths of the connections between sex and death.

A pedophile who blames his unpopularity on his weak chin takes advantage of a young girl, exposes himself and makes her touch his penis and then kills her because no one can know what he's done. Then he poses as an innocent man who just happened to see the dead girl drifting down the canal from the bridge above. That's his story and of course no one believes him because he has a weak chin, almost no chin, just a straight slide from his lower lip down to his neck. The story is creepy and delves into the mind of an anti-social, whining, wretch who is obviously mentally ill. In that sense, McEwan captures the character perfectly.

At first I felt sorry for the guy, but it didn't take long for pity and sympathy to turn to disgust. Most of the stories begin and end in the same vein. One sexually precocious pre-pubescent boy glorying in his mastery of all things bad over his mate decides a trial run before convincing the town tramp, who will let him look at her quim for a shilling, is in order. He lures his much younger sister into a new twist on the game of Mummies and Daddies while his parents are out so he can see the female plumbing ahead of time and have sex with her. He succeeds with the help of his little sister who knows more about her body than her older brother and is shocked and upset when he pees inside her. All of this is told by a bragging, preening boy who is so generous he allows his father and uncles to gift him with a shilling when he makes more money than they do through criminal acts. After all, his father and uncles are so proud of being able to give him the shilling he doesn't want to spoil their feelings of generosity and kindness. It's not the money he enjoys, but the superiority over his elders. No doubt, he too will get away with it, as do all the perfidious and evil-minded characters in McEwan's stories.

It seems McEwan is fascinated by meanness of spirit and spiritually and emotionally stunted people who succeed at everything they do no matter who has to suffer in the process. Sex and death are integral parts of Atonement as they are in McEwan's short stories and, from what I've read, in his Booker Prize winning novel, Amsterdam. There is no doubt of McEwan's mastery of prose and his intricately plotted and executed stories, but the unsavory characters who manage to get decent people to do their dirty work for them seem to be the point of his theme. It's not just sex and death that infuse McEwan's work with life, but the perversion of sex and twisted deaths that are at the heart of them all.

What's needed is more research and more reading to get to the bottom of McEwan's themes and the driving force behind his portrayal of the darkness that inevitably triumphs.

No comments: