Monday, May 7, 2012

Ian McEwan's Unified Theory

If Einstein never succeeded in creating a unified theory, we can take solace that we at least have Ian McEwan. His latest New Yorker story, “Hand on the Shoulder,” (4/30/12) accomplishes just that. The tale told from the vantage point of the present by his protagonist Serena Frome describes how she as a gorgeous young Cambridge student was recruited into British intelligence in her final year. All this information is communicated in one pithy sentence. We then move on to the anatomy of the sexuality of her lover Jeremy Mott. McEwan writes about sexuality like a pathologist doing an autopsy. And right away the MI5 connection and the sex are established. Jeremy is wonderful lover, but never has orgasms. “Did he want to to smack my backside, or have me smack his? Did he want to try on my underwear? This mystery aroused me when I was away from him, and made it al l the harder to stop thinking about him when I was supposed to be concentrating on maths.” Serena eventually takes up with Jeremy’s 54 year old history tutor, Tony Canning, whose age group she generalizes about thusly, “The body’s largest organ, the skin, bears the brunt—it no longer fits the old. It hangs off them, off us, like a room-for-growth school blazer. Or pajamas…Tony had a yellowish look like an old paperback, one in which you could read of various misfortunes—knee and appendicitis operations, a dog bite, a rock climbing accident, and a childhood disaster with a frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.” And it’s not only sex, Tony cooks porcini with olive oil and pancetta and they “...ate them with polenta…This was exotic food in England in the seventies.” Later, the reader is introduced to "akrasia  “which was, Tony reminded me, the Greek word for acting against one’s better judgement. (Had I not read Plato’s Protagoras?)” McEwan’s prose is painterly when it isn't emblematic, shifting between the micro and macro worlds. The realism of his bodies recalls Eakins’ "The Gross Clinic" and "The Swimming Hole" and the looming menace of history that hangs over the agglomeration of minutiae brings to mind great apocalyptic drawings and paintngs like Goya’s "Disasters or War" and Picasso’s "Guernica."

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