Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The David Bowie Project, The Bad: In Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

Short stories aren't a genre that I typically gravitate towards. Because I teach English, I have used a lot of short stories (and story segments) in the classroom over the years; so, I tend to shy away from the genre in my recreational reading.  However, with the spate of "Try a Story" tags that have gone around BookTube once or thrice in the past few months, I decided to try out a few collections a whirl, one of which was on the list of David Bowie's 100 Favorite Books that I am working through this year.

Like a lot of people, I was assigned McEwan's Atonement in college and gateway-read some of his other novels . . . but was never overly enchanted with his work.  To be perfectly frank, I quickly bored of reading about middle aged men who encounter a "nasty surprise."  It's not a surprise if the reader knows it's coming bruh . . .

Anyhoo, I picked up this tome with measured expectations.  I mean, the Thin White Duke loved it and I loved the TWD, so why wouldn't I love this collection, right?  Riiiight? Wrong.  So much NOPE.  It was terrible.

Originally published in 1978, each of the seven stories from In Between the Sheets was McEwan's first short story collection.  In the first selection, "Pornography," a hapless, two-timing newsagent meets his match in a pair of avenging nurses.  "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" the characters have contemptuous relationships with non-human partners.  With other stories, McEwan explores the hazards of romantic entanglements after an apocalyptic event ("Two Fragments") and amongst a coterie of deranged Los Angelenos ("Psychopolis").

Despite these intriguing premises,  In Between the Sheets doesn't deliver.  The stories are poorly structured, ending either at climactic moments or well past the point of resolution.  Why leave your readers mired in exposition with no payoff?  Or make your reader slog through pointless minutiae that clutters the narrative?  It would seem that, at this early point in his career anyway, McEwan had less control over the short story format, or his later aptitude for revealing a *nasty twist*.

Forty years on, In Between the Sheets's depiction of *modern* sexuality reads as dated.  All but one of the relationships in the collection are heterosexual in nature.  Even those sexual encounters that are not explicitly heteronormative in nature are implicitly in character.  For instance, in "Dead as They Come," the narrator forms an obsessive relationship with a mannequin that is eerily reminiscent of the circumscribed existence of ornamental "kept women."

Similarly, in "Reflections of a Kept Ape," a bestial relationship between the titular character and a successful female author is characterized as decidedly, if not unhappily, heterosexual.  The "ape" is a "toy boy" who grows weary of his emotionless mistress.  It is only through a literal reading of the story's title that one begins to see the tale as an examination of a bestiality through the subjectivity of the beast.  In both "Reflections of a Kept Ape" as well as "Dead as They Come," individuals who are supported by their partner are either inanimate objects or (at best?) exploited pets.

The one queer relationship in the collection, found in the titular story, is between two young women, one of whom is a little person.  This lesbian relationship, however, is almost entirely filtered through the subjectivity of one of the girls's father who is uneasy about his daughter's burgeoning desires and his own failed marriage.  The girl's relationship seems to exist not for its own sake, but as a reflection of the father's discomfort with his own sexual abilities.  In this way, the young women's relationship is characterized by its freakishness, just as the relationships in "Reflections of a Kept Ape" and "Dead as They Come" are played for their freakishness.  Pathologizing queer love, juxtaposing queer relationships with bestiality and objectophilia is deeply offensive and reflective of an outmoded way of thinking.

So, so, problematic.

Suffice it to say, In Between the Sheets is not the best place to start with McEwan.  Rather, in my case, it may well be my last.

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