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Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  Ian McEwan’s “Hand on the Shoulder” was originally published in the April 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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Another week, another excerpt from a popular, prize-winning author’s forthcoming novel.  The New Yorker disappoints again.  There is a world of gifted short fiction authors out there who get ignored each week this magazine decides to market a new novel instead of cultivate the art of the short story.  The short story is an art form far removed from the excerpt, but The New Yorker (is it more and more?) seems to treat short stories as primers, apprentice pieces, a precursor to  a novel proper.  What a reductive perspective.  The short story need not be so humble.  Fortunately, there are dozens of quality literary magazines out there publishing a generation of short story writers; it’s just too bad that their readership is a tiny fraction of that of The New Yorker.

So, “Hand on the Shoulder,” an excerpt from McEwan’s fall novel Sweet Tooth.  I haven’t been a fan of McEwan’s late work, but Sweet Tooth sounds interesting.  Here, quickly, is the current write-up on Amazon:

The year is 1972.  The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight against Communism goes on, especially in England’s cultural circles.

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has just completed her maths degree at Cambridge. Her brief affair with one of her professors leads to an interview with MI5. Serena lands an assignment in Operation Sweet Tooth: the funding of artists and writers with whom MI5′s political views align. Her “target” is Tom Healey, a promising young writer. First she falls in love with his stories, then she begins to fall in love with the man. When his novella wins a prestigious prize, the deceit becomes too much for Serena to bear. But before she can confess, her cover is blown, scandalizing the literary world and crippling MI5′s efforts. Who blew the whistle and why? Ian McEwan will keep you guessing in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal, intrigue, and love.

“Hand on the Shoulder” covers the affair that leads Serena into MI5.  However, that she ends up at MI5, this being an excerpt rather than a fully fleshed short story, means next to nothing in the end, yet here’s how a story that ultimately is about an affair begins: “My name is Serena From (rhymes with “plume”), and forty years ago, in my final year at Cambridge, I was recruited by the British security service.”  It’s 1972, and the world is changing.  For one, her boyfriend Jeremy is the first openly gay person Serena knows, as the laws changed only five years earlier (they don’t remain boyfriend and girlfriend long).  The Cold War is in a “moribund phase.”  The very fact that a woman would be recruited into MI5 was a fairly unique event.  But Serena doesn’t really care about much of this — not yet.  She’s busy happily dealing with men from the old school.

One day while she’s walking with Jeremy, his history tutor Tony Canning comes toward them and begins asking questions.  He was fifty-four and Serena twenty-one, and his questions and his authority were probably more directed at gaining her affections than pushing her into potential recruitment.  It worked.  That summer of 1972 becomes a golden age for Serena as she meets Canning at an out-of-the-way cottage each weekend for cooking, sex, and cultivation.  Canning’s is a heavy hand, and he began directing Serena’s reading, forcing her to read histories and newspapers (well, only the Times) he chooses and give reports.  She gets better, but she doesn’t think any of it is as important — distant as it felt — as the affair going on in front of her.

When I started reading the paper, the government’s fifth state of emergency was still months ahead of us.  I believed what I read, but it seemed remote.  Cambridge looked much the same, and so did the woods around the Cannings’ cottage.  Despite my history lessons, I felt I had no stake in the nation’s fate.  I owned one suitcase of clothes, fewer than fifty books, some childhood things in my bedroom home.  I had a lover who adored me and cooked for me and never threatened to leave his wife.  I had one obligation, a job interview — weeks away.  I was free.  So what was I doing, applying to help maintain the security of this ailing state, this sick man of Europe?  Nothing, I was doing nothing.  I didn’t know.  A chance had come my way, and I was taking it.  Tony wanted it, and I had little else going on.  So why not?

I actually found “Hand on the Shoulder” interesting as it roamed around 1972 and the imminent change coming for both England and for Serena.  But this is all a setup.  In order to resolve this piece of “short fiction,” we need to leave behind the themes that make the story interesting and focus solely on the affair.  And it’s not that the affair isn’t interesting in and of itself: Canning is one of those older men who becomes infantile during sex.  ”He was one of those Englishmen wrenched from Mummy at age seven and driven into numbing boarding-school exile.  They never acknowledge the damage, these poor fellows; they just live it.”  But the story goes in many directions, suitable to a novel, and we readers are forced to either get excited or not about that novel coming in November.

10 thoughts on “Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder””

  1. selena says:

    i am in complete agreement about the art of the short story. i really don’t like tuning in and finding that it’s just a novel teaser.

    as for the story, it does sound pretty good. i had all but given up on new mcewan books after reading solar, but i may try this. please don’t let it be as disappointing as solar was for me…

  2. Jerri says:

    I wasn’t sure if this one was worth a second, closer read. I was intrigued by the idea of Selena being recruited into MI5, but I didn’t find either Serena or Tony particularly appealing on the first go-round. On reflection, I don’t think I want to spend enough time with Serena or any of her other acquaintances to read an entire novel about them.

  3. jerry says:

    I am in agreement with Trevor about the frequent use of upcoming novel excerpts in TNY but I thought this one worked as an episode on its own.

    Except for Atonement I have never cared for McEwan but I found Serena a compelling narrator and I do look forward to reading Sweet Tooth.

  4. Trevor says:

    I’m not so sure I think this one works on its own. I feel — though it seems others rightfully disagree — that the only reason we accept all of the holes in this story and the lack of development of the MI5 job and, for that matter, the lack of development of Serena, is because we know it’s part of a larger work. We read this as if it is chapter one, not as a stand-alone story.

  5. Aaron says:

    Like Jerry, I’m not in favor of novel excerpts, but like “Transatlantic” (which I believe you also disliked), I think this worked on its own — perhaps you’ve got some excerpt bias (i.e., do you know it’s an excerpt before you read)? More thoughts here (http://bit.ly/INAO6C), but the story is self-contained in a tale of Serena’s coming-of-age, in which she, the overly responsible and under-educated daughter of a hyper-religious man, is drawn to the imperfections of a married mentor and learns — in the end-of-the-affair’s fluid use of “truth” — a thing or two about how the world really works: We remember and operate on what we need to; morality is as flexible as one’s memory.

  6. Trevor says:

    perhaps you’ve got some excerpt bias (i.e., do you know it’s an excerpt before you read)?

    I certainly have a bias against excerpts. I don’t know how many excerpts I’ve read with knowledge it was an excerpt, but when I read “Transatlantic” and this McEwan I didn’t know beforehand. The McEwan I figured since McEwan is a novelist with a novel coming out soon. With the McCann I didn’t know but finding out made me think, “That explains a lot.”

    To me the problem isn’t whether the story is self-contained (though I disagree that this one is, despite the fact we can pull out themes). These simply are not short stories. They are exercises for these authors, and it comes across. The art of the short story is alive and well, so why do we keep getting these pieces from novelists?

    In another post (I’m sure another excerpt is coming) I will have to elaborate.

    And I actually did enjoy this piece. My gripe at the beginning is purely directed to The New Yorker for its interest in publicity more than aesthetics. And it may have worked on me: I am more likely to read McEwan’s book now than I was before I read this piece.

  7. Aaron says:

    Trevor, looking forward to reading your elaborations on the subject; the line between “short story” and “novel” is as blurred to me as the definition of “novelette” and “long story” — it seems to me as if there’s plenty of common ground between them, especially in novels that take place over one single, stretched moment, or in short stories (like Munro’s) that span entire generations. Is the difference in what a short story chooses to excise, versus what a novel chooses to elaborate on? If so, should we be even more Lish-like in our editing of shorts, to make sure they’re as lean and un-novel-like as possible?

    In any case, it’s an interesting topic to discuss!

  8. Trevor says:

    I have ventured down this path before — a bit — and ultimately, because there is no rule for short stories and for novels, have figured most of it is a matter of length. As you rightly point out, Munro covers generations in a few pages (or paragraphs) while, say, Virginia Wolf writes a novel that takes place in one day. And I certainly don’t advocate Lish-like editing.

    That doesn’t ellaborate as I promised, but I wanted to at least say that this is as difficult a thing for me as for anyone.

    My main gripe is the publicity machine. This year’s Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award has 77 collections on its longlist. Only a very small portion of these authors have been published in The New Yorker. I’d like to see more of these and less of the next big novel.

    That said, I understand that The New Yorker doesn’t pretend to publish “short stories” but rather “fiction,” so they can do what they want, including giving us glimpses into what’s coming in the world of fiction. I’m just not sure how much more of it I want to be a part of when there’s so much else out there.

  9. Judith Klau says:

    This is the first time I have been troubled by what is clearly a piece of a novel rather than a short story: the opening lines about Serena’s future as a spy and the dropped hints throughout the narrative (the friend Canning thought would interview her, etc.) distracted me, making me aware of its excerpted nature and detracting from its cohesiveness. This was not the case for me with “Transatlantic,” which I thought worked on its own, as did for example Jen Egan’s “Ask Me If I Care” from “Goon Squad.” Perhaps it’s the episodic nature of these latter writers novels that make the transition better, whereas McEwan writes a long (long) consecutive stream.

  10. Ken says:

    A short story is self-contained. You need not read any more. It has been completed. It satisfies or it is open-ended or it even dissatisfies but it is finished when you finish reading it. A novel is all of these things as well. When a short fiction piece clearly is not finished (and not because it’s open-ended or ambiguous) it seems like an excerpt and is not satisfying. I honestly have no desire to read this book and did not really get that much out of the excerpt. I have read one of his novels, Saturday, and liked it but the more I’ve though about it the more absurd it seems-shaming a thug with Matthew Arnold! Please. It is a book with much that is good. Perhaps McEwan SHOULD write short-stories because then the interesting things he has to say (for instance about the narrator visiting his Alzheimer ridden mother in Saturday) would be properly expressed.

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