"Hand on the Shoulder" by Ian McEwan Originally published in the April 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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.