Ian McEwan: “Hand on the Shoulder”

04/29/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 30, 2012.

Excerpt or no (from the upcoming Sweet Tooth), “Hand on the Shoulder” works rather well — as “Transatlantic” did a few weeks ago — in that it’s a self-contained, fully-developed, and above all else interesting event in the life of Serena Frome. I don’t consider wanting to know more a bad thing, so long as all of my questions about this particular moment of the story are answered, developed, or hinted at. And they are: if anything, McEwan over-shares, defining each moment in the young Serena’s maturing affair right down to the sort of exotic food her mentor/lover exposes her to: “I remember everything–the scrubbed pine table with dented legs of faded duck-egg blue, the wide faience bowl of slippery cepes, the disk of polenta beaming like a miniature sun from a pale-green plate with a cracked glaze, the dusty black bottle of wine, the peppery rugola in a chipped white bowl, and Tony making the dressing in seconds, tipping oil and squeezing half a lemon in his fist even, so it seemed, as he carried the salad to the table.” We already know that this period of her life left an impression her — after all, another tangent of full-bodied descriptions reveal that she’s narrating from far in her future, looking wistfully back at the thought of being still being fifty-four, let alone twenty-one: “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. And in a certain light, though it may have been the bedroom curtains, Tony had a yellowish look, like an old paperback, 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 breakfast frying pan, which had left him bereft of a patch of pubic hair.” Mind you, this is interestingly written — how does a hot frying pan get anywhere near your crotch? — but they’re not the point of this story, nor, from what I can tell, of the longer novel, either.

No, this piece is about the old “hand on the shoulder” method of MI5 recruitment — unusually applied to a woman, though we’re seeing that this is, in part, because Tony is sleeping with Serena — in which an older mentor approaches a student and guides them toward a “different” department. It’s a method that works particularly well on Serena, for while she’s gorgeous, she — in that slightly stereotypical way — doesn’t realize it, and is the sort of person to take personal responsibility for the failings of others: her college boyfriend, Jeremy, who introduces her to his professor, Tony, is unable to orgasm — “I was troubled by the thought that I might be failing him” — only to learn, once he’s moved on, that he’s gay. So she’s drawn immediately both to Tony’s interest in her — “I was trying to please, to give the right answers, to be interesting” — and his own imperfections: the spots he misses while shaving and, oh, his unhappy marriage to an art dealer who frequently travels abroad. He’s a father figure, too, replacing her own strict one — referred to as the Bishop — with a rather gentler “hand on the shoulder.” (I’m assuming this would be more developed in the novel, but the echoes are unmistakable — and interesting — here. There are a few brief references to Serena’s sister, too, which work well in context as they provide these children with some contrast: Lucy, upon returning from her collegiate travels, is caught smuggling hashish. And is pregnant. Their mother insists on an abortion — not the one to let scandal leak out, particularly scandal that might affect her religious husband, though “the Bishop was prepared to bow his head and take whatever the heavens had prepared for him.”)

The novel will no doubt go further into Serena’s life post-recruitment — the beautiful woman, used to seduce the male spy, perhaps falling in love with him and having a conflict, as these dramas tend to play out — but the short story is perfectly limned by the build-up to her interview, ending with the collapse of her affair with Tony, in which she learns something vital about the workings of the human mind. You see, one weekend, Tony instructs Serena to leave her blouse for the maid to wash; that same weekend, his wife unexpectedly returns early and finds the blouse, having it out with her husband. Though it’s Tony’s fault, he genuinely pins the whole thing on Serena — who must have been attempting to break up their marriage so that she could move in — and casts himself as the victim of a homewrecker: he, for all intents and purposes, has erased the memory from his mind. Welcome to MI5, Serena; welcome to the adulthood; welcome to the realization that the “truth” is as relative as morality. Nicely done, McEwan.


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