As early as 1980, V.S. Pritchett wrote in the New York Review of Books that McEwan’s “subject matter is often squalid and sickening; his imagination has a painful preoccupation with the adolescent secrets of sexual aberration and fantasy” (31). Like the stories in his first two collections, his first two novels—The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981)—abound with scenes of incest, sexual abuse, sadomasochism, dismemberment and murder, yet their sensational aspects are complemented with a surprisingly mature style and thematic seriousness. The “moral dimension” (Head 46) of this early work has often been difficult for critics to discern behind the dead-pan narration and the apparent nonchalance with which gruesome details are reported. Yet, as Jack Slay, Jr. notes, the moral effect of these texts results from McEwan’s “conscious desire to shock readers, forcing them to gaze directly into the horrors of contemporary society” (6). We come to see the incestuous, violent, twisted and psychopathic characters of McEwan’s early work as “the embodiments of our neighbors, our acquaintances, ourselves” (7), products of a modern urbanized culture that breeds alienation, isolation, selfishness and exploitation of others.
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