Chelsea Cornell talks storyweaving in Ian McEwan’s “Pornography”

The heart of this story is a sex shop, in the Soho market in Brewer Street. The owner of this shop is Harold, a short, introverted younger brother who wears his self confidence in a crisp leather jacket. Harold is brother to main character and employee O’Byrne. O’Byrne refers to his brother as, “Little Runt,” and helps him man the sex store while also holding up the point of a love triangle, and soaking in the fresh news of testing positive to the clap. O’Byrne fulfills his relationship needs by feeding off the opposing personalities of two nurses who work the psych ward. Trainee Nurse Pauline Shepherd, the quiet, shy, and pushover type, wants nothing more but to shower O’Byrne in her love. Pauline nurtures O’Byrne by feeding him, cleaning his dank clothes, and simply serving as a warm body to lie next to at night. Pauline does not ask for much from O’Byrne in return, and allows herself to be a victim of his mood swings, and unresponsiveness. Sitting in the right hand corner of the love triangle is Sister Lucy Drew. Lucy displays dominance in not only her occupation, but also relationship with O’Byrne. Lucy lives out every man’s fantasy by displaying dominance and control in their sexual relationship. Lucy is the older of the two women, and most favored of O’Byrne. O’Byrne uses both of these women to his complete disposal after he fulfills his initial priorities of helping Harold enhance their sex shop by “going All American,” and getting piss drunk with his mates.

This dark comedy is told in third person narrative through the words of Ian McEwan. His tone is very fluid and steady paced throughout, and he sprinkles the story with bits of comedy and just enough detail to capture the shallow aspects of O’Byrne’s pathetic life. McEwan has a way with character dialogue, and is able to provide the minimal amount, while painting such a wide-ranged picture in the readers mind. McEwan uses the relationship of Harold and O’Byrne and their expansion of the sex shop, as an outlet for the love triangle and inner struggles of O’Byrne. The dialogue portrayed between these two characters is the thread woven through the conflict of O’Byrne and the two nurses as seen in this section:

“Minutes later, when they were passing a pub, Harold steered O’Byrne into the dank, deserted public house saying, ‘Since you got the clap I’ll buy you a drink.’ The publican heard the remark and regarded O’Byrne with interest. They drank three scotches apiece, and as O’Byrne was paying for the fourth round Harold said, ‘Oh yeah, one of those two nurses you’ve been knocking around with phoned.’ O’Byrne nodded and wiped his lips. After a pause Harold said, ‘You’re well in there . . .’ O’Byrne nodded again. ‘Yep.’ Harold’s jacket shone. When he reached for his drink it creaked. O’Bryne was not going to tell him anything. He banged his hands together. ‘Yep,’ he said once more, and stared over his brother’s head at the empty bar. Harold tried again. ‘She wanted to know where you’d been . . .’ ‘I bet she did,’ O’Byrne muttered, and then smiled.”

Italio Calvino’s, “Six Memos For The Next Millennium,” explores the talent of weaving multiple situations, and conflicts through a sequence of events that seem completely unrelated. Italio Calvino illustrates why stories work for readers by using the ancient legend Charlemagne, “Let me try to explain why such a story can be so fascinating to us. What we have us a series of totally abnormal events linked together: the love for an old man for a young girl, a necrophiliac obsession and homosexual impulse, while in the end everything subsides into melancholy contemplation, with the old king staring in rapture at the lake” (Calvino, 32) which is exactly what is seen in “Pornography” through the love for two women, a sex shop going All American, two brothers, and a sexually transmitted disease. Calvino continues, “To hold this chain of events together, there is a verbal link, the word “love” or “passion,” which establishes a continuity between different forms of attraction. There is also a narrative link, the magic ring that establishes a logical relationship of cause and effect between the various episodes” (Calvino, 32).

The narrative link in “Pornography” is not only present Harold and O’Byrne, but also O’Byrne and Lucy and O’Bryne and Pauline. McEwan is very talented at weaving imagery and minimal dialogue so the reader can capture the awkward interaction between characters, without being drowned in unnecessary amounts of dialogue. These contrasting passages display the contrast in not only the two women, but the two relationships O’Byrne keeps going:

“Pauline lay on her back and O’Byrne, having undressed quickly, lay beside her. She did not acknowledge him in her usual way, she did not move. O’Byrne raised his arm to stroke her shoulder, but instead let his hand fall back heavily against the sheet. They both lay on their backs in mounting silence, until O’Byrne decided to give her one last chance and with naked grunts hauled himself onto his elbow and arranged his face over hers. Her eyes, thick with tears, started past him. ‘What’s the matter?’ he said in resignatory sing-song. The eyes budged a fraction and fixed into his own. ‘You,’ she said simply. O’Byrne returned to his side of the bed, and after a moment said threateningly, ‘I see.’ Then he was up, and top of her and then past her and on the far side of the room. ‘All right then . . .’ he said.

“O’Byrne lay on his back on the clean white sheets, and Lucy eased herself onto his belly like a vast nesting bird. She would have it no other way, from the beginning she had said, ‘I’m in charge.’ O’Byrne had replied, ‘We’ll see about that.’ He was horrified, sickened, that he could enjoy being overwhelmed, like one of those cripples in his brother’s magazines. Lucy had spoken briskly, the kind of voice she used for difficult patients. ‘If you don’t like it then don’t come back. ‘Imperceptibly O’Byrne was initiated into Lucy’s wants. It was not simply that she wished to squat on him. She did not want him to move. ‘If you move again,’ she warned him once, ‘you’ve had it.’”

Calvino explores the usage of two separate paths in his writing, and says, “I continually switch back and forth between these two paths, and when I have fully explored the possibility of one, I rush across to the other and visa versa” (Calvino, 75). In “Pornography,” McEwan uses the two women and their separate paths, to describe the voids in O’Byrne’s personality, and enhances the vision of sex, as his giant failure in life. Calvino goes on to say, “I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface” (Calvino, 77).

In conclusion, O’Byrne’s two women get the ultimate revenge on him for playing with both of their emotions simultaneously. This dramatic, ending is portrayed in a black-humor way so as a reader, you are rooting for the two women but also suffer severely for O’Byrne even as a woman reader. Lucy uses her dominance to lure O’Byrne into her home, convincing him to be completely submissive and allowing her to tie him down to her bed. Lucy also uses Pauline’s lack of power to her advantage, and convinces her to help sterilize, numb, and then castrate O’Byrne for his lies and spread of disease. Calvino argues that, “the proper use of language, for me personally, is one that enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words,” (Calvino, 77). In “Pornography,” McEwan uses this present conflict of sexual dysfunction in arousal, relationship, and disease to communicate with very little dialogue and sense of place the sadness of O’Byrne despite his disrespect toward women and sex and in the end, the reader is left with feelings for him.

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