Pornography by Ian McEwan, 1978
The magic trick:
Presenting a sinful character without judgment until the end when justice falls harshly and dramatically
One suspects a youngish Nick Hornby devoured these early McEwan stories. This one in particular recalls a darker (much darker) version of Hornby’s glossy bohemia.
Anyhow, “Pornography” gives us a vile world starring a reprehensible protagonist. Thing is, we’re not totally sure whether the story is sending him up or celebrating him. Are we supposed to find him reprehensible or relatable? Perhaps both?
It’s difficult to know for most of the story. Soon, though, the judgment is made clear. Whether you celebrated him or reviled, the story’s feelings are made plain. Justice is meted out in a terrifying scene at the end.
And that’s quite a trick on McEwan’s part.
O’Byrne sat moodily with his drink while his brother whistled and was busy about the shop. A man came in and bought a magazine. “See,” said O’Byrne sourly while the customer was still lingering over the tentacled condoms, “he bought English, didn’t he?” The man turned guiltily and left. Harold came and crouched by O’Byrne’s chair and spoke as one who explains copulation to an infant. “And what do I make? Forty per cent of 75p. Thirty p. Thirty fucking p. On House of Florence I’ll make fifty percent of £4.50. And that” – he rested his hand briefly on O’Byrne’s knee – “is what I call business.”
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