Analysis of Ian McEwan’s Psychopolis

The final story in Ian McEwan’s collection In between the Sheets (1978), “Psychopolis” was originally published in American Review and anthologized in the influential The Penguin Book of Modern Short Stories (1987), edited by Malcolm Bradbury, McEwan’s former tutor at the University of East Anglia. The story concerns an Englishman and his relationships with three Americans and with music but ultimately with America and the psychopolis, the city of the mind. It opens with the protagonist chaining the feminist Mary to his bed for the weekend, on her request. The act becomes one of commitment to a promise, and despite Mary’s begging to be freed, he refuses. The narrator attempts to resist the banality of Los Angeles by playing his flute. When he finally releases Mary, he tells her that in just one week the city has completely changed him. The rhythm of the story is the transitions between intense moments, public revelations of inner angst and heated exchanges, juxtaposed with the narrator’s contemplation of nothingness.

Urban Zintel—Laif/Redux

The story moves on to describe the development of the Englishman’s friendships with George Malone, who owns the store beneath his apartment, and with Terence Latterly, a man nothing like the stereotypical American but who rather resembles a Renaissance prince and who is researching a thesis on George Orwell. Listening to Terence’s stories, the narrator becomes depressed and comes to believe that there is no escape from the kind of superficial lifestyle represented by Los Angeles. He tries to lift his mood with his music but soon lapses into a deep depression.

George appreciates his music and takes him to bars where people make public their personal grief on stage. The final section brings all the characters together for a showdown. The Englishman is leaving for New York, and George invites them all to a farewell party at his house, telling the visitor to bring his flute. As Terence and Mary meet for the first time, the conversation turns to Los Angeles; both of them praise the city, but Terence’s falsity becomes all too obvious. McEwan comments on the social mores of the English and the Americans, as the narrator tells Mary that in England strangers would not immediately talk about being physically abused by their parents. Mary replies that the English tell each other nothing. He retorts that between telling nothing and telling everything there is very little to choose.

George introduces his guests to his two children, whom he is bringing up as Christians, and then the party turns nasty. The guests’ conversation moves from how Christians have ruined the world to gun ownership. When George pulls out his gun, Terence takes it and aims the gun at his host with the words, “death to gun owners.” Suddenly etiquette reasserts itself: The guests eat and their conversation moves onto safe subjects; American politeness and hospitality takes over. The narrator plays his Bach sonata, and while he does so, images of his time in America flow through him, thoughts of the city without a center, without citizens, existing only in the mind, the psychopolis. He stops abruptly but his fellow guests do not notice. Then, however, there is a true moment of warmth as they clap and the musician is overwhelmed by nostalgia for this version of America.

Analysis of Ian McEwan’s Pornography

McEwan, Ian. In between the Sheets. London: Cape, 1978.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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