When I was younger, I was a huge Ian McEwan fan. I first read Enduring Love and I adored it. He had such a way about his writing that I wanted to read everything else I could get my hands on. His short stories were creative and experimental. His novels got to the heart of their characters. He was a massive influence on me. On Chesil Beach was the last of his novels that I bought, though. It wasn’t that I hated it… well I did but only because of how awkward and real it was. It was such a fantastically written book but such a horrible reading experience! I just think I overdosed on him. So, when Sweet Tooth came out and it sounded so meh I just thought “maybe not”. But I’ve always wanted to go back. I own copies of both Solar and The Nutshell but I never got round to reading them. I decided that I had to make a point of reading this short story though. First published in The New Yorker in 2016, My Purple Scented Novel was released as a booklet in 2018 in honour of 70th birthday. And it just felt like something I needed to read. I owed it to McEwan and I owed it to my younger self. Of course, I do have a tendency to be melodramatic. It was probably more that it just sounded really interesting.
“You may treat these few pages as a confession” the narrator, Parker Sparrow, tells us at the opening of this short story. And what a way to start. Parker Sparrow wasn’t a very well known novelist until a literary scandal publicly tied him to celebrated writer, Jocelyn Tarbet. The pair had been friends throughout university but their careers went in different directions. Tarbet focused on his craft and wrote numerous masterpieces. Sparrow never quite stood out and ended up getting distracted by love and family. There is a constant respect between the pair but jealousy was always lurking in the background. Try as he might, Parker just never had it in him to write a novel quite like Jocelyn. As a youth, Jocelyn had decided to be the voice of his generation and he never ignored the meaning behind that decision.
When Sparrow spots an opportunity to become the kind of writer that he sees in Tarbet, he makes a decision with untold consequences. A split second decision and some deceit will change both of these writers’ lives forever. This is a fantastic story about humanity, jealousy, passion, and morality. It speaks to very familiar feelings and forces you to question just how far you would go to get what you’d always wanted. It speaks of art and it speaks of fame in a way that makes both seem relatable yet distant. It deals with friendship in a way that we can understand from our own experiences. This simple narrative is deeper than its short length makes it seem.
As we know from all of McEwan’s novels, My Purple Scented Novel feels very realistic and the characters are well-developed. That man knows how to write about people. He gets into their innermost thoughts and feelings. He’s the kind of writer who can present somebody doing something so immoral and heinous but in a way that you think “I can kind of understand that”. Yes, the confession is a shocking tale but McEwan expertly blurs the lines between good and bad. You feel sorry for everyone or nobody in the end. It’s not entirely clear. McEwan doesn’t offer his own moral judgement on the characters. He just leaves the final reveal out in the open to see how it plays out.
This is a very short read but it is packed with detail. I think McEwan has always been on top form with short stories and this hints back to some of his greatest works. It has that awkwardness about it that made On Chesil Beach such an intense read but it has a playfulness about it. A little smirk to it. It knows what it is trying to get to you to agree to and it know how hard it is to resist. Do I wish it was longer? Yes, in the sense that it’s the kind of McEwan writing that is so hard to resist. But, I think if this story had been extended it would have lost something. There would have been a greater need for self-reflection from the narrator. It would have been impossible, as a reader, to continue going along with him. Instead, the confession just brazenly sits in the open and leaves it up to you. It is an incredibly clever, fun, and memorable story.