- Angela Catlin
Ewan Morrison made his debut as an author with the collection of short stories, The Last Book You Read and Other Stories, in 2005.
His first novel, Swung, was published in 2007. Other novels are Distance (2008) and Menage (2009).
In 2006 he was awarded the UNESCO/Edinburgh City of Literature residency in Varuna, Australia, where he read at the Sydney Writers' Festival.
In the 1990s, he worked as a writer-director in television and film for ten years, directed over 200 hours of television, has been nominated for three BAFTAs, and is the winner of a Royal Television Society Best Drama Award. He was also a resident scriptwriter at Madstone Films in New York from 2003-2005.
Ewan Morrison's latest books are Tales from the Mall (2012) and the novel, Close Your Eyes (2012).
The Last Book You Read (2005), Ewan Morrison’s début, makes you wonder why short-story collections are not more popular.
These tales of a self-indulgent culture, in which God is money and reality is something people have difficulty perceiving unless it is mediated through some kind of screen, are not only of relevance, but have poignancy and honesty. These are stories about people who are ‘lacking in faith … ambiguous about everything;’ people who want ‘intimacy but no commitment.’ A man sitting on a park bench waiting for the next time he will see his children; a woman planning to seduce a friend’s husband; an internet blind date; a man drawn to swinging because he wants ‘disturbance and trauma’; people moving between the US and the UK, trapped, always moving, living short term lives on short term contracts with short term emotions.
In these beautifully modulated fictions, Morrison creates entire worlds of meaning within a few sentences. His clipped, abbreviated, fragmented style – reminiscent of Coupland or Toby Litt’s Adventures in Capitalism – is the perfect form for capturing the peculiar neuroses of a society which has given itself over to its own permanent sensual fulfilment. While a couple of the stories fall a little flat, this collection is a nevertheless a great achievement by a writer who possesses self-assurance, a lightness of touch, and deft control of his material.
Swung (2007), Morrison’s second book and first novel, is the story of David and Alice. David works in Human Resources at a television company, although an imminent merger means that his position is in doubt: ‘the new economy, the thing he and Alice had joked about. To be thirty-eight, forty, starting again. A generation of men like him. All the people he’d fired. Tom, Steve, Archie. Temp typing and call centres. Unqualified for anything else. PC skills, sixty words per minute. Forty-five-second telephone reply times. Welcome to the blue team. We’re twenty points behind the reds and greens but if we just believe in ourselves we can be winners.’ David hides behind his one-liners, is ‘impotent in so many ways,’ and wonders whether this is a response to his recent flight from his wife and child. Alice sees herself as a radical post-feminist Marxist, works in the same company as David, and dreams of being an artist: she struggles with having ‘insight and no means to express it.’ She puts ‘everything in inverted commas,’ even wiggles in a ‘caricature of sexy.’ Perhaps as a consequence of this debilitating irony, she always cuts and runs; she can’t ever see anything through. When David looks at a swingers’ website for a joke, it soon develops into a shared obsession, a means by which they might solve the problem of their many forms of impotence.
Swung, like The Last Book You Read, is a serious examination of the contemporary invitation to a world of promised but forbidden sensuality generated by the dream machines of television, Hollywood and mass advertising. What happens when need and desire are in conflict? When we have become self-centred children in search of the latest toy, ready to discard it before the wrapping is off? Morrison is producing compelling narrative essays on fear and emptiness, writing about what it means to live in a time in which we have lost God and found internet porn and 24-hour rolling news. Morrison takes us right back to Plato’s myth of the cave: we are, it seems, still fixated on the image of the thing, not the thing itself. We fear the thing itself. At one point in Swung, David views his wife with another couple through a window. He leaves their side and chooses to be a witness to events through a frame. He has never felt so close to her.
In many ways, Morrison’s work, like that of Michel Houellebecq, who is very much his literary forebear, is extremely frightening. It deals with illusion and distance; with everything we manufacture to move us from language, dialogue, contact, knowledge, love, ourselves. Morrison shows a world which, despite its brash, bombastic front, is crippled by dread, reducing people to existential ciphers, simulacra of those unique selves we like to comfort ourselves with possessing. In his universe we are naive participants in an endless narrative invention based on a palimpsest of lies, stories and half-truths – wanting colour, but with no interest in what that colour is made of.
The questions Morrison asks are compelling and unsettling, provocative in form and subject matter. What does love and sex mean in a voyeuristic culture in which the explicit has become mainstream? When bodies are barbified, pornography is ubiquitous, advertising is hyper-sexualised and films such as 9 Songs and Shortbus are on general release? Morrison examines the obsession with deliverance through sex, and the way this preoccupation generates more opportunities to feel lonely, isolated and adrift. To watch is to be involved. So what is to be involved? With drugs there is the possibility of addiction, the inevitable come down. With sex, there is the possibility of addiction and the threat of not being able to come, let alone come down. Morrison places his characters in a world permanently on the edge of orgasm, which likes to fosters the illusion that the chosen few are involved in one, long, beautiful endless climax. His characters, without the traditional anchors of the nuclear family and the job for life, are in a state of perpetual infantilism. Beneath the veneer of their knowing postmodern irony, they are lost and needy, desperate for identifiable meaning; in constant pursuit of the fleeting reassurance of the promise of psychological, sexual and emotional gratification that is sold to them by a world which creates, maintains and cynically manipulates a desire that can never be satiated, a world which does less to address the real problems of need. Whilst Morrison’s work has far more compassion than that of Houellebecq it is not at all comfortable. He confronts the essential paradox of modern life: with all these opportunities to be connected to one another we seem to be less capable of being together. He shows a restless species, in search of something else. When grand narratives are dead, when the concept of truth has been devalued, when science has replaced the comfort of superstition with the rational myth of endless progress but superstition lingers, what is there? Something more gratifying? Bigger? Better? Faster? Fitter? Harder? Morrison shows that we are all inside a permanent American Dream, encapsulating so much of modern life in the following sentence: ‘Delete all. Log off, never log on again. Delete history, delete cookies.’ This is vital, pressing fiction from an extremely gifted writer.
Garan Holcombe, 2007