The 5 Simple Machines by Todd McEwen
Now I love a screw as much as the next girl, and a pulley, and a lever. But I also love a good yarn. Initially, McEwen struggles to find the balance, yoking together erotic content and mechanical imagery in a relationship as dissatisfactory as those of his world-weary narrators. But he soon finds his rhythm, and fragmented experimentation gives way to confident, atmospheric narrative.
The 5 Simple Machines is a collection of stories about sex and human relationships, with a commute-friendly binding to boot. (Initially I envied my colleague his review text, The Bluffer’s Guide to SEX, but try bluffing that one on the Northern line.) The presiding mood is one of disenchantment tinged with hopefulness: a married man struggles with the distinction between love and sex; a student reminisces about lazy summer days; a jaded editor juggles lovers. His girlfriend vents:
You weren’t angry enough. Yes I was, mumbled Federico. She put a hand on her hip, then pulled the plug in the sink and the water spun down the hole counterclockwise as it always does in New York. I want you, she said very evenly, to force me to suck you while you’re doing the dishes. But you’re doing the dishes, said Federico.
Prosaic detail, strained emotion, a witty denouement: this is classic McEwen. He is a deft wordsmith, patterning his stories with puns and motifs. One girl accepts her lover’s dinner invitation ‘in a pleasing light blue loopy hand’, and later looks up at him with eyes ‘which were as open and free as her handwriting’. Guacamole, a green dress, and red wedges, are all handled with comparable deftness, not to mention the ubiquitous screw, lever, and other ‘simple machines’. You finish the book and feel compelled to turn back to the beginning, armed with a better knowledge of the author’s worldview.
McEwen’s characters occupy a bleak, emotionally stunted universe; but he paints it in a way that alternately delights, surprises, and amuses. Radically original he might not be, but there is an understated confidence about this, only his fifth novel in thirty years, which speaks of a mature talent. I look forward to his next.