4th September 2009

In Britain we’ve never been inclined to take sex seriously. For all sorts of cultural reasons the thought of doing so always leaves us feeling a little embarrassed and vulnerable; a good idea perhaps, but best left to the Scandinavians. If a British film had been made of Albert Kinsey, the part of the renowned sexologist would have been played by Sid James rather than Liam Neeson.

Glasgow writer Ewan Morrison takes on the mantle of responsibility of writing a serious book about sex and carries if off with great success. It’s difficult to believe that Swung is his first novel. It boasts a narrative control and sureness of touch –perhaps acquired from the author’s background as a television director- that would induce envy in many more experienced novelists. Wherever such skills originate, they stand him in good stead here, enabling to the author to deftly navigate through the potential minefields of swinging and male erectile dysfunction.

Not only does it take courage and skill to tackle such topics in fiction, it requires great20discipline to eshew cheap laughs when at times the urge must have been almost irresistable. Instead Morrison draws a complex psychological picture of a swinging couple, providing insight and illumination into this subculture, debunking and demystifying on his way. It’s this steadfast rejection of smirking cliché and the resolute humanity of Swung’s central characters, David and Alice, that makes the book such a satisfying read.

At it’s heart Swung is in fact, a fairly traditional love story. David and Alice are in their early thirties, in love and have just set up home together in Glasgow’s West End. Morrison writes tellingly about the precarious existence of the modern yuppie couple – how under the veneer of success they are often never more than a redundancy or defaulted mortgage payment away from social collapse. This is the essential lot of modern western man and woman today and it will resonate deeply with many people. This backdrop of realism shows a proper writer at work, signalling Alice and David as real characters and thus making us care about what happens to them.

As with most tales of this nature, before their love can be totally realised, there are several obstacles for the hero and heroine to overcome. It’s just that in Swung, these tend to be a little more extreme than those experienced by most couples. So too, therefore, must be the remedies.

American art-school graduate Alice, decanted to Glasgow, is gnawed at by her failure to fulfill her early promise as a painter. Some of the best writing in the book deals with Alice’s battles against herself in her understanding of both her artistic processes and her place in the world. Unable to kill her internal critic long enough to let the artist in her flourish, her life is one long bout of vascillation and self-flagelation, every road leading to frustration and tears. And we instinctively understand Alice’s pain: for someone with genuine artistic aspirations, the ultimate defeat and humiliation in life is to be stuck in the role of critic.

Her reciprocated love for co-worker David offers a final20shot at some kind of redemption. Sadly Alice’s artistic impotence is mirrored by his practical issues of male erectile dysfunction and his impending redundancy at the TV company, where he works in personnel.

This sense of looming social and financial embarrassment, and of youth slipping away, but also the desperation to fix David’s sexual impotence, propells the couple into the swinging scene. In exploring David and Alice’s adventures in this subculture Swung never loses its humanity or underlying pathos. While it’s far from a po-faced novel, Morrison lets the humour emerge from the foibiles of his characters: one of the most hilarious elements is the obsessive Californian Alice convincing the straight-down-the line-heterosexual Scot David, that his erectile dysfunction is all about repressed homosexuality, and what he really needs is to be sodomised in order to clear this problem up.

Without giving away too much about the ending, the arcs of the characters neatly cross over: the self-styled libertine is the one who thrives in a corporate life that has spat out the stoic, whom after much resistance, finds a genuine liberation in the swinging subculture.

To merely call this book a stunning debut novel is to damn it with faint praise. Swung is a beautifully-crafted, completely realised and often inspirational book, and it announces Ewan Morrison as one of the most interesting and exciting voices to emerge in Scottish fiction in recent years.


Originally featured in the Guardian.