Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Discomfort of Readers

The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, Read by Alex Jennings, Chivers Audio Books, 2002

This, the second novel from the Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan, moves with the lightning pacing of an old Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode. Playing on the irony inherent in Blanche Dubois’ most remembered phrase, The Comfort of Strangers promises exactly the opposite. The novel’s plot is rather thin and ancient — a travelling English couple are befriended then set upon by a brutal native — but it’s not as a master plotter that McEwan is celebrated. Rather it is for the purity of his prose, his atmosphere, and his way of drawing a scene to such a degree that it unsettles you.

There is a moment near the book’s end when the English couple, Colin and Mary, are at the home of the Venetian, Robert, and his Canadian wife, Caroline. The two women repair to the kitchen, and in their absence, Robert turns and punches Colin right in the stomach, knocking him down. As this scene unfolds, there is just the right degree of embarrassed male pride that keeps Colin at the dinner party, but sulky throughout the evening, mystified at the unexplained beating, but too ashamed to mention it.

It is a stunning, gripping scene, thought not entirely unexpected, as we feel, from the moment this English couple becomes involved with Robert, that he is bad news, that only bad things will come of this. There is a kind of purring menace in the character of Robert, most of which is conveyed through stories he tells the two vacationers, grotesque, horrible stories of his childhood, and his insinuating style of insisting on treating his guests to wine and a good time.

On his own, however, Robert wouldn’t be as effective a seducer because he is too underhandedly forceful. He is the kind of person you look out for when you leave your hotel, watchful so as to not run into him. Then when the inevitable happens and he does apprehend you, every excuse you can imagine is thrown at him. You’d be too tired, too sick, about to leave for reservations, your parents have died and you’re leaving Venice, anything at all to escape.

So McEwan skillfully pairs him with a crippled wife. Supposedly suffering from an old back injury, Caroline is presented as an abused woman, unable to leave her husband due to her injuries, unable to quite come out and accuse him. She sets up a note of sympathy in Colin and Mary, leading them back to the spider’s nest. It is their sympathy that Robert is counting on, and it is their undoing.

Colin and Mary exist in a lover’s haze, fueled somewhat by frequent marijuana befuddlement, and the kind of unspoken miscommunications that are the hallmark of a long-standing relationship. As they blindly chart each other’s reserved natures, Robert is an introduced jarring note which unsettles their lives even when he’s not around. To watch Colin and Mary’s alternately passionate and fractious moments of angry clarity is to see the villain’s handiwork take root.

McEwan writes everything leading up to the book’s climax with an amazing and understated grace, with just the right hints of malevolence to unnerve you, with the right kind of displaced prickly anger at times between the English couple, and the lazy indolence of sitting around not being tourists choosing instead just time together, smoking grass and talking. The interplay of these up and down emotions and static moments lends the novel a illusory touch of surreality bordering on dreamlike. All of this works so effortlessly-seeming and intersecting so beautifully that the novel’s end is a bit of a disappointment.

Not because you almost see the conclusion before it hits you, though its exact terms are a jarring shock, but because there is a collapsed quality to it that somehow seems misplaced. It has a forced explanatory quality when it’s not really necessary. Why do Robert and Caroline do the things they do? We don’t really need to know; it’s horrific enough and getting the police inspector’s cut-rate psychologizing diminishes its horror. It puts it back within the realm of the mundane, the everyday, it sucks out the complexity McEwan just spent the last hundred pages building up. Left alone with just the horror of the novel’s conclusion, McEwan’s novel would have stood even taller as a masterpiece from which nightmares are made.

Alex Jennings reads crisply, smoothly, though the book is really so short that he doesn’t have to do more than slide us along from the book’s beginning to its ending. He does without making much of a to-do about it.

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