Sunday, March 16, 2008

"The Comfort of Strangers" and a Recent Change in Status

I finished a novel Saturday morning and it's been stuck in my head since. It's called "The Comfort of Strangers" and it was written by Ian McEwan. He published it back in 1981 but it carries nothing between its covers that would distinguish it as a work written during that decade. At best one could place it as occurring sometime during the late 20th century, but it's difficult to get more precise than that. Not only are there no references to times or dates, McEwan never precisely identifies the city the story is set in. The city he describes is a stylized Venice, Italy, but McEwan has wrung it of all of its storied charms and infuses it instead with a dreamy quality in which dread and a kind of genteel hostility are pervasive. The result is unsettling. While some writers compose books that amount to love letters to various cities and countries, with "The Comfort of Strangers" I think McEwan has composed a hate letter to Italy.

Briefly, the plot follows Mary and Colin, two beautiful Britons, not quite married, on vacation in the aforementioned city of quasi-Venice. As the novel opens we find them cultivating mutual resentments in their lavish hotel room with passive aggressive silences and banal small talk freighted with meaning. That night they venture forth into the city to find a suitable restaurant, knowing full well they'll probably get lost in the city's twisting streets and narrow alleys. Hours later, lost and frustrated in their search for an acceptable eaterie, they happen upon a local man named Robert, who leads them to a bar patronized solely by locals. (During the extended bar scene, Robert tells them a story from his childhood that is one of the most sustained pieces of long-form dialogue I've read in fiction.) There's something off about Robert. He shares inappropriately. He's more familiar with them than is appropriate, touching them in ways that willfully ignore the conventions of personal space. Colin and Mary dismiss these faux pas as nothing more than a difference in culture, but to their detriment. Soon Robert demonstrates his peculiar gregariousness, tinged as it is with menace, is an exaggeration of the surrounding culture, but particular to him.

The novel builds in suspense as Robert manages to insinuate himself more and more into the lives of the two tourists. Much of the feeling of dread that characterizes "Comfort" emanates from what is unspoken and what is only hinted at; rarely do the characters even acknowledge the strange things they witness or the moments of probable insanity they encounter in others. It's as though the hapless tourists are sleepwalking through a nightmare for which the reader is intolerably awake. So little happens in an overt sense during the story, that the ending, which is as overt as it gets, is so shocking I read it over three times to make sure I was reading it correctly. I was, and boy is it a doozy.

And I say that "Comfort" amounts to a hate letter to Venice (and, more expansively, the country of Italy), because when we finally discover what's wrong with Robert, it's clear McEwan is making a larger statement about his views of Italian culture, namely their preoccupation with the notion of manliness and the acceptance of a role of subjugation for women (in one scene, a woman tells Mary that if a man is known for beating his wife, it gains him some measure of notoriety among his friends and acquaintances). When one adds in McEwan's characterizations of the mise en scene, this city that is and is not Venice, one gets the sense of a dying, useless city filled with malignantly self-involved people. If McEwan ever visited there (and it would appear he has), after reading the book it seems doubtful he'd ever willingly return.

(If you'd like to read a negative take on the book, read this 1981 review of the novel by John Leonard of the New York Times. Though be warned: the reviewer gives away far too much of the plot in an effort to be cruelly dismissive. With the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, howeverm I think this reviewer seems a tad short-sighted on the subject of Ian McEwan.)

This is the sixth novel I've read by him, and though I don't think it's his best, (I still think "Atonement" carries that title) I do think it's his most tightly controlled work, and one of the most successful attempts by a writer to depict in a work of fiction that intangible quality called "atmosphere". As I read through it chapter by chapter, I recounted its plot to my wife and sister -- they were as weirded out by my retelling as I was by reading it. My wife says she doesn't even want to know how it ends, which I'll chalk up to her discomfort with the lurid subject matter rather than her being bone-tired of the sound of my voice.

Interestingly, in 1990, Paul Schrader made a film of the book. Rupert Everett stars as winsome, beautiful tourist Colin, and none other than Christopher Walken plays the role of Robert. I can't wait to see it.

Anyway, sorry I've been slack on the updates of late, but I think I have an okay excuse this time.

I got a job. I started it on the 10th of this month.

It's one of those hourly-type things that spit out paychecks every couple weeks. My job title is "copy editor/proofreader"and I work for a small company in a suburb of Atlanta just north of Marietta. I wanted to be sure I managed to STAY employed for a full week before I posted up about it, and since I accomplished that, I feel fine to announce it here.

So anyway, if I'm remiss in posting up blog entries (or in returning calls), it's because I'm still adjusting to the whole working stiff thing. I'm going to try to post up an entry at least once a week to begin with. Hopefully they'll get more frequent as the weeks go on.

Also, you should know that my being a "proofreader" will not make me any more careful with the entries I post up on here than usual. Rest assured, they will be of the same slapdash quality you've grown to love.


blankfist said...

What's the ending?

Anonymous said...

"What's the ending?"

He loses the job.

Anonymous said...

Crane! Why did you give up on your "strategy of refusal?"

Now, you will see the power of the dark side - the slow, alienation of static conformity and bland predictablility - of working for your leisure pre-packaged time - of boredom...

Work is death. Capitalism is the grim reaper.

Man, you were my posterchild for emancipation. What event has changed you?

Are you planning to make babies?


Well, welcome to the husband club dude.

Anonymous said...

"Work is death. Capitalism is the grim reaper."

My advice to you sir is to get a job. The bums lost.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous -

Eat my balls.