Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Discomfort of Strangers

I read The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan, as part of my exploration of travel/expat fiction; I'm interested in the overwhelming tendency of these novels to put the main character in peril because he or she is abroad. The inherent premise of the "genre" is that one somehow loses an important bit of equilibrium when traveling, or that a new country's otherness is fundamentally threatening—so the characters seesaw back and forth between these two antagonistic forces.

The Comfort of Strangers is a textbook case for this genre. A couple on holiday, Colin and Mary, the force of their love and affection on the wane, yet eddying to and fro as with the tide, find themselves being led by a local who plans to harm them.

The duty of an author in these novels is to make sure the characters get lost—the winding streets of a place representing the winding streets of their souls. There's an idea of a destination, but it can't be reached. Indeed, McEwan punishes his characters, making them traipse through a city that must be Venice (the city is unnamed), in search of food when the restaurants have closed. The city is free from traffic and other signs of modern living, suggesting an older world, or a deeper and less fathomable one in the case of human desires.

To make matters worse, they've forgotten to bring their map along—of course! They are hapless in their capriciousness.

The reader becomes immersed in the characters' hunger, their need for a few simple bites of food and a drink of water becoming a quest, as if they were walking across a desert. The fact that they're on holiday—and bad things aren't supposed to happen to you when you're on vacation, right?—allows them to drift in aimlessness, to pause and try to figure out where they are in their disorientation (Colin even looks to the sun at one point to guide them in their treks, as if he's out in the wilderness instead of a city).

The reader feels their passivity, their inability to take control of their environment, which makes them vulnerable. This is essentially the foundation of the travel novel: the characters have lost their moorings in this new, strange land, so birds of prey and vultures circle above them the minute they step out of their hotel.

Robert is such a bird. He takes them under his arm—literally—and under the auspices of finding them nourishment, guides them into his strange lair that he shares with his inscrutably submissive wife, Caroline.

What's interesting in McEwan's narration is his lack of explanation. He doesn't probe deeply into any character, so their motivations, not to mention the essence of who they are, remain a mystery.

This approach has both good and bad effects. On the good side, it allows McEwan to keep the action moving. For example, the second time Colin and Mary encounter Robert, they are near their hotel, and given the fact that they don't particularly like him and only want to rest and get something to eat, one wouldn't think they would go along with him. They do, however, and the reader is forced to accept their bad decision—to trust that being on holiday has made them so passively desultory that they will go wherever a hand guides them.

The lack of explanation keeps the novel cloaked with mystery. How can we possibly understand the cruel perversities of Robert and Caroline except as living metaphors of strangeness? They are others in extremis. How can we even understand Colin and Mary? McEwan doesn't allow it. Colin's passivity can even be interpreted as a strange, perhaps unconscious complicity in Robert and Caroline's murderous scheme. Does he allow the events to occur, as Robert would have us believe? Is Colin simply a naive innocent?

McEwan's insistence on gliding on the surface of actions and characters might work well to create suspense, but in the end, it limits the novel. It's impossible to understand the characters beyond the fact that they're living relatively unexamined, shallow lives (because of laziness of a holiday?) and sleepwalk into their demise.

To be fair, McEwan does provide signals of the characters' inner states. They revert to a sort of childhood, sleeping in the afternoon, lacking the energy or motivation to tidy their hotel room, becoming dependent on their hotel maid: “They came to depend on her and grew lazy with their possessions. They became incapable of looking after one another.”

Like children, they're susceptible to trusting the wrong person.

For more on McEwan, read Notes on Saturday, by Ian McEwan and Ian McEwan's Supposed Plagiarism.

For more of my thoughts on travel/expat novels, read Death in Venice, Death in Expat Novels.

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