There's no doubt about it. I have now read enough of Ian McEwan's novels to have formed the opinion that he is one weird dude. His 1981 novel, The Comfort of Strangers, which I finished a few weeks ago, is not only weird, but also deeply unsettling (violence included) in the end.
So why do you suppose I like him so much?
I can't honestly say that I liked The Comfort of Strangers. It was weird. It was uncomfortable reading all the way through, because I knew something violent was coming, I just didn't know what it was, and when it came, I hadn't been expecting the form it took at all. In my previous crusades against what I call "ugly fiction," I'll admit to not liking books that just seem dark and ugly for no reason. And this seems like it would be a textbook example. But yet...I was hypnotized by it (just as I was by Atonement).
It helps that much of McEwan's fiction (particularly the titles I've been reading) are short; this one clocks in at 128 pages. There's not a whole lot of story here, either, which is usually okay by me. Brits Mary and Colin, an older but not too old (frequent mention is made of Mary's school-age children, left behind at home), unmarried couple are on holiday in an Italian seaside village. They are passing their days with lazing, napping, and uninspired wandering, until they meet a native of the village, Robert, who wines and dines them at his establishment, and eventually brings them to meet his wife Caroline. Robert and Caroline seem to have some rather weird fixations, as well as some interesting ideas about gender roles, and that weirdness becomes horrifying at the end of the book.
Did I mention that this is one weird book?
But the fact remains, for me at least, that there is something deeply sensual about McEwan's writing. I can't put my finger on it, but just reading his prose makes you feel a bit sultry. Maybe because it's a bit on the edge? A bit deviant? A touch too smooth?
"Through the warm nights, in the narrow single bed, their most characteristic embrace in sleep was for Mary to put her arms around Colin's neck, and Colin his arms around Mary's waist, and for their legs to cross. Throughout the day, even when all subjects and all desire were momentarily exhausted, they stayed close, sometimes stifled by the very warmth of the other's body, but unable to break away for a minute, as though they feared that solitude, private thoughts, would destroy what they shared." (p. 82.)
It sounds lovely, that. Keep in mind it occurs after what had been days of companionship but no real passion, and their renewed intimacy only appears after they dine at the weird couple's house. Hmm.
Did I mention that this is one weird book?*
Anyway. So I'm now on the quest to read all of McEwan's novels (Enduring Love is up next) and try to figure out why he creeps me out, and why I don't mind. Any ideas what I should call this experiment? Sex, Lies, and Ian McEwan? Adventures in Ian?
*Even weirder? It was also made into a movie starring Rupert Everett, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and...wait for it...Christopher Walken.