I read the beginning and end of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers today. I realized while reading the first chapter that absolutely everything in the book – the locations, the descriptions of them, the things that happened and the descriptions of them – were symbols, or at least atmospheric. It opens with a page full of description using words associated with water (flood, pour, drain, wave, engulf), suggesting that the protagonist are lost on an ocean and about to be engulfed in a great wave. The first paragraph describes workers on the barges under their hotel window, emphasizing their activity and apparent senselessness, setting the stage for how the couple wanders the city (and their relationship) aimlessly, without knowing where they are or what is happening around them.
Every detail used foreshadows the upcoming events; no unrelated details are presented. We’re told that it is a famous tourist destination, and that the locals speak a different language, but not what city it is or what language they are speaking. The details are iconic, stereotyped, even cliche’. The streets grow dark and the buildings brooding, and we know something bad is going to happen; we know Robert is dangerous from the kinds of buildings nearby when we run into him. We know immediately from Robert’s gold chain and smell of aftershave that he’s some variety of douche. So it’s much like a dream: Some idea, mood, or obsession generates a series of images and events.
I don’t know exactly how that translates into a method of writing, but it does at least suggest that “plot first” and “characters first” are not the only options.
There’s a wonderful line around the third page: “She loved him, but not at this particular moment.” I’ve seen that line many times before, but only where someone had just done something to make the other person angry. Here, it’s used while they’re getting ready to go out. It doesn’t mean that some fleeting emotion is overpowering her love for him; it means her love is a thing that she feels now and then. This is either brilliant characterization, or a statement about love.
I read the ending (which I sometimes do to avoid investing a lot of time in a bad book), and this novel, which had such promise of saying something interesting about relationships, turned out to be more of a Gothic thriller about sadomasochism and murder. But I bet it’s a well-written Gothic thriller.