Art Noir: Female Human Animal (2018) by K A Laity

Female Human Animal (2018)

Dir. Josh Appignanesi

Starring: Chloe Aridjis

Here is another film that dwells at the intersection of art and noir: Female Human Animal isn’t a heist though, nor is it a con. Instead it’s a film that brings together many unexpected strands for a story that doesn’t neatly fit any genre. Nevertheless the noir ambience is pervasive and used to great effect with the surrealist nature of the narrative. There is a great overlap between noir and surrealism historically.

What’s also unusual about the film is that the star plays a version of herself immersed in events that were really happening: Aridjis was co-curating the Leonora Carrington exhibit at the Tate Liverpool and writing her novel Sea Monsters (2019). There was a terrific conference connected with the exhibit, which is how I learned about the film; Catriona McAra has written an insightful chapter on the film and Aridjis’ works for Leonora Carrington: Living Legacies (2020). Carrington ‘haunts’ the film in documentary footage spliced into the main narrative, offering advice or hauling up short her protégée with incisive critique. It’s glorious to see so much of her art all together: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas looks particularly gorgeous and I had no idea some of the tapestries were so huge. The arresting And Then We Met the Daughter of the Minotaur is a focal point both visually and psychologically. If you’re unfamiliar with the artist, this film will whet your appetite.

Filmed on VHS it has the grainy, gritty feel of 70s crime films. From the start, the Chloe character (to distinguish her from the real person) seems on edge, uncomfortable, almost cornered. Like many people at a turning point in their lives, she cannot enjoy the good things before her and instead longs for escape with a vagueness that invites trouble. Soon a mystery man appears, but it is she who must pursue him as he proves elusive. So much noir hinges on a folie à deux, yet this film manages to both exploit the audience expectations and turn them on their heads. It’s as much a meditation on creativity and the boundaries you need to create as it is a psychological stalking. A fascinating mash up of noir sensibilities in the art world: I recommend it for those who want something beyond the old standards.

See the trailer here. It’s available through Amazon Prime in the US and BFI in the UK. Here’s an interview with Aridjis and Appignanesi. Here’s another review.

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973) by K A Laity

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973)

I read the novel so long ago (back in my L. A. days so looooong ago) I could only remember the basics of the story. There were probably more of them in the original script by the legend Leigh Brackett, but Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking always left room for improvisation and Elliott Gould—unlikely to be most director’s ideal choice to play Phillip Marlowe—works well here.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that likewise memory proves unreliable. So much has changed in the mean time, too. I’ve been soaking in noir and neo-noir for so long now it’s altered my view on the genre, mostly to be much more accommodating. I dug out my vintage paperback to read later and sat down on a sunny Saturday afternoon to visit 1973 Los Angeles with Elliot Gould and co and Vilmos Zsigmond’s singular cinematography.

The ginger cat is the one thing everybody remembers. I should write a book about ginger cats in noir. You can’t cheat a cat. Chandler loved cats. The scene feels genuine to any cat lover: having fallen asleep in his clothes, Marlowe is awakened by the moggy landing on his belly. Ouch. He has no choice but to drag himself out at 3am in his 1948 Lincoln convertible to the 24 hour food store. The car is a nice touch, signaling Marlowe a throwback to another time, Chandler’s idea of the P.I. as a kind of knight with a code.

Then there’s the candle dippers next door. The topless women would feel more gratuitous if they didn’t have a totally believable and completely natural hippy languor. Asking Marlowe to pick up boxes of brownie mix and doing elaborate yoga poses on the balcony at night. The iconic High Tower provides an unforgettable location for Marlowe’s home, outdone only by the Malibu Colony. Apparently the Ward’s house was the one Altman was living in at the time.

Nina van Pallandt embodies the concerned wife with just enough difference from the mostly Californian cast to make her thinking seem mysterious but believable. Sterling Hayden is a legend and manages to uphold that without chewing scenery which would be easy to do in the role of the writer who can no longer write, who is drunk and angry with the world, not necessarily in that order. Allegedly inspired by Chandler’s own struggles as his wife was dying. Ward’s death is changed from the novel and pays off much better, especially in how it affects Marlowe, who develops a fondness for the difficult man. The drinking scene with Hayden and Gould was largely improvised and has an authentic feel.

Henry Gibson, best known at the time as a gentle poet on Laugh-In, is super creepy and menacing in a really unsettling way as the dry-out doctor trying to extort money from Wade.

Jim Bouton, better known for baseball and even more so for his tell-all memoir Ball Four about that career, makes his film debut as the pal asking Marlowe for a lift to Mexico with some suspicious injuries including a clawed face.

What feels most 70s about this movie is the cops. Well, not that they’ve changed much in L.A. according to my friends who still live there. That gritty, don’t care about anything attitude and the clothes—those awful seventies clothes that modern films never quite get right—they provide a good target for Marlowe’s dogged resistance. The ink interrogation scene is another improvised scene.

I had to look it up, but yeah, there’s a portrait of Leonard Cohen in the Ward’s house because Altman was a fan. Speaking of fans, I love the gatekeeper at the Colony and his impressions of the stars.

A cool thing: except for ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ that opens and closes the film, all the other music is variations of the theme tune by Johnny Mercer and John Williams—even the dirge played in the scenes in Mexico. It’s a great thematic device that gives the picture aural coherence.

The changed ending is often credited to Altman, but it was part of Brackett’s original script which was shopped around for some years before finally coming together with this unexpected group of talents. It works. The final scene is almost an inverse of The Third Man’s iconic ending, with a harmonica in place of the jaunty zither.

Well worth a revisit if it’s been a while for you, too. If you’ve not seen it, a treat awaits. Bonus: here’s a great interview with Gould by Kim Morgan.

K A LAITY IS HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE.

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale

What a delight! Thanks to Ray Garton and Paul D. Brazill for leading me to Tod Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale. It’s a fun romp with magicians, psychics, trickery, grifters, and plenty of style. Currently airing on TCM, it’s also available in various versions online in the usual places.

I admit to giving short shrift to Robert Young because I first knew him as Marcus Welby M.D., a show my grandparents liked. What could be less cool than the gently ironic know-it-all elderly doctor? Yet he brings a witty humour to Miracles, which gives it charm. Most of the time the laughs walk a fine line along with the noir ambience and the spookiness. It’s a strange mix. Young’s Mike Morgan is a former stage magician who now makes elaborate tricks for other magicians. The opening war scene is a bit off-putting (including yellow face) but it turns out to be an overly-wrought saw-the-woman-in-half trick that Morgan is staging for a client. His house is a delight of tricks and surprises.

Morgan also devotes his time to exposing spiritual charlatans, admitting that there might be ghosts and whatnot, but he doesn’t want people exploiting the vulnerable with tricks. That kicks off the real plot when a gal in trouble (Florence Rice) runs into his shop to ask for help but can’t tell him the whole story. The plot is the least interesting part of the film and comes from Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat.

The fun is all the characters. Ray mentioned how little this seems like a Browning film. The one aspect that does is the characterisation, especially the brilliant cast of character actors. Frank Craven is a hoot as Morgan’s dad. He often ends up the victim of his son’s elaborate tricks-in-progress but he gets plenty of good lines. Henry Hull is cadaverous fellow magician Duvallo. The bickering La Claire couple (Lee Bowman and Astrid Allwyn) demonstrate that magic is just part of their acting on stage. The always delightful William Demerest plays a grumpy detective (the whole investigative team is a bit wacky).

Frederick Worlock is the mysterious Dr. Caesar Sabatt, accompanied by Gloria ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Holden as the equally mysterious Madame Rapport. Browning has the camera rest on her singular face and as it lingers a sense of the uncanny arises. Though she only has a few scenes, that otherworldliness serves well when it comes time for the séance.

There’s a locked room mystery that isn’t much of a mystery—after all, by the time the first body shows up we’ve seen all manner of trickery explained. But the staging of the murders within pentagrams, the noir-shadowed streets of the city, and the suggestion that real unexplained mysteries from the beyond may be at work combine to give the film an enjoyable stylishness that’s definitely worth a try.

Good fun!

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Having recently seen (and wrote about) Witch Hunt (1994) I was looking forward to seeing this mash up of supernatural and noir, largely because I figured Fred Ward would play the part of PI Harry Philip Lovecraft a lot better than a rather wooden Dennis Hopper did in the later film. That guess was correct.

Ward immediately gets what the film is meant to be a plays the noir elements with an edge of satire and humour. He channels the classic Bogey Spade but with a sense of irony, knowing this is a crazy mash-up of elements and an exercise in nostalgia. Ward is an underrated actor who always bring a everyman sensibility and a weight of intelligent emotion to every part he plays. He brings life to the part and a reality despite the clichés, over-the-top dramatics and clunky dialogue.

Because the rest of Cast a Deadly Spell is not up to his abilities. That includes a young Julianne Moore who is given next to nothing to do apart from lip syncing to someone else’ song and carrying out every cliché in the femme fatale playbook. You can almost see her composing a strongly worded letter to her agent. Yet at moments she makes us believe in her Connie (heart of) Stone, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast.

David Warner phones it in. Lee Tergesen is quite good with very little help, despite being literally gay-bashed. I thought the role of Lovecraft’s witch partner, Hypolyta Kropotkin, was too small in Witch Hunt, but it’s miniscule in this film. Arnetia Walker gets very little to do except save Lovecraft’s ass.

The Lovecraft storyline intertwines with a Big Sleep-style detective narrative; nonsense with a virginal debutante (Alexandra Powers) that attempts to evoke both the Sternwood sisters at once. Needless to say the Lovecraft garbage is vile. It’s also incredibly boring and clichéd. Virgin sacrifice? Really? Oh hey, Necronomicon. Admittedly less of a cliché in 1991, but secret book of secrets has been a staple of horror films for a very long time.

Worse are the Gremlins. And they are really called that in the credits. Someone recently shared a meme about how cretins believe the moon landing was faked with an image of what SPFX looked like in 1969. The ‘old ones’ in this film really look like cheap knock offs of the Gremlins films (the first in 1984, which gives you an idea of the quality). Rubber monsters age poorly, but they would have looked out of date in 1991. I know, low budgets and all (this is an HBO made for tv movie) but Witch Hunt shows how much more effective you could be with more subtle effects. That movie is looking better now.

A shame because the concept of supernatural noir is such a great one and has been done really well (*cough* by people associated with this site). Fred Ward was so good. If you’re more forgiving of bad FX and hokey plots, you might find it ‘A great way to spend an evening!’ as Entertainment Weekly did. Potato, po-tah-toe.

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.

6 Songs About Rain by K A Laity

6 Songs About Rain

(because I’m not one to ignore a summons from Mark E. Smith even if it was only a a dream)

1

Weird tales

Of the conjure woman

A Dæmonomania in Tideland

Waifs and Strays are

Tapping the Dream Tree

Memory & Dream in a

Soho black with rain

2

That day on the beach

When love seemed within reach

You told me you would never wear

That jacket with a single tear

Because imperfect things were wrong

I knew that was a goodbye song

Chorus

All it does is rain every day

All I do is think about the things

We could never say

3

Everybody dance in the rain

Everybody dance in the rain

Everybody dance in the rain

Bridge

Get wet get wet get wet

4

In the crystalline night

When all secrets have been told

Everything feels just right

And even the rain isn’t cold

Chorus

It was always meant to be

You and me

Through the years or suddenly

You and me

In the sparkling day

When all the hours unfold

Everything feels just right

The hours make us bold

Chorus

5

In the rain I draw the cards

The Fool to my left

The Devil to my right

Before me is The Star

I’m hoping for the Cups

But I’ve got nothing but Swords

Eight of them in my back

Then the Tower turns up

Chorus

Shuffle them all again

I want another draw

Shuffle them all again

I don’t like this at all

6

[Instrumental obviously riffing on Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 with theremin and chimes]

The Highsmith Blather by Chris Rhatigan and Pablo D’Stair

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Chris Rhatigan: I’ve been trying to pinpoint why Highsmith’s work is so compelling and timeless. And I have not succeeded.

 

But one element I appreciate is the sense of dread that’s the heartbeat of each novel. The main character is doomed from the beginning, either due to their own poor choices or fate or some combination of the two. This, in my estimation, is noir in its purest form.

 

Take Walter Stackhouse in The Blunderer. He only thinks about killing his wife after she tortures him psychologically. She then commits suicide, but one cop believes that Walter killed her. Walter hasn’t committed a crime and yet he becomes ensnared in the possibility of being a murderer, gradually morphing into the criminal he was desperate to prove that he wasn’t. 

 

The reader knows almost all of this from the beginning. There are no twists, no surprises, only the steady march toward the inevitable. 

 

Pablo D’Stair: And you’ve hit exactly what I feel is the majesty of Highsmith – she’s not there to tell us a story, she is there to curate an examination, her talents a kind of Virgil shepherding us through the, well, more the Purgatorio of the human psyche than even the Inferno.

 

I often joke how it’s so frustrating that she thinks up the best stories, the most finely wrought plotlines, the sort of “elevator pitches” one would murder for (which might as well be the opening of a Highsmith! haha) but only to use as a tease, a jumping off point for existential, nuanced excavation of the nightmare which is human perception. ‘Perception’ being the bogey, the plump little worm in all of our fore-brains (“conscience does make cowards of us all” taken to a giddily perverse extreme, perhaps.)

 

In the simplest way, just taking from your observation, yes: Highsmith perfects the philosophy that when we enter her noir world, we are not there to “see if this person gets out of this mess” but to “watch exactly how they don’t” and, most important, to experience the irrevocable for ourselves – to pull on the skin of someone doomed and walk the plank with them.

 

And what planks!

 

She is the most courageous and uncanny writer precisely because she has the gall to almost be … boring! While most authors are looking to provide a thrill, she is so sinister she teases the thrill to perfection in whichever novels premise and then refuses readers even the catharsis of breakneck pacing or “there it is!” twists and turns. She makes us dwell, know (as we would in life) the absurd moments between the moments of an endlessly forking disaster of a situation.

 

In Found In The Street (perhaps my personal favorite of her work) the gloom, the ingress toward such an absolute yet somehow unexpected undoing of everyone is so much an undercurrent, so coded in banality and the glacial loneliness of life and self-obsession that when a reader, upon finishing, tries to re-read in order to spot any MOMENT any SCENE wherein “oh, there’s that bit where it all went to Hell” … THEY CAN’T FIND IT! It almost feels like “Wait … did any of what I felt actually …happen?”

 

Another joke of mine is how it’s always a risk to recommend a Highsmith (especially some of her more perfect works like Found or The Blunderer, A Dog’s Ransom or – another fave – The Cry of the Owl. Why a risk? Because the lurking suspicion in you that the experience of the book was so personal, so absolute that it won’t exist for another reader – instead, it will reveal one of your own secrets, show you for what no one ever thought you were, the person you recommended it to will look at you like you’re a madman once they close the cover!

 

See, I always found it funny how Highsmith’s notions, her “plots” were so mesmeric that OF COURSE they are widely adapted into film … but film never, ever gets it right. All movies (with few exceptions) built from her work make some version of “the Hitchcock mistake”, as I call it, of taking something like Strangers On A Train and making it about “a bad man proposing something to a good/ordinary man who makes a mistake and gets embroiled in something he didn’t bargain for” – turns it into a White Hat v Black Hat situation, an adventure, a “story” wherein we need to witness “a regular decent chap get in over his head and find his way out.” Turns one of the most inimitable, piercing, and pure noir novels ever written, one wherein there is not a semblance, even, of good versus bad or right versus wrong and morphs it into something sadly ordinary – a thrill ride, a potboiler, a vehicle for popcorn delight. (because it’s a very FUN film, don’t get me wrong)

 

But: Hitchcock, in his version, takes US out of it – allows US a kind of removed, moral high ground, as though “well, we’re not like at least one of these people” – lets us choose a side (and makes perfectly clear while one side may be “flawed” the other side is “batshit awful” – and this is no kind of truly noirish soil to till) whereas Highsmith’s whole modus operandi is to show us how exactly “we are like them all” and to dispense with the semantics and the sophistries we use as “moral compasses” so-called.

 

That is: while we read Highsmith, the sinking feeling that everyone gets what they deserve and, well, we deserve exactly what they deserve, too – thus curiously feel guilty how our uppance has not yet come, but may be waiting in the post in forms we cannot even begin to plan to protect against.

Highsmith documents the ways in which her protagonists fall short of their expectations, how they will continue to make immoral decisions, or decisions that appear to be moral but originate from immoral intents, leading to their demise. 

 

I always found my draw to Highsmith was in her inimitable ability to dispense with “outward morality” (that there is Concrete Morality from a third party source or even a common understanding in people acknowledging a like-concept amongst us) – not even to comment on the notion of Morality to dismiss it in some way, but to deftly ignore it – or moreso, to unacknowledged it, as though such a consideration is dreamland fancy, akin to how a piece of literature written by someone who neither believes in God or who has never, in fact, considered a god one way or the other would not address the discussion of a “possible God” but simply write from a place removed of the question, versus someone who even peripherally entertains the question as relevant, wonders “do I believe that?” and so, in their piece of writing, would give credence to the “possible existence of God.”

 

Highsmith does not acknowledge, even, the “possible existence” of Morality (a reader might bring their feelings to her work, but they will be inducing the ideas, not finding them there) and this gives an incredible insight and imperativeness to situations in her novels wherein characters might even address their lives/actions in such words – we feel, or at least I do (and I might be inducing my worldview as much as anyone else, I acknowledge this) the wholly personal, invented identity of each individual grinding against things which to them are imaginary. Just like, to a criminal, consequences are imaginary. Until they aren’t. And even then, they somehow become so doubly. Which you touch on in how you say their intent does not match to their fate – to a Highsmith character, even their worst fear realized immediately feels prologue, levels out to the status quo, to the inevitable, the blasé blasé.

 

I’m repeatedly drawn to what I consider the best scene in fiction from Strangers on a Train. Guy goes to kill Bruno’s father, and as he sneaks into the house and ascends the stairs, he feels he’s already done this a hundred times before. It both works as a classic scene of suspense–with the patient build toward irrevocable action–and as the final revelation to show Guy as the equal of his tormentor. 

 

This scene, I realized over the years, had a profound influence on me. Now: I hasten to say it was not because it was the first time I’d encountered such a moment, nor was it what introduced a new idea for where a story could go. See: I’d watched the Hitchcock film before reading the novel so I think when Guy kills the father in the book (as I’d always said should have happened in the goddamned film!) I literally whooped for joy, clapped my hands, felt in the presence of the ACTUAL way the story was always SUPPOSED to be (which … well … obviously, hahaha, but I felt really smart and in the presence of a comrade). In the novel, in that scene, I discovered something from my aesthetic so perfectly rendered by another author it stunned and halted me – especially because it was handled more innocuously and with such a deft hand than I could conceive of!

 

While it was The Point of everything (Guy not only going through with it but it being the moment in which all his protestations and inner quaking fall away to such pretense) it also just … well … happened. The same as anything. The same as any other moment. As it would in life. The book didn’t slow down or speed up. No sudden, world altering commentary was given … because the world was not altered.

 

The smallest sequence of a Highsmith book, the “moments where nothing is happening” matched this moment tick-for-tock. Guy did that. And in that moment (and to this day re-reading) the feeling in me is: of course he did, because he was always going to, he always had … and he did, always would, always will … because I wanted him to. I KNEW he would.

 

The utter lack of surprise in the exquisitely rendered moment of the axe falling is a trick Highsmith pulls like no other.

 

 

It’s interesting that you bring up that she’s not telling a story, which is an odd thing to say about a crime writer. But it’s nevertheless accurate; Highsmith is more concerned with psychological examination via the guise of a story. And this may be why her work feels fresh and modern forty, fifty years on: it’s never about the particular situation a character faces but their weakness, their inability to alter fate, their certainty that they’ll become all things they despise. 

 

 

Yep – and to piggyback of what I was driving at about Strangers and Guy’s killing – she doesn’t have to tell a story, because it’s a story everybody knows. There isn’t so much a reveal of a character’s character, so to speak, but an acknowledgment.

 

I say it’s funny about Highsmith that “the moments we never see coming are the moments we see coming a mile away” – that she can craft suspense out of not only the mundane and the minute, but almost out of a spoiler! “She’s going to kill him and get away with it” or whatever. And then she writes about her killing him and getting away with it and right up to her getting away with it (knowing she was going to, knowing she will) one is viced in a rattling sense of noia and disquiet.

 

That Highsmith teases us with the conventions of storytelling but then refuses to truly utilize them, that she takes away the imaginary in her fiction is a dastardly masterstroke, in my opinion. Part of our brain wants the artificial rules and agreements of genre or storytelling, we want “what would happen in the movie,” so to speak, to happen in the novel, in life, in us … but we know it doesn’t, it won’t ever, and so are simultaneously bored with our inscrutable flaws and titillated by being recognized.

 

A Highsmith novel makes me feel caught. It makes me feel Other. It makes me feel suspicious to those I love.

 

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Then she takes those elements in plays with them. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray Garrett experiences crushing guilt about his wife’s suicide, despite seeming to play no role in her death. His guilt is so consuming that he resigns himself to allowing her father–who blames him for her death–to kill him, and yet he fails at this, escaping attack after attack in increasingly absurd ways. Here she rotates the formula a bit–the character wants punishment that may not even be deserved, yet can’t endure it.

 

Oh – Those Who Walk Away! Is there another novel like it? The prototype of the anti-thriller, in many ways, but so much more. I could sit around and unpack the ten thousand ways I think every turn and notion of this novel is genius, but will settle for an exploration of its pure, daredevil simplicity.

 

The book feels like the headspace of crime and guilt – the exact way it feels to get away with stealing oatmeal cookies from the drugstore and getting nabbed for stealing cigarillos from the same place, years later. All at once. Oh, the novel just teeters on the sensation of “something irreversible is about to happen” and teases, teases, teases the psychology in us all that insists “things can go back to being exactly the same as they were”. The sadness of the former, the horror of the latter; the horror of the former, the sadness of the latter. And it blunt-force-traumas the reality that: the same thing never happens. Even when it’s the same thing.

 

In a romance, this might be a nice sentiment: every “I love you” is unique, a set of words which repetition makes anew! But in the grip of Highsmith’s ink? Jesus … the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity, a day-to-day no different than anything else, no different than if Ray’s wife had never offed herself – that the novel “makes it point” but then “makes it point, again” but the “again” isn’t “again” it’s “another” even though the “another is the same” is intoxicating.

 

It lives in the exact moment of inertia before a climax begins to rise (or, though this would necessitate a whole other exploration of the novel and so a different answer: the entire novel is post-climax, the violence, the irreversible moment being the suicide, the husband and father the roiling victims of it regardless if they remain “in limbo” or not). Delicious!

 

And just the motherfucking title “Those Who Walk Away” depicting a world in which such a thing is proved obsolete, impossible – no one walks away, yet “those who walk away” is the most accurate thing to call us all!

 

“…the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity…” That is a brilliant trick. There’s often talk of “cycles of violence” in crime fiction—which does mirror the real world—but in this book it’s a cycle that has no beginning and extends infinitely because it keeps evolving in minute ways.

 

Beneath this is the creeping sense that not one iota of it matters. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray is quickly convinced that all his work to cover up the murder attempts was futile, because no one cares that Coleman is determined to kill him. While in another writer’s hands this would be melodramatic, with Highsmith it feels completely in line with the world she’s created, almost—to steal your word—blasé that someone would be accused of murder, a fact not worth interrupting anyone’s day about.

 

Higsmith has this underlying sense of noia as you described, with an intense, claustrophobic view entirely from the perspective of the main character. I’m curious as to how you see this operating in the Tom Ripley novels versus her other work. Ripley seems to stand alone, in my estimation, as someone who is comfortable being a criminal and very good at it. Yet the cracks in the façade are what make the character memorable.

 

Well, where even to begin with Ripley!?  Rr with the Ripley/English analogs, for that matter …

 

Just to have a jumping off point regarding the latter consideration, I can admit it was not until after I had penned the opening scene of the first Trevor novella that it occurred to me what an unconscious lift (or let’s say … homage? riff?) on the opening of the first Ripley offering it was. The classic “someone unknown walks up to the protagonist under a wrong impression of the protagonist’s character and makes a simple proposition” which then careens unpredictably in directions wholly unique – in Ripley it was Greenleaf Sr. offering to foot Ripley’s bill would he traipse to Italy and make attempt at convincing the wayward Greenleaf Jr. to return home (Greenleaf Sr. under the assumption Ripley and Greenleaf Jr. would have been acquainted at school) while in Trevor it is the unnamed fellow whose wallet English had lifted offering him cash money to hop cross country to deliver a letter.

 

As I’ve mentioned to you on another occasion (at least I think I did) the Trevor English sequence, while I was writing it, had (never something intended for the publication, just an inside-joke with myself) secondary title “The Talentless Mister English.” hahaha

 

But let me backtrack to Highsmith, because that is the meat of this …

 

And you are spot on that, while not exclusively, Ripley is Highsmith’s uniquely criminal criminal. Yes. But even in this, he is so much a criminal as to somehow come off as being altogether nothing of the sort.

 

I always (and it’s a trait I wrote Trevor with, though tilted in a different attitude) looked at Ripley as an artistic criminal – certainly I never viewed him as purely sociopathic, in the common sense, as so many do (and, well, as he indeed may be). Because in a certain sense, his criminality (from the start) is so nonchalant it is hard to call it that. He deceives. He takes advantage of situations as they present. He has ambitions (of a sort). Yes yes yes. But I always read him as one who (which is suggested he was at the start) is perfectly comfortable to skate along as some penny-ante nobody, not putting effort toward any great larceny one way or the other. A dilettante who could just as easily be perfectly legitimate if the breaks shook out a bit different. When a situation presents itself, he has an uncanny ability (in my eyes) not to so much bilk it for all its worth, but to understand the inherent nature of the world it presents and to take what, for all intents and purposes, is on offer. Things go sideways? He is a true tap-dancer and can roll with it.

 

But … there’s more than that. Ripley I read as an individual who sees himself as naturally outside of the world – is almost saddened by it. He is conscious of how he would be romanticized if not actual, but knows he is actual and therefore criminal, unable to move to the same music, to proceed as he naturally is in the world he must inhabit. He is conscious of being an Element with a Nature and a Function and he understands he is one who, if examined, will never be understood for precisely what Element he is, Nature he has, or Function he serves. No – motives, attitudes, ideas will be assigned to Ripley if caught and, if caught, he will lose his very identity, his very nature will be forfeit to the whim of whichever force nabbed him.

 

…If that makes sense …

 

No one will appreciate Ripely for what he is but for what they make him into – and, perversely, this allows him a kind of righteousness in making himself whatever and whoever he wants. He plays an almost childlike chop-logic with his amorality – it seems okay with everybody (at least everybody he acquaints himself with) that he is who he is and does what he does until something goes wrong – at which point other people suffer pangs of guilt or conscious or suddenly desire an outside, legitimized lawfulness to come in to referee – they break the game and want him to pay so they can overlook the very nature of their lives, the worlds they are fine with inhabiting – “Make Ripley the problem, the intruder!” even though Ripley is, for the most part, an interloper who was welcomed in if not outright solicited.

 

I feel for Ripley – he is constantly turned against when (it is perfectly clear, to me at least!) if left to his own devices he would live quite simply.

 

I mean, what is his big crime after the initial novel? Forgery. Dealings with forgers. It is an exquisitely harmless crime! It is Ripley down to the marrow. Who fucking cares? You can almost see him being baffled when things start going shifty in Ripley Under Ground – and it feels more like he is trying to right the world to order than he is trying to make off with the boodle!

 

I always picture Ripley just wanting to step back and go “Hey now, hey now – let’s everybody just calm down” and as though a kid playing Jacks think he can simply say “Nevermind” and give everybody back their wagers or toys or whatever and let the game end.

 

My favorite Ripley novel is the third (Ripley’s Game) and it is the novel which I think is most revelatory of Ripley as a character – indeed, another Trevor parallel is that it is in the center of a five-novella set (Helen Topaz, Henry Dollar) where I found Trevor most fully understood, most nakedly expressed.

 

See, in Ripley’s Game, the honest *envy* Ripley seems to have for Trevanny is one of the most beautiful and nuanced things the sequence of books has to offer. I step away from the standard of treating Ripley as a self-serving sociopath, as I said earlier, but rather as a person so outside the world he accepts that the nearest thing to an inroad to “society” he has is to play a part in the world of crime (as he likewise plays a role in the world of law-abiding).

 

But in the machinations leading up to allowing it possible (necessary in his view – even charitable!) to arrange for Trevanny to commit the murders which had been asked of Ripley and which he had refused – is the rarest, irresistible opportunity for him, nothing at all to do with profit, revenge, or crime at all. No -in all of the intricate reasons which would allow for such an opportunity to come about what he sees is that he has been granted the opportunity to watch himself in a way he has never been able to before. He (in my reading) *is* Trevanny – identifies, empathizes incredibly deeply, sees Trevanny caught up in a plot (albeit at Ripley’s own hand) observes him making considerations, choices, regards him as he goes through the unthinkable motions he does – but motions which Ripley all too well understands and finds natural. The relationship is almost erotic and the closest to intimacy Ripley has even approached.

 

The giddiness Ripley exhibits in the scene where he has to assist Trevanny in violently dispatching with some threats is one of the defining moments of the character (and of the novel sequence) to me. For in that moment we see a Ripley who has forgotten even his own hand in the mechanism of events, we see a protector of the one individual we, the readers, would be legitimately be rooting for (though we haven’t forgotten the reason we are rooting – we are rooting for him against what Ripley has done to him! – we see Ripley loving Trevanny and wanting him to come out unscathed – or as unscathed as possible. They meld into (in Ripley’s mind) a perfect, singular unit – he gets to live the fantasy of himself in the reality of someone else and the reality of someone else in the fantasy he has forced them into.

 

Anyway … I obviously could go on about Ripley at great length, yet! Hahaha.

 

To just explain the Trevor (book three) connecting: all that I have said above regarding Ripley’s Game is one of the many reasons why the scheme Trevor hatches is book three is so self-referenced – a pretend blackmail against himself which he enthusiastically proceeds with only to have it morph into a kind of perverse other-pretend-blackmail orchestrated by a party who doesn’t know his initial blackmail was fake – Trevor finding himself, in a perverse way, as “in the right” as he could ever imagine being when he decides to turn the tables to his advantage – and of course he is left, in the end, in the worst situation he could have ever envisioned … yet somehow, despite it being all his orchestration at the onset, he cannot be faulted for feeling he has been wrongfully accused and treated quite shabbily!

 

That is the primary Ripley/Trevor connection: they are perverse innocents, they are irrevocably not-what-can-be-in-the-world but not through maliciousness, not through anything normally associated with the criminal class – but through acceptance of nature and a curiosity toward its place in the world.

 

51oTSWV5D2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

In “The Roots of Ripley,” K.A. Laity explores the idea that Ripley is more comfortable with things than people: “the feeling that after all, it was safest to be on your own luxuriating in all your nice things.” As you noted, he has no propensity for violence and, in some respect, would be perfectly happy leaving everyone else alone, to have the pleasures of civilization without ever interacting with anyone.

 

It is in this way that he appears to be a sociopath. He can put on the guise of the way other people act, he’s finely attuned to everyone around him, and yet he has no interest in other people beyond a sort of benign inclination to push people away from those ugly, clashing emotions that will lead to disorder. Yet his addiction to the game of crime—he is, after all, a master strategist—keeps him coming back.

 

One of the things I find interesting about your series about blackmailer Trevor English is that it’s never clear what he would do if he got everything he wanted. While Ripley’s boredom and restlessness will always get the better of him, Trevor has far more mundane desires—he’s always pursuing cash to keep on living his drifter lifestyle and he never, ever gets a step ahead. So what would Trevor do if he actually landed the big score (something he, of course, never pursues)? In crime fiction the trope is that the criminal would retire to some Caribbean island and live off their earnings, but that’s certainly not the case with the Talentless Mr. English.

 

Now *that* is rather large and probing question – in a way it’s the self-same question I always had to ask when I approached writing Trevor …

 

… though not exactly, as I suppose I knew the ‘answer’. More true is to say: the trick was to navigate the vessel of this ‘answer’ (tease that I am, you see, I hold off articulating it even now – or try to even for a few parentheticals longer hahaha) through the vast seas of the raconteur element of noir, to wrangle the ‘plot part’ of a novella *around what Trevor is* – he, himself, is the pebble the puddle puts up with and closes over (no – I would never call his the boulder the stream must bend to, as everything about my Trevor must remain paradoxically effacing!).

 

Your (and Laity’s) remarks on Ripley are very apropos, here. Sociopath or not sociopath to one side (as it is, perhaps, irrelevant to a literary creation of the calibre of Ripely and to a set of volumes so rich and expansive in treasure) the idea of his wanting to be left to himself, surrounded by his worldly things (ill gotten? Who cares!) content with his own ideas and aesthetic – this is certainly true (and, to me, a beautifully melancholic thing in the character – though there is not *to* the character himself) and if coupled with his noiac (if self-induced) idea that this ‘peace and quiet’ could all be torn asunder if ever he is squinted at too long, that his ability to live as and with himself is always at risk from outside elements, we see how it oddly compels him (even more than an ever present itch toward the ‘game of crime’) to trespass back into interaction with others. A defense posture. Criminality allowed him what he has so therefore it follows that criminality must safeguard it. The notion of interaction with people, to Ripley, is fused irrevocably (an unconscious, a part of his lizard brain) with crime, with manipulation. That is: the only reason Ripley interacts with people is to actively use, and he sues them to keep them, in effect, away from him. If someone comes knocking? Then there is a kind of sigh in his soul – he knows they don’t know what they are asking for just the same as he knows he has nothing to offer but deceit (deceit which might incidentally – especially in Ripley’s Game or, for another example, in his feelings of remorse for the poor forger who entered his orbit in Ripley Under Ground – allow glimpses of unconscious intimacy and genuine emotional connection/regard).

 

Trevor is not dissimilar. The main difference in he and Trevor is down to how they want to be regarded.

 

Ripley: he wants no true self, but rather to be the surface people admire (if he has to consider people) and to keep to himself.

 

Trevor, though …

 

(well, let me digress and then I will return to that ellipsis.)

 

Trevor, in my mind when I wrote, is not a criminal. Not exactly. He is written as a Writer. And not as a writer with ambition for ‘the big leagues’ or ‘renown’ but rather as a writer who, like the unnamed narrator in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, is genuinely attracted to the purity of the Idea and its nuance in execution – the Art, to him, is the reward; and the Art, when shared, should elicit a deep appreciation, no matter the content (the crime) – especially as he is, so to speak, an undergrounder, just a blithe nobody hand stapling his zine! Hahaha

 

Trevor becomes overwhelmingly, almost erotically attached to the *notion* of a scenario his mind recognizes, and the inner drum of him compels his every breath to suck the marrow of every potential he recognizes out. To let an idea or an opportunity go slack, be left unplumbed or unexplored? This is something he is literally incapable of! And he pursues at his own expense, with a childlike innocence and glee, whichever track is the most genuine, the fullest, the purest.

 

From the beginning, when this offer from someone to deliver the letter cross country for cash is presented to him – let’s break it down as the story of the artist:

 

Trevor had picked someone’s pocket (the very fact he is tracked down shows the amateurish hand he has, despite the aptitude he must admittedly possess to pull such a trick). Translation: some scribbler just passing out broadsides of his work has been recognized and approached – his unique voice pleasing to someone who wants to see more!

 

The bag of money and the letter? Sure, the money is important, but let’s be real: throughout the entire Trevor series the poor guy never shows a lack of willingness to work, even the lowliest little crumb-bum job, it’s all the same to him! So, why does he fixate on trying to preserve the two thousand as long as possible? Because it affords him the ability to continue creating on his own terms, outside of the ‘mainstream flow’ – like holding onto a kind review or a generous remark from an audience – he cannot let it dwindle or become just a momentary flash in the pan – who knows when someone else might even read anything he writes, whatever little review must mean *the world*.

 

But he opens the letter (at first, if you recall, quite bored and not even with an angle in mind, doesn’t even get to the ‘juicy bit’ until his second or third attempt to get through the missive!) – and upon doing so gets the greatest gift a writer can stumble on: A New Idea. And this idea *must* be explored. And Trevor *must* be what Trevor needs to be to have it explored. And when he sees an undeniable, aesthetically pure and pleasing avenue the idea can fork – well, he *must* explore that idea too!

 

And again.

 

And again.

 

Sometimes Trevor has to act as the agent, the instigator which ‘causes something’ – but not out of avarice or monetary or even criminal desire, but rather because the *idea demands it*. He never quite knows what to do with himself. Getting money, losing money, it’s all the exact same driving wheel to him, the fuel to make the narrative go, the poetry flow, the idea keep birthing another.

 

His victims are his audience – oh my goodness, Trevor so wants them to be able to appreciate the interesting subtleties and nuances of his ideas, even if he has to expose himself more, risk himself more – he doesn’t need to come out on top, he just needs to know they *read the fucking book he wrote*, did not skim or overlook – Trevor cannot, in his soul, bear being misunderstood!

 

Now, I will not go through the entirety of the series right now, breaking down each mechanism of how it is constructed, sufficed to say each book starts with an idea (based on an observation of something which happens across his path and titillates the Author Soul in him) and intently examines the life of that idea (the writing of that work).

 

There’s a terrific line in David Mamet’s Heist where one character says to another ‘You should see this plan – it’s beautiful. If I were a publisher I’d publish it’ to which another replies ‘So why not publish it?’ to which the first guy remarks ‘I’m saying: that’s what I’d do if I were a publisher. But I’m a thief. So I’ve gotta do that thing.’ Trevor is like that.

 

cover-dstair-norman-court-300x480pxTo return to my earlier ellipsis:

 

Trevor though … wants to be *anything but the surface*. He wants his actual personhood not to matter. He wants to be the underneath, the idea, his own particular existence hardly worth mentioning – but the *ideas* he litters life with, the things he shares and reveals through his observations – he wants those known so very badly. And he wants them admired! He just wants everyone to be pleased with what he thought up and then to understand he’ll go away, leave everyone alone, get another idea and be too busy following it to bother with them again so it doesn’t matter anymore.

 

But, sadly, like Ripley … he’s borderline deranged (so far as the common man’s sensibility) and what he does with his ideas is not the sort of thing people admire and let just fade away. Trevor, like Ripley, certainly *knows* this. And in a subconscious way likely gets off on it (hence neither of them ever seem to ‘learn their lesson’ – or rather, they learn the lessons very well just don’t ever apply the lessons previous encounters have taught them in any way except to dig themselves in deeper next time!)

 

I feel I have rambled around, but that it was necessary – because to get to your big question: what would Trevor do with The Big Score?

 

Because you’re right – he would never go looking for it – he would not even *think* (as a writer) of ‘getting an agent and trying to be the next Steven King’ or what have you. No no – he’s the consummate underground artist and needs to prove it by never being anything else but it – continually, unthinkably, absurdly enlarging and aggrandizing what it means to be nobody. Until the non-entity he is is so unique a prize no one, no matter how well off or famous – can say they have the ability to do and to live how Trevor does. Everyone else’s success or ‘normalness’ in fact *proves* the uniqueness of Trevor. And there is an agitation in him at this not being recognized – the old ‘If you gave me a million dollars and said I could spend all day writing, sure, I could probably be as good as any of the big dogs – but could any of them produce work of their calibre for nothing for no one over and over and over without ever even reaching for more or taking a rest? I could do what they do, but could they do what I do? And so who should we be admiring here!?’ hahaha

 

The easiest way to answer the question is to say Trevor would not recognize The Big Score. The only prize he would see is what new idea it allowed.

 

Remember, I made him a blackmailer and all his acts are through the filter of blackmail – at least once he ‘discovers it’ while riding on the train, reading through the letter. That is the moment he moves from being a wannabe, ‘I’m a writer because I did some stories for class at school’ to – BANG! – ‘I’m motherfucking Dostoyevsky just because I goddamn say so!’ It’s Eureka. Inspiration. Birth. And we witness it and watch how it goes.

 

But see: to stick with my artist analogy: Trevor is a novelist – not a short story writer or a playwright or a filmmaker or a musician or a painter etc. And so if he’d been offered Twenty Thousand in the first book, that would have been all the same. The story of Trevor starts when he reads that letter and gets the idea (the idea that he could do something better than whatever the schemer having him deliver the letter had in mind). Two thousand, five hundred, ten thousand – it’d just have been the new hook, the new potential, the new atmosphere and he’d see what he could do.

 

Trevor gets continually fixated on the amount of ‘criminal money’ he has because ‘the artist is supposed to sustain himself with his art alone’. It is radically appealing and important that he scrimps and saves to keep this technically true of himself. When he hits bottom (which does happen somewhere in the series, not to spoil things too much) we see what happens: he goes on. Bottom feeder, works little jobs, or stays at a shelter – waiting, like any true artist, for another idea to come along.

 

But it needs to be a *new* idea, not a retread. It needs to further his themes, not restate them. Like any artist, he is perfectly satisfied to not exist, but would rather die than suffer the pangs of repeating himself.

Mask of the Nice Guy by K. A. Laity

deep water

If you know much of anything about Patricia Highsmith, you probably know her love for snails. Okay, maybe it’s not the first thing you learn, but it should be. It tells you so much about her. Smuggling them through customs in her bra – the thought of it makes me want to boak even now. She has several stories that feature them, even one where they are giant-sized and man-eating. Sure, she liked cats, too, but she never had the same affection for them that she did with her snails.

In her novel Deep Water, they are the beloved pets/keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. Highsmith’s only tender love scene that I can think of in all her writing is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourites. He gives them conventional male and female names, though one of the things that most intrigues Highsmith is the fact that snails can morph their sex almost at will.

Hortense and Edgar were making love, Edgar reaching down from a little rock to kiss Hortense on the mouth. Hortense was reared on the end of her foot, swaying a little under his caress like a slow dancer enchanted by music. Vic watched for perhaps five minutes, thinking of absolutely nothing, not even of the snails, until he saw the cup-shaped excrescences start to appear on the right side of both snails’ heads. How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together! 

[Spoilers here on in]

Vic first poses as a murderer, then becomes one. He gets a thrill from starting a rumour that he had something to do with his wife’s (probable) lover who suddenly disappeared then is found brutally murdered. He tells her new fave, ‘I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.’ Vic has been telling himself he handles everything fine. His wife can’t face his oddness directly so she takes up with new men, hoping they’ll sort things for her somehow.

But Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and further that ‘Vic had frightened him’ and further understands how his own uncanny nature makes that work: ‘People who do not behave in an orthodox manner…are by definition frightening.’ But it’s only at this intimate level that Vic’s strangeness can be seen.

To his neighbours and colleagues, he does all the right things: runs a fine art small press, keeps a nice home (though most don’t know that he lives in the workshop in the garage and not the house itself), has patience in the face of his wife’s flirting, and is a kindly dad to his daughter. People like him and disapprove of Melinda, who’s seen as a bad wife.

When Vic does actually kill her latest lover on a whim, in a fairly obvious way, not one person suspects him (well, maybe his wife). The police who rightly think it’s a bit odd are quickly dissuaded by all the neighbours who vouch for the upstanding-quiet-keeps to himself Vic. They double down on their disapproval of Melinda, too. She brought trouble to their quiet town after all. For a time she is contrite.

But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. ‘People in Little Wesley had not been particularly friendly to the Wilsons since their arrival, and Vic thought it was Don’s fault. He was humourless and standoffish at social gatherings, perhaps because he considered smile and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.’ Highsmith having some fun with her own image here, perhaps. Also Vic publishes poets and important things. ‘[Don Wilson] was such a hack – western stories, detective stories, love stories, some of which his wife collaborated on, though Vic had heard from somebody that her specialty was children’s books. The Wilsons had no children.’

Comic book writer Pat never much reconciled herself with that past. She was quite a snob about things and hated being seen as a niche genre writer. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? Part of it is simply his arrogance. It’s not enough to plan the murder; he needs to gloat over it with his wife nearby.

At one point as they argue and he baits her with a dare to kill him, she says, ‘You’re so – nuts! I don’t suppose you’d mind that very much. I’d like to smash your lousy ego.’  He explains to her with great patience, ‘”No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together and hold together – by force of will. Will power, if you like, that’s what I live on, but not ego. How could I possibly have any?” he finished desperately, enjoying the discussion immensely and also enjoying the sound of his own voice, which seemed to be objective, like his own voice on a tape-recording machine being played back to him.’

So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Such a nice guy. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest as ‘ugly birds without wings’ and mediocrities

Talking to Strangers by K. A. Laity

PhotoFunia-1593254997Talking to Strangers

K. A. Laity

 

I do talk to strangers. You don’t mind, do you? I know some people do. They move away from me on the bench, even if it’s raining and they get all wet. Sometimes I can understand. You want a bit of quiet, you want to think your thoughts. I feel that way sometimes, too. The thoughts they have a way of getting out or getting in, up in your brain like, I guess. They want to have a wander, they want to let you see the shape of them and hear their voices and sometimes that’s not bad at all.

Do you want a bite of my sandwich? It’s fresh. I just got it out back of the shop there. No one else but me has eaten it. No? Well, if you change your mind, don’t be shy.

Thoughts was it? I was thinking. We are all thinking. All the time. My husband used to say that’s why he drank. Joking like, you know, only joking—or was he? Sometimes I wasn’t sure. He had that deadpan wit, that quiet sort of way, only joking he would say and sometimes I figured, as you do, sometimes I figured he was only saying so, you know what I’m going to say, only saying so when he had been caught out and it wasn’t a joke at all just a thing he wanted to say and then walk back from as if he had never said it or meant it or not.

He was always like that. God rest his soul.

No, no: not dead. He’s alive last I knew. I think I saw him in town about a year ago, hurrying along to the betting shop. Getting his little flutter in. Like the drinking it was never so much, just a bit to distract him. Mostly from me. I think he regretted things, as you do, as we all do sometimes. The baby, I regretted the baby. We regretted the baby, I mean. A mistake, after all. A mistake when the house is not full of love. Babies need love. Babies need care. Constant care. You have to be there all the time. You have to be attentive. He wasn’t going to be the one. It had to be me.

I can share my chocolate bar. Shall I break off a piece? No? On a diet. Young thing like you shouldn’t worry about slimming. You never regret the chocolate. That’s one thing I can say for sure. Never regret the cakes or the biscuits. No. Children though, you regret them.

I haven’t thought of them in years. Children I mean. We can live our whole lives without them, you know. It’s not just modern women. In my time, too. Lots of women, lots, decided they could do without. That was the age of the pill. You take it for granted now. But in my day—

Oh listen to me! Talking like my gran, like I said I would never do. ‘In my day’ well, we all know things were different in the past though not always as much as we guess. Same as in my gran’s day because the priests you know, the priests said it was sinful so we had the babies we didn’t want and had to live with it make the best of it. That’s the way it was.

And it wasn’t what I meant to do, none of it. Didn’t really want a baby, not once I found out that I got tired of him. You can’t imagine how dull men are when they have you, when they don’t care to please you anymore. Just want a mum to clean up after them, feed them, bring them tea.

And all the time you have to be fussing with another baby, too, one that cries and screams and has the most foul smelling poo you ever could imagine in your life. No, wait until you find out for yourself. So foul.

And just a moment’s distraction. Well, a few minutes. I was only away a moment. The bath is—well, we should have had little baby one but himself didn’t want to buy it. Only a minute or so. The water was cold, I told them, because I was always afraid of scalding that tender skin. Really. Sad, it was, but he looked pretty as a doll once he was quiet.

Don’t you want a bite?

Playing Ripley by K. A. Laity

ripley

I was watching a TIFF interview with Phyllis Nagy who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt as the 2015 movie Carol directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and Sarah Paulson. Among the bon mots – along with her story of her first fascinating meeting with the author herself – was the fact that she had adapted The Talented Mr Ripley as a play right around the time Anthony Minghella’s movie came out. I vaguely recalled a production of the play some years back, but didn’t realise who had written it. 

Fortunately the play is easy to get hold of especially in comparison to the more recent Ripley and Highsmith play Switzerland by Joanna Murray-Smith, which I also missed seeing. That one is much more meta, but Nagy’s adaptation is full of surreal touches that call it and Highsmith’s obsession with the character to mind. Some first thoughts:

I enjoyed it. Like most play scripts, it’s a quick read, though this is a really fascinatingly complex narrative. The play boils down the events of the novel into signal moments, often overlapping. Nagy’s imaginative positioning of the characters and their interactions make the most of the space of theatre and the flexibility it has to allow simultaneous things to be happening and affecting the audience’s interpretation of that overlap.

It has a lot of mirroring, sometimes literally, as [SPOILERS, SWEETIE] Tom kills and absorbs ‘Rickie’ (not Dickie here, though his character name is always Richard), rather than simply eliminating him. Even after he kills Rickie at the end of the first act, the victim hangs around to encourage, argue and sometimes taunt his killer. There’s a lot more of the influence of the past, both Greenleaf parents, and Tom’s Aunt Dottie, but also Tom’s friend from NY – not the artist he hangs out with in the novel, but an adaptation of the housemate who is much more deliberately coded gay. Tom’s sexuality, or at least some version of it, in tune with Minghella’s film version much clearly positions him as gay rather than Highsmith’s own odder, more fetishistic Ripley, whose only real ecstasy comes when he contemplates all the things that once belonged to Dickie now belong to him.

Like the modern description of Ripley as ‘charming’ which is completely wrong; contemporary reviews were much more aware of his abjectness. Nagy repeats that misapprehension in her character description of Riply: ‘an utterly compelling, fastidious, charming and measured psychopath’. He becomes that psychopath, but there is little charming about him. In the original novel that couldn’t be clearer. Highsmith humiliates him upon arrival in Mongibello with a terrible bout of diarrhea. Nagy calls him ‘charming’ but doesn’t really present him that way. Ripley finds a way to be who he wants to be when he meets Rickie/Dickie. For a time he wants to be that spoiled, untalented but oh so self-assured rich kid. Circumstances only allow that for a short while before he has to once more become Ripley, but the value of the experience remains and gives him the power not only to survive murder whenever necessary, but to make Tom Ripley into the psychopath he never knew he could be.

‘It gave his existence a peculiar, delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not be played better by anyone else.’

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley