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.
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.
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!
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.
To 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.