Doppelgängers ran rampart in literature long before the Internet made identity theft a daily occurrence. For the Guardian, Laurence Scott recounts the best books featuring doppelgängers, from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie and Philip Roth to Joanna Kavenna. “There are many ways to steal a face, and not all of them rely on the supernatural,” Scott writes. “The string of murderous misadventures in Patricia Highsmith’s 1950s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley depend on Ripley’s ability to impersonate the privileged Dickie Greenleaf. Here, a lack of technology perpetuates the hoax. In a world before it was possible to verify someone’s identity online, a passing resemblance to Greenleaf’s passport photo and a knack with signatures allow Ripley to draw money from his account and take over the dead man’s life.”
1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.
This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.
There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.
2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.
I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.
3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.
But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.
4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.
The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.
Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.
5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.
Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!
My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.
6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.
This year I grabbed a lot of books almost totally at random and finished most of them, some in a few hours (hello, Jean Rhys’s gorgeously unnerving Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read in a hotel in Tijuana in the spring), some over many months (looking at you, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an exquisitely boring novel I now meditate upon, helpless, for around two hours a day). I didn’t have a plan. For a while I read nothing but Joan Aiken novels. Nominally this was because I was writing about Joan Aiken for The New Yorker, but when you are reading books as delightful as Aiken’s, the whole question of motive begins to seem somewhat beside the point. For instance, you would never say, “I’m leaving this world for a plane of transcendent joy so I can write about it for the New Yorker.” Or maybe you would, but in that case I harbor grim suspicions about the integrity of your Instagram feed.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry from the Tang era, returning again and again to Du Fu whenever I felt hopeless or desolate. His work is a steady source of strength for me in hard times: compassionate, particular, seemingly able to encompass both the whole of existence and the precarious lives and moments held within it. Of course he also lived through one of the most terrifying periods of social upheaval in human history, and his thousand-year-old poems ring out clearly against the onslaught of our current news cycle. If you can read his accounts of life as a refugee and still feel indifferent to the refugee crisis, you must be molded from very cold clay.
I didn’t read many new books this year; who knows why. Among the books published in 2018 that I did pick up, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, a lyrically thrilling account of the history of Oklahoma City, and Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of short stories, were particular favorites. I read the Eisenberg collection while traveling on my own book tour. I found myself wanting to read her work, instead of mine, aloud at most of my stops.
Mostly, though, I read books I should have read years ago, books everyone else has already read. Imagine, with wonder and pity written starkly on your features, the poor sod who had not picked up Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, or LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues, until 2018! Reader, that sod was me. After scrolling, rapt, through Meg Wolitzer’s recommendation in The New York Times, I finally tracked down a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel so perfect, so funny and heartbreaking and funny-heartbreaking, that I expect to read it again in 2019, if not this weekend.
But I can’t this weekend—this weekend I’m reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, another book I’m years behind on. I look forward to catching up with his new work from this year, along with that of so many other writers I admire, in approximately 2033.
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Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 is the story of Lady, a mother of two recently separated from her husband, Karl. She hires a nanny named S to watch her toddler son while she works on a memoir about raising her teenage son, Seth, who can’t speak. S, who until recently went by Esther, has decided to start acting as she thinks her impulsive, hard-drinking mother would, as an act of performance art. As Lady feels the growing distance from her sons, she becomes close to S, who herself is warming to her put-on personality and finding a friend in Seth. Got that?
Lepucki and I are both staff writers for The Millions. We have collaborated before on pieces about Gillian Flynn and Tana French (both of whom come up in this interview) and casting a Goldfinch movie. I was thrilled to read her insightful, funny, sometimes unsettling book, and get to ask her about it.
We talked about eyebrows and makeup, performing gender and trying to control one’s narrative, secret online lives, and characters with dual identities.
The Millions: It seems to me like in the last few years beauty rituals have come out of the closet. Rather than just taking orders from women’s magazines, we’re all talking about what we do to ourselves to look the way we do. I know you and I are both big fans of the “Beauty Uniform” column on Cup of Jo, and I noticed in the book a lot of the characters describing their beauty rituals, or noticing other people’s. Why do you think we’ve become so upfront about it, and why did you want that in the book?
Edan Lepucki: I like that this is the first question. Well I’ll say first I’ve always been really open about that kind of stuff in my life. It’s easy for me to be naked with people and talk about my body. I think the human body’s really funny. I’ve always gravitated to the other girls and women who are also like that. I’ve always been kind of shocked when someone doesn’t want to communicate about that kind of stuff. I personally find it really fun to share — I color my hair, get my eyebrows down — I think it’s fun to talk about that.
In my book, it’s not like I set out to do that, but I also really wanted to write a book that felt exceptionally contemporary. There’s one point when Lady on Twitter talks about getting a Brazilian. When I thought of it I was so pleased by it but also really embarrassed. It’s so private and ridiculous, but if I put it in the book it feels courageous in this absurd way. One way to make the book feel contemporary was to talk about those things that are super private that are becoming more and more public. The whole book, too, is about representation and the masks we wear and the performance of our identity in all these ways, and obviously that includes gender and the ways that we put on ourselves and put on our femininity, and I wanted to show that.
TM: I sort of think women got to the point where they thought, if I’m gonna go through all this and spend 20 minutes on makeup every morning and have all these expensive appointments, I want you to know why I’m doing it, or that I’m making intelligent decisions about it. People love explaining to you why their products work for them, and by talking about it we’re refusing to let it be trivialized. There’s a line in the book where you say being a woman is a lifelong education, and it’s like it takes so long to get good at this stuff, that once you have a handle on what your beauty identity is going to be, you’re so proud of it.
EL: I think it is a badge of honor. I also think that when I document any beauty rituals I’m saying I’m aware that I’m spending three hours to work on my hair, and the awareness of that oppression sort of liberates me. I’m comfortable with the burdens of my gender.
TM: Lady is also frequently giving spontaneous advice to S about grooming, and thinking about the advice her mom gave her. Like talking about beauty rituals is an intimate form of female communication.
EL: I think one of the main qualities of Lady is that she is carrying a lot of resentment towards her mother. She believes her mother damaged her, and she’s carrying that damage into all her other relationships. She’s sort of playing out the same relationship with S that she had with her mother, so I was really interested in how she’s repeating those cycles. It’s sort of the only way she knows how to be. She’s totally barred, she won’t really let anyone in, and at the same time she’s critical of everyone else. It’s especially heightened with other women, because she lived with a mother who criticized.
TM: The main reason I’m obsessed with the performative femininity in the book is that Lady and S and Kit (Lady’s sister-in-law) all ostensibly have artistic projects that they’re focused on, and this is what they would tell you is their work, but in Lady and S’s cases it’s faltering. Meanwhile how they’re performing their womanhood is speaking so much more loudly. They’re trying to express themselves through these specific projects, but they’re really expressing themselves so much more clearly through the roles they play.
EL: I think you’re right. Lady in particular — her artistic project is a story of her motherhood, and it’s a story of connection and triumph, and it’s not the narrative that is true. It makes sense that the way that she’s actually coming through is not through that story, but through every day you see in the novel. Her story is really everything she’s trying to avoid.
S is interesting because the question for me while I was writing was “who is S?” She’s so young and it allows her to be really reckless in what she does and she’s not fully formed, she’s like a ball of clay. At the beginning of the book she talks about how she’s a girly girl, but you never see that in the novel. She’s very ordered in her life, and then she tries to enact her mother’s version of motherhood, which, besides being drunk all the time, means that she doesn’t wear make up and doesn’t care what people think. As I was writing I realized that there were a lot of ways in which S wanted to be like her mother — these qualities that she did not have herself — and by becoming her mother she was able to become this different kind of woman, one who can say what she means, the first thing on her mind, and I think she gets a thrill from that. I don’t know if the disconnect between who she is and who she’s playing is causing a tension in her.
TM: This is something I also ask authors who have a character who’s very secretive or is hiding something. With S, most of the time she’s a person pretending to be a different kind of person. It’s like in movies where somebody is acting like they’re a bad actor. As the author, how well do you have to know Esther, S’s “natural self,” before you can layer S on top of her?
EL: It’s a similar question to how do you write a repressed character — how do you write a character who is unable to think certain things when you as the author know what’s motivating them. Esther to me was really slippery, as she is in the book. I have a real sort of love for her. Her core for me is a real longing — firstly, for her to have something with her mother that she doesn’t have. Immediately I could feel that from her. And secondly her heartbreak — what really sets her off on this whole thing is that she’s getting over her dumb boyfriend. Describing her boyfriend Everett’s art projects, I could feel S — even if she was writing them off — I could tell that she really admired Everett. That also felt very true to her. And her relationship to her father — every time she was talking to her dad, immediately I could lock in to S. But at other moments I was like, there isn’t a real S. I did reread The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a book I love, because I wanted to read those moments when Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf, and those moments when he locks into the next persona. I love those descriptions and I used them as a model. There is a blankness to S, but part of me thinks that’s just because she’s so young. Is part of that because her parents are divorced and don’t communicate and are so different that she’s had to be two different people already? That’s something that I identify with personally. My parents divorced before I was 5 and I went from one house to the next and they never spoke to each other, and I really did have two different lives with them, so I wonder what part of that slipperiness or blankness of her will always be there. I do think there’s a vulnerability to her that I sort of get, and maybe that makes me more compassionate to her than other people.
TM: The characters in the book are frequently expressing themselves in different modes. With Seth it’s so literal because speech is a form of expression that’s cut off from him, and so he gets so good at communicating with facial expressions or condensing a conversation into three sentences. Do you feel like everybody in the book is doing that in their own way? Nobody else has an avenue cut off from them in such a literal way, but they’re finding ways around what they’re unable to communicate.
EL: When you’re writing a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. I personally try to avoid any understanding of the themes of the book until I’m done, but then you stop and go, oh I see, the whole book is about communication and representation, feinting and dodging. Seth is such a literal version of that, he cannot speak so he has to express himself in these very specific ways. He can’t communicate and yet he’s so adept at communicating, whereas other people can talk and talk and not say anything that’s really true.
Somebody who read the book pointed out that everybody is using either art of the Internet to either hide or emerge. Lady is definitely hiding in her memoir, yet weirdly with @muffinbuffin41 (her Twitter handle) she’s kind of emerging. There’s this sneaky self of hers that’s true that’s online. Esther is literally hiding behind S, but there are moments when she doesn’t know if it’s S or Esther who’s feeling something, so the attraction to Seth is really fraught because she knows she’s crossing a boundary, but she knows her mother would be really into it. Everyone is either jumping right into something — whether a photograph or the Internet — or they’re completely using that to shield themselves. The trick is to figure out when they’re being real and when they aren’t.
TM: As soon as she decided to have a secret Twitter account, I was like, oh no that never works.
EL: [Laughs.] Do you speak from experience, Janet?
TM: Not personally, but in college we found a teammate’s secret LiveJournal, which she used to talk about all of us. A secret Twitter account is like a gun in the first act, somebody’s reading it by the end of the book. But what was Lady’s motivation to start a secret Twitter — is it as simple as being lonely?
EL: When I was done writing California, I was like, the next book I write is going to have technology. I want to have technology be a part of not only the everyday life of the characters, but be thematically important. My goal was to have it be part of the plot. If I was going to have Twitter in the novel, things had to be revealed in Twitter. There’s so many novels that take place in the ’90s because nobody wants to deal with the Internet issue. It’s hard to write anticipation and romance and spontaneity with the Internet. I thought, I need to put this into my novel and use it to the benefit, like how does the Internet amplify all our issues, and make things more suspenseful? And one of those ways is making your Internet presence a secret.
TM: Seth is diagnosed with selective mutism. Is that a common condition?
EL: It’s not a perfect diagnosis. I once read Gillian Flynn or Tana French talking about doing research with homicide detectives, and she said, I don’t need this to be common, it just has to be plausible. That’s sort of how I thought about Seth’s disability. In my story he just doesn’t speak, that’s the end of it. The way he has it, I don’t know if it’s possible. I wanted to emphasize his humanity in all ways while also emphasizing that there is something he cannot do and that affects his life. I didn’t want to be like it’s not a big deal, and I also didn’t want to make him only his disability. As he tells S, he’s not a metaphor. I wanted to make him a full human character. That was one of the biggest struggles of the book: how do you write Seth? How do you write a scene with someone who doesn’t speak, how do you write dialogue with someone who doesn’t speak? How do you look head on at disability and also recognize that its not his story, it’s two people who don’t have his disability talking about his disability? So they’re going to get things wrong, they’re not going to represent him properly, they’re not going to see him full at all points. The failures of that was what I was interested in.
TM: Your first book was titled California, but this book is also definitely a California novel.
EL: It was such a relief to be able to describe the world as it is now. I had not been able to do that for years when I was working on California (a post-apocalyptic novel). It was almost as if I had been writing a sestina for a long time and then suddenly I got to write free verse again. I didn’t feel constrained, there was no speculation going on. I just got to look outside and describe what I see.
1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!”
After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 — publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash — and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later:
One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty — should she buy a doll or something else? — and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light…It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt.
The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest — in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.”
Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.”
This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!”
2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible
Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices — the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy.
With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago — all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country.
Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional — and tepid — ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.”
Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other — Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting…when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.”
What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley.
3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce
Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.”
For all her documented flaws — there have been two scrupulous biographies — Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt:
Little Crimes for Little Tots.
Things around the house — which small children can do, such as:
1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible.
4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge.
5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.
This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise — the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of “Little Crimes for Little Tots” attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.
If you know that Patricia Highsmith wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley, you know that she’s an exceptional authority on the workings of the criminal mind. At The Paris Review Daily, Dan Piepenbring digs up an old interview with the author, in which she describes the act of murder as “the opposite of freedom.” You could also read Tana French on Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.
At the Los Angeles Times Magazine, the answer to a bad boyfriend is to read a few good novels. Does The Talented Mr. Ripley remind you of your lover?
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!