Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the term doesn’t already exist, I want to coin this a ‘hardboiled novel of manners’. There’s a genteel novel-of-manners feel to it as we get a lot of attention on the niceties of how properly to entertain someone, how architecture or fashion functions as social statement, and how people generally express themselves through subtle public gestures.

Highsmith’s central insight seems to be that civilization (or what she has her characters call “society” when it comes to the fore in the final pages) is a thin veneer on top of a species with the capacity to be real animals. Bruno says as much in the opening scene when he declares that every man is capable of murder, and that’s borne out. Everyone (except the saintly Anne) is indeed capable of murder. We need laws to keep us from going wild, but it isn’t clear society truly wants that. Most of the characters seem happy to tolerate murder as long as it doesn’t affect them. It just seems understood that people do bad things.

Highsmith uses that hardboiled axiom to explore the famous premise of the novel: two men meet on a train and toy with the idea of having each commit a murder on the other’s behalf. Without motives, each murderer would go unsuspected, yet each would accomplish his goal.

In Hitchcock’s hands, that story became a chance for him to explore his own favored notion of a protagonist who, somehow a little guilty or compromised (whether for listening to a murderous stranger on a train or simply peeping into a neighbor’s window) finds himself a fundamentally innocent man bound up with truly despicable people. Highsmith’s vision is much darker. [SPOILER] Most tellingly, Guy actually goes on to commit the murder that Bruno wants from him. Hitchcock gives his protagonist an out; he eventually pulls himself back from the “deal” he’s entered into. Highsmith’s protagonist gets broken down, however. Under the pressure of Bruno’s obsession, he proceeds to kill Bruno’s father. Later, he begins to echo many of the more Bruno’s more despicable quirks. At the end he determines that anyone can be broken down, that we’re all so fundamentally vicious that the right pressure can turn us all into characters.

There’s a crispness throughout most of this, but I think it falls a bit short in some of its psychological profiling. In the end, I simply don’t find Guy’s breakdown authentic. Compromised as he might be, I don’t accept why he doesn’t go to the police, especially when he has such compelling evidence of Bruno’s guilt. Highsmith writes compellingly, but I think this falls a bit short of the even darker, more efficient Talented Mr. Ripley.

As a final thought, I wondered whether this might in some way be a comment on the then only 6-7 years old Fountainhead. We have here a protagonist who realizes, eventually, that individuals stand apart from a rule-bound society. He feels called to do great things, and he concludes that simple things, like other people’s lives, shouldn’t hold him back.

I have not read The Fountainhead, but is there’s anything to my hunch, this is not a flattering comment. The novel ultimately does not endorse such a vision of the power of the great ego. Rather, we come to find Guy a somewhat small man, a man whose being broken down by another has undermined the real gifts he had. In fact, as I read it, this undermines Ayn Rand altogether. Skeptical as this is of what holds society together, it laments our alone-ness rather than celebrates it.

Highsmith remains the first acknowledged female star of the hardboiled tradition. If all you know of this one is the film, you’re in for a surprise.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment