We've been remiss in our blogging duties. "The world will leave us behind if we don't hop to it," we try and tell ourselves, but then, something stubborn within us insists, "Yes, but we mustn't be slaves to it either!" Any way you slice it, we're prone to sluggishness in January. (We accidentally ordered the Spanish version of V by Pynchon instead of the English for crying out loud — "esta extraña y fantástica aventura!") But it's February now, so we've plugged in again.
This time of year is famously slack in the publishing world as well. One of our favorite customers, Billie Ainsworth, who keeps us honest, was complaining recently that there weren't any new novels she wanted to read, so we ran up and fetched Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, best know from the 1951 Hitchcock film. Billie read the description on the back. "Sounds like a real psychopath here," she said. "I'll take it."
It made us take another look at Highsmith ourselves. She's one of the great unsung suspense writers in American fiction. We've read several of her novels but never her most famous, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which we started this weekend. Tom Ripley, the mild-mannered protagonist, is approached by the well-to-do father of an acquaintance, who, mistaking Ripley for a close friend, hires him to travel to Europe and convince his son to quit his footloose ways and come back home to work the family business. Ripley insinuates himself into the life of the young scion and his expatriate friends, initiating a dastardly assumption of his luxurious lifestyle. It's a brilliant twist on the great tradition of novels about young American gallivanting around Europe which so many of us love to read.
We've come to love Highsmith's books because they have a unique psychological hold over you while you're reading them. They often start off quite tame, relating some mild domestic drama that draws you along with the tenderest of suspicions. You turn a few corners, getting to know the characters — often you find something slightly off about them, something you don't trust or even necessarily like — then turn a few corners more before something happens, and when it does, it's always more sinister and shocking than you imagined. The stories are subtle and perplexing, keen on character motivation. Unlike most popular crime fiction, Highsmith's stories are more concerned with the nature of guilt (or in Ripley's case, the horrible lack of it) than the sensationalism of murder or the quest for justice. Imagine her books as a mirror revealing your own inner demon. It's thrilling in the most sophisticated sense.
By coincidence, while enjoying Ripley over the weekend, we caught the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge on National Public Radio. The theme of the show was American classics, and it featured an interesting interview with Greil Marcus, who recently published A New Literary History of America, and offered an intriguing explanation of why Moby-Dick is such an American classic. The hour ended with a feature on Highsmith and interview with her recent biographer, Joan Schenkar, who made a good case for including The Talented Mr. Ripley in the canon of classic American literature. Take a listen to the NPR podcast, scrolling three-quarters through to get to the Highsmith feature, or we encourage you to take a nice, long break and enjoy the entire program.