Monday, March 11, 2013

4. Deep Water

By Patricia Highsmith

This was the most unpleasant Highsmith novel I’ve read so far, mostly due to its cold portrayal of a disintegrated marriage, and the author’s razor-sharp misanthropic gaze is unflinching as ever. Vic and Melinda Van Allen’s marriage isn’t just loveless, it is also utterly dysfunctional and destructive. Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but instead of Richard Burton as a raging alcoholic, the husband is a burgeoning sociopath hiding beneath a quiet, civilized fa├žade.

Deep Water was one of Highsmith’s early novels. Published in 1957, it seemed ahead of its time in its depiction of a highly unconventional marriage arrangement. Rather than having a divorce (and perhaps admitting defeat), Vic allows his wife Melinda to see other men. But this is complicated by the fact that the couple lives in the suburban town of Little Wesley, so Vic bears the social implications of the cuckolded husband with his sexually loose wife.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation—which was nearly everybody—considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. 

But matters are also complicated by the fact that Vic and Melinda, each nonconformist in their own right, are so different from one another.  Where Vic - despite his lack of emotion towards his wife - cares deeply for his daughter, Melinda seems downright indifferent towards her own flesh and blood.  Where Vic is educated and literate, Melinda is vulgar and has terrible taste in men.

He wouldn’t object to her having a man of some stature and self-respect, a man with some ideas in his head, as a lover, Vic thought. But he was afraid Melinda would never choose that kind or that that kind would never choose her. Vic could visualize a kind of charitable, fair-minded, civilized arrangement in which all three of them might be happy ad benefit from contact with one another. Dostoyevsky had known what he meant. Goethe might have understood, too. 

The problem is that Melinda keeps picking the wrong sort of man who rubs Vic the wrong way. And Vic keeps thwarting Melinda, even falsely admitting he murdered McRae, one of Melinda’s former lovers, to frighten off one of her current paramours. Melinda gets frustrated and becomes increasingly vindictive towards Vic by making him look increasingly foolish and emasculated in front their small circle of friends.  Soon, she begins seeing a common bar pianist:

… And the thought of Melinda dragging Charley to parties at the Cowans’ and the Mellers’—she hadn’t done it yet, but it was coming, he knew—the shame of endorsing socially a guttersnipe like Charley De Lisle seemed more than he could bear. And everybody would know that Melinda had picked up the first man she could find after the McRae story had exploded. Everybody would know now that he was disgusted and helpless to combat it, however indifferent he pretended to be, because obviously he had made an effort to hold off Melinda’s lovers by telling the story about McRae. 

As with the way of most Highsmith novels, a murder soon occurs. And like many of Highsmith’s novels, you always feel some measure of empathy towards the murderer. Part of it is because the murderer is so rational in his justification of murder, he really does comes across as superior to those around him, but mostly it’s because Highsmith put a lot of herself in the character of Victor Van Allen. Like Vic, the author took pride in her misanthropy and nonconformity. Murder, in Highsmith’s thinking, was probably the ultimate act of nonconformity.

Another interesting detail was that both author and character kept snails as pets. In any case, though I found it an interesting read, I was also relieved to finish the book -- it was so dark and unpleasant. But for Highsmith fans, I think Deep Water gives you a gleam of insight into the author’s personality via Vic’s internal thoughts. From what little I know of Highsmith’s bio, she was a difficult person to like and get along with. If you don’t think you’ll ever read this book, I’ll include the last bit of the ending, which is both telling and chilling:

Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on the earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small, dull mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.

 For once, I read an online book review after writing my own, and was delighted to find a similar interpretation in this particular review from The Independent.

Friday, March 01, 2013

3. Play It As It Lays

By Joan Didion

I’ve been wanting to read Play It As It Lays ever since I saw it in the Time 2005 list of Best 100 novels.  But after years of fruitless searching in used bookstores, I gave up and asked my brother to give me this as a birthday present a couple of years ago. Maybe it was all that build up, but now that I’ve finally read it, I have mixed feelings about it.  Perhaps it has to do with Didion’s ambivalent place in Hollywood during the 70’s and the question of “whether this novel is a sour kiss-off or an acid love letter.”

The above was quoted from the eloquent introduction by David Thomson, who obviously considered PIAIL a modern classic. Thomson also wondered how Didion could have predicted that “her scabrous novel would be relished by people who might have been models for its worst characters”.

…That is why, far more usefully than a book about the film business, this is also a wonderful opening up of the nature of film narrative and what the concentration on exteriors does in the way of Novocain-ing internal things. 

The Novocain-ing of internal things is a perfect description of the protagonist. Even her name, Maria Wyeth, sounds like it should be spoken in a whisper, lest some memory from the past gets disturbed.

Maria Wyeth is troubled in so many ways: she has lost her husband; another beloved is married to someone else; her daughter, Kate, is in a clinic with some imprecise disorder; Maria has not made it as an actress in a very competitive system; she does some drugs; she has an abortion; she sometimes lapses into a kind of comatose impassivity—an amoral life founded on the thought that “nothing applies.” 

The novel is stylistically and structurally interesting, as it vacillates back and forth between the first and third person of Maria Wyeth. In its form, the book is comprised of short non-linear vignettes. In film language, it would be structured in “a sequence of short takes, some seeming broken or cut short”. To complement the form, the writing is sparse and the length lean: only 213 pages in my paperback edition but “stretched out over areas of white space and unfilled pages—there’s space to soak up the tears, and we hear from others that Maria cries a lot…”

There was already a 1972 film adaptation starring Tuesday Weld, which I haven’t seen yet, but I can imagine the narrator speaking in a hushed Terence Malick-esque tone over plenty of driving scenes, either along LA freeways or the empty Nevada desert as the sun is setting.

Play It As It Lays was probably the perfect feminist existential novel for the seventies, as it was a bestseller when in was published in 1970. It doesn’t have the hell-bent path towards self-destruction as in Appointment in Samarra (another one of Time's Best 100 Novels), as the self-destruction of Maria Wyeth is much more subtle and elliptical, more like a slow and gradual emptying out of her core. It makes for beautiful writing, but not exactly pleasant reading.

I’m glad I finally had the chance to read this, but I’m also glad I’m not the sort of person who would relish this type of novel.

SHE HAD WATCHED THEM in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamp chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper, the early edition with the comics wrapped outside. They would be very pretty some of the time, their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint and maybe only a little vulnerable tightness around the mouth, but there they were, one lamp chop and some cat food and the morning paper. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household, gallons of grapefruit juice, quarts of green chili salsa, dried lentils and alphabet noodles, rigatoni and canned yams, twenty-pound boxes of laundry detergent. She knew all the indices to the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.