Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Facing January

I had this idea that in 2015, I might return to writing this blog after a long, desert-wandering absence. I've been writing about my reading on Goodreads -- see the feed to the right -- but thought I might expand here with some further observations (but not in this post). I also, uncharacteristically, wrote a long semi-commissioned "fan review" recently on Patricia Highsmith's strange and unique story collection, The Animal-Lover Book of Beastly Murder. I'll post an announcement when it's published.

As I was working on the Highsmith piece -- and finding a little creative reinvigoration -- the film adaptation of her 1964 novel, The Two Faces of January, hit the theaters. It's been a while since I read the book, but the film nicely captures the novel's desultory criminality and morbid, complex attraction between the two male characters, Rydal (Oscar Isaac) and Chester (Viggo Mortensen). The film aims to tie up the plot a little more neatly than Highsmith's novel, but let's blame the film industry for that. If I recall correctly, Highsmith's American publisher (Harper) actually turned down the novel, which irritated Highsmith to no end (naturally), and she had to change publishers. She felt vindicated when the novel ended up winning the Gold Dagger for Best Foreign Novel from the UK's Crime Writers' Association (CWA).

The film also uses its locations -- notably Crete -- especially well. Highsmith readers/critics rightly focus on her strange characterization, but it's worth remembering that she made great use of locations and geography -- Greece in Two Faces, but also Venice in Those Who Walk Away and Tunisia in The Tremor of Forgery.

Highsmith was one of my original inspirations for getting serious about my own writing. Her book on the craft, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, may not be exactly useful, but I found it interesting. (For instance, she remarks (to the chagrin of editors and agents everywhere), "I like a slow start.") Her works gain depth by breaking certain rules: notably, motivation is never quite clear, and characters are not exactly consistent. Arguably, these characteristics make her novels seem both more artificial and more realistic. Perhaps this dynamic keeps some of us reading.

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