The Two Faces of January

Patricia Highsmith is an author who has become rather more highly regarded since they started making her Ripley books into films, before which she did have a culty following but was generally regarded as the bint who wrote Strangers on Train. She did of course write the novel the film was based on but there is some distance between Hitchcock’s thriller and Highsmith’s work. A key difference is the character of Bruno, Bruno Antony in the film is a charming urbane, even effete character rendered sublimely in a tense script and portrayed in a subtle understated performance from Robert Walker. A far cry from the novel’s Charles Anthony Bruno who is merely an oafish brute with some stereotyped character flaws. After Hitchcock’s film of her book, Highsmith’s characters display more of the attributes embodied by the film’s Bruno Antony character. The moral ambiguity was always there but now it’s accompanied by the veneer of civility that was one of the Hitchcock trademarks. Ripley is the culmination of this trend in Highsmith’s work but it’s also present in The Two Faces of January.

The two faces of January concerns a meeting between Chester MacFarland and Rydal Keener, a meeting occurring under extreme circumstances while MacFarland is holidaying with his wife, Colette, in Greece. Chester MacFarland is a conman whose schemes in America have netted a sizable fortune, with which he is able to travel through Europe at ease with his younger wife. Rydal Keener is something of a nascent drifter, he being estranged from his father who is also recently deceased, he feels somewhat embittered and maligned by circumstance. A teenage romance with his cousin terminating in, as he sees it, a case of post coital regret and subsequent allegation of rape has garnered the disapproval of his father and one might assume, coloured the light in which his father regarded his son. It’s this unresolved relationship with his father that brings Chester and Rydal together and acts as the catalyst between them. Chester happens to look like Rydal’s father and this resemblance causes Rydal to seek out an association with Chester. The unfortunate conclusion of his romance with Agnes, his cousin, also impinges sharply on Rydal’s relations with women. He’s finds himself unable to reciprocate when they show romantic interest in him, even though he is attracted by them.

Highsmith uses a third person narrative that relates both Rydal and Chester’s perspective by alternating its focus between them. Their inner monologues are rendered in this discrete way consistently, there’s no switching about between them or interference from other characters; although Rydal is a highly empathic character who frequently references his observations concerning the emotional state of the other characters. There are some conveniences plotwise that really don’t make sense, a fake passport might get you across the boarder but generally they wont stand up to any leisurely scrutiny by the police because all their numbers are registered. Chester also makes a few unwise decisions that are really quite unfathomable, although he is suffering a deal of stress and anxiety at these moments as well as being under the influence most of the time.

You might think that the alternating of the third person focus might incur some dramatic irony, which it does but thankfully it’s kept reasonably subtle, there’s no tedious: character X thinks A but character Y mistakenly believes B kinda stuff going on, which I’m grateful for, thank you Patricia. It’s also quite a compelling read although Highsmith’s prose is a bit lumpy for me to read comfortably, it relies heavily on punctuation with too many needless interjections. She does get a bit poetic at times and I’m sure a lot of it went completely over my head but she’s also occasionally very prosaic and I really do mean very, some of the narrative being rendered as an unadorned list of events.

This novel is in the crime section in the library and the blurb states it’s a psychological thriller and to be fair, yes there is plenty of crime and some tepid thrills but it’s not really a genre work unless you want to cite the plot conveniences I mentioned earlier. It has been made into a film and the edition I read had a foreword by the film’s director, which I only skimmed after I read the book. It’s generally not a good idea to read a foreword that’s been added to a novel before you’ve read the book and this is this was my first reading of the novel. The bits of the foreword I took in were the usual hagiography that gets churned out by showbiz types but one interesting aspect was the mention of homo-eroticism. It’s interesting to me because it illustrates a void in the way many American’s perceive the effete and urbane character traits, they can’t reconcile them unless they indicates homosexuality, which is often true of course but it’s not a defining association. In England we’re more class aware and we recognise them as an indication of perceived or projected social elevation.

Anyway those are my thoughts on The Two Faces of January my official rating is: yeah well worth a gander.

~ by deadspidereye on March 19, 2019.

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