no critical faculties 6: patricia highsmith’s a game for the living

The evening before I left Chiang Mai I pawed through my anemic selection of remaining books and realized that none of them were likely to get much attention on a plane ride, where I’m usually struck by a restlessness that extends to a mind that can’t focus on anything remotely challenging. So I spent some time after dinner browsing through bookshops, looking for something that would hold my attention. That something, inspired by my recent arbitrary preoccupation and the aforementioned Highsmith-referencing cafe incident, turned out to be A Game for the Living.

It’s a thriller, I guess, though a rather lethargic one. Theodore, the standard Highsmith rich expatriate, returns from a month away to his home in Mexico City, where he finds Lelia, the lover he shared with his best friend Ramon, dead, and mutiliated. He immediately suspects Ramon, a man of violent temper who has shown inclinations toward violence before. Ramon, at first vehement in his denial of the crime, eventually comes to suspect himself.

Though it begins with the discovery of a body and is thereafter concerned with who perpetrated violence on it, A Game For the Living isn’t much of a whodunit. Theodore moves through his life, its focus on Lelia’s death drifting in and out. The certainty of Ramon’s guilt shifts, both in the minds of others, and in his own. For Highsmith, the death is a catalyst to explore the personalities of these two men, of the Catholic guilt Ramon carries which compells him to take responsibility, with conviction, for deeds not his own. Of Theodore’s protestant “denial of sin”, as Ramon insist on calling it, and strange emotionless distance that makes him susceptible to fits of emotional pique, of irrational passion, just as Ramon is, though his fits are shorted-lived and lacking Ramons’ violence. Meanwhile they drift through a Mexico alive with incidental detail. Indeed, it often seems the characters only change location to allow Highsmith to show off her knowledge of Mexican place.

It meanders. Characters change hotels and enjoy lunch. A few characters crop up who might be the killer, but without conviction. The mystery matters less than the guys, and she takes her time with her guys and their environment.

A Game For the Living suggests that it’s just that, an exercise the living go through that has no weight, no effect on Lelia who is, after all, dead, beyond reach. There’s no justice for her. Highsmith doesn’t focus on the mechanics of her death, doesn’t milk this for potential tension or fear. For most of the book, the only things in danger are her character’s psyches, driven by curiosity and guilt following the murder, which is only the impetus to explore these things through the men. Theodore and Ramon’s little psychodrama finally plays out at a distance from the actual conclusion of the case, the information they dig up proving almost inconsequential. The drama is the interplay between Ramon’s guilt and Theodore’s lack, the forces that have shaped them to react in the ways they do to the trauma of Lelia’s death.

It’s light, but it reads fast, and I thought it was alright.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 01/26/2010.

2 Responses to “no critical faculties 6: patricia highsmith’s a game for the living”

  1. Ice

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