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Those Who Follow: Homosocial Choreography in Highsmith's Queer Gothic

Nicol, Bran (2015) Those Who Follow: Homosocial Choreography in Highsmith's Queer Gothic Clues: a journal of detection, 33 (2). pp. 97-108.

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In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), Patricia Highsmith’s “how-to” book (and a work of characteristically displaced autobiography), the author describes the genesis of her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January:

"My impetus for this book was strong but quite fuzzy at the beginning. I wanted to write a book about a young, footloose American (I called him Rydal [Keener]) in search of adventure, not a beatnik but a rather civilized and intelligent young man, and not a criminal, either. And I wanted to write about the effect on this young man of encountering a stranger who closely resembles his own domineering father."

Despite her evident pride that the novel ended up on “the bestseller list in England” (Highsmith, Plotting 11), The Two Faces of January was poorly received by Joan Kahn, her editor at the U.S. publisher Harper and Brothers, and then by reviewers, all of whom found the plot—especially the question of Keener’s motive for his subsequent involvement with Chester MacFarland, the older man who leads him into crime—too implausible. In demanding a rewrite Kahn insisted: “The book makes sense only if there is a homosexual relationship between Rydal and Chester” (Wilson 230). Apparently furious at the prospect of rewriting the book, Highsmith nevertheless complied and, according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson, began to “completely rethink the motivation of her characters.” In doing so, however, she tried even harder to “eliminate any suspicion of a homosexual relationship between the two men” (Wilson 231).

Deducing a homosexual motive is a temptation to which readers and interpreters of Highsmith’s work often succumb. The flaw of Anthony Minghella’s otherwise excellent film adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), for example, is its decision to make Ripley’s latent homosexuality manifest. “Queering” him in this way is a mistake, precisely because it provides a motivation for Ripley’s behavior that is never apparent in the novel and turns him into someone with whom viewers can identify. Ripley’s attitude toward Dickie Greenleaf is darker and more complicated. As Slavoj Žižek has put it,

"Minghella’s Ripley makes clear what’s wrong with trying to be more radical than the original by bringing out its implicit, repressed content. By looking to fill in the void, Minghella actually retreats from it. Instead of a polite person who is at the same time a monstrous automaton, experiencing no inner turmoil as he commits his crimes, we get the wealth of a personality, someone full of psychic traumas, someone whom we can, in the fullest meaning of the term, understand."

Motivation is rarely clear-cut in Highsmith. In fact, perhaps the most fascinating mystery in each of her novels is about the personalities of the characters she creates. Although we identify with their predicament and remain absorbed in their web of intrigue, their identities remain strangely opaque. Arguably, this is also true of their sexual identities. This essay aims, therefore, to suggest not that homosexuality is irrelevant to Highsmith’s fiction, but rather that the obscurity of the question of motive in her fiction makes it more profitable to consider its overall homosocial context—that is, the “social bonds between persons of the same sex” (Sedgwick, Between 1). To do so, it will interrogate Highsmith’s relation to tropes of crime fiction and gothic, and point to her significance as a chronicler of the late-twentieth-century world

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > School of Literature and Languages
Authors :
Date : 22 September 2015
Copyright Disclaimer : © 2015 McFarland
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 28 Mar 2017 10:56
Last Modified : 22 Mar 2019 09:46

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