The Price of Ambiguity: Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery

I didn’t enjoy reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery as much as I did her The Cry of the Owl, but The Tremor of Forgery is so many things that Owl isn’t, and I will likely remember it better and longer because it is a novel in the pure sense of that word; novel, riddled with ambiguity, and filled with a dreadful uneasy suspense that to call it “suspense” seems daft. I don’t think one is supposed to enjoy The Tremor of Forgery–think of all the cheap ways we experience enjoyment, and be thankful art of this other sort exists to push us into uncomfortable territory, as in this case, to a slippery town on the Mediterranean coast.

Hammamet, Tunisia, is bright yet noir; all the cats’ tails are broken, presumably because it is sport among the young idle natives. We are told “They [Tunisians] love to hurt animals,” and “Petty dishonesty is their way of life.” A red-turbaned old timer named Abdullah lingers around parked cars, checking the door locks for carelessness, looking to steal whatever remains inside. Abdullah is a known colorful character, despised by locals and embedded tourists alike. The Tremor of Forgery is set in 1967 around the time of the Six-Day War, and the anti-Arab sentiment is high among the westerners who holiday in Hammamet.

Howard Ingham, a novelist, is in Hammamet waiting for the arrival of his production partners of a movie Ingham has been hired to write. The setting of Tunisia was decided on back in New York, where Ingham has left behind a girl he loves (Ina) and varied memories of a former wife (Lotte). Ingham putters about his beach resort, lounging and swimming and sleeping, working on another novel (a very Ripley-esque novel) and pestering hotel staff for any letters from back home. Ingham is one of the great writer characters in fiction; his mind is a hive of worry, minutiae, and banal edicts about others; it is constantly in overdrive over the same things, the same fears of fears, which he attributes to the character in the novel he is writing, but which may in fact be his own.

Ingham befriends Adams, an American with a dubious reason for being in Tunisia. Adams is a sympathetic fool, sure of his faith and Our Way of Life–referring to the west’s superiority–so much so that Ingham takes to calling him OWL. Jensen, a Danish homosexual, is another of Ingham’s confidants, this one a much more urbane and cosmopolitan type, without any of Adams’ windbag tendencies.

The Tremor of Forgery hinges on a single moment, a moment that happens a third into the novel. Ingham, his bungalow robbed of a couple items of clothing the day before, wakes late at night to hear a prowler creeping around his porch. The prowler opens the bungalow door, sticks its head in, and Ingham bashes it with his typewriter.

Ingham seized his typewriter from the table and hurled it with all his force, shoving it with his right arm in the manner of a basketball player throwing for the basket–but the target in this case was lower. Ingham scored a direct hit against the turbaned head. The typewriter fell with a painful clatter, and there was a yell from the figure which staggered back and fell on the terrace. Ingham sprang to his door, pushed the typewriter aside with one foot, and slammed the door. The key was on the windowsill to the right. He found it, groped with fingertips for the keyhole, and locked the door.

He closes the door as the prowler falls back outside, and a while later Ingham hears the sound and scuffle of others as they seem to collect the prowler and tidy up the crime scene.

Was it Abdullah he struck and possibly killed? There was moment reading the The Tremor of Forgery where I said aloud to no one “holy shit it could have been ______ he killed!” thinking it any one of three people  in Ingham’s life. We don’t know whose head Ingham crushed, and we never find out. This is the high-wire act Highsmith suspends over the remaining two-thirds of the novel, and she pulls it off, jerking the reader uncomfortably along with bogus hints and sly misdirection.

The story progresses with a couple new characters, including a visit from Ina, who has undergone a sort of mini-conversion of the religious bend. And yet it is never made clear how much the incident affects Ingham, though Adams and Jensen have opposite ideas and express them, sometimes with threatening manners. Ingham uses the incident to fuel his writing, and as the reasons for him staying in Hammamet come and go he arrives at strange plateaus of peace and contemplation; it is never clear what sort of man Ingham is, even at the novel’s end, when a couple good breaks occur to make a reader think he is perhaps on his way to betterment.

The Tremor of Forgery brings to mind other art; The Stranger, of course, but only in a simple superficial manner–Ingham is not Meursault, nor is he meant to be. Much of the moral ambivalence of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice came to mind, as did a more recent work; Julia Loktev’s 2011 film “The Loneliest Planet,” which hinges on a moment very different, but that provides no easy answers thereafter, and makes one question everything that came before.

The Tremor of Forgery left me disjointed and wanting to reread another Highmisth quickly, preferably one with a more straightforward easy gait, one that might calm my brain. But I held back and let Tremor sink in. Happiness is so overrated.

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Death and Dread in Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl

I don’t know the exact date it happened, but sometime in the past twenty years Patricia Highsmith went from being called a great writer to being called a lesbian writer. It’s too bad that her biography has come down to useless contemporary labeling, but if you care to reclaim Highsmith’s greatness, read her novels and ignore the fluff. I’ve just finished her The Cry of the Owl, one of her best non-Ripley books, and can’t stop thinking about it.

Robert Forester is a middle-aged engineer in Pennsylvania recently removed from New York, where his marriage to the batty Nickie went south. Robert is depressed awaiting the divorce to finalize, so he spends his free time moping about the creepy PA suburbs until he chances upon a pretty girl in a window of a somewhat remote home. The girl, Jenny, turns out to be an impressionable twenty-something, newly graduated from college and working as a bank teller, and engaged to the meatheaded Greg, what one in the late 1950s might call a square.

Jenny catches Robert peeping at her house, and two become friends. Robert explains his sadness over his broken marriage and new life, and that lately he’s been haunted by a specter of death. This middle-aged angst matches up with Jenny’s youthful ignorance, and a dread match is made. Jenny falls for Robert, breaks off her engagement to Greg, and a series of frightening yet believable encounters take place.

Highsmith’s writing is tops, as are her descriptions of the characters, each of whom get a few chapters told from their own perspective. Robert, debating one evening whether or not to visit Jenny’s yard to stare at her, is “aware that part of his brain was arguing like a suddenly eloquent orator who had jumped to his feet after being silent a long while.” Each main character gets many moments of revelation like this, all of it rewarding and none of it dull.

The Cry of the Owl is not a 4/4-timed simpleton genre novel, but rather a great unfolding narrative on dread and casual brutality, a story of how people affect others whether they know it or not. And it isn’t a downer despite the bleak tone. The humor emerges in the interactions between characters; between the blustery dumb Greg who yearns to fight with Robert but can’t, because Robert is cool and removed and won’t engage him; or within Jenny and her own puttering about in a state of gloom, which we recognize as prolonged teen angst, mixed in with strange admiration for an older talented man.

Highsmith’s strengths are her writing–she seems a natural writer, even if no such thing exists–and her ability to let her characters get wound tightly with their own fears, real or imagined, and then let them stew until conflicts become inevitable. I write “inevetable” but I do not mean “common” or “routine”; I had know idea where scenes and arguments were headed in The Cry of the Owl, and was constantly surprised.