“He felt like a machine, beyond danger and invulnerable. He had been here many, many times before…” – Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith: a book group discussion

September 12, 2009 at 2:21 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

strangers Guy Haines, an architect, meets Charles Anthony Bruno by chance on a rail journey.  Bruno is one of those aggressively friendly people that are often hard to deflect. Although Guy resists, their conversation becomes intensely personal. Gradually, Bruno elicits from Guy the facts concerning his wrecked marriage and his difficulties in obtaining a divorce. For his part, Bruno’s revelation is simpler and more direct: he feels an implacable hatred for his father.

[Caution: Spoilers are coming…]

Finally, Bruno divulges his brilliant idea for a murder: he’ll kill Guy’s wife, and Guy will murder his father. The two murders would be utterly detached from those who had the motive to commit them; this would render them difficult, if not impossible, to solve. Guy is almost physically sickened by Bruno’s scheme:

“Guy had at last thought of the door. He went out and opened another door onto the platform where the cooler air smashed him like a reprimand and the train’s voice rose to an upbraiding blare. He added his own curses of himself to the wind and the train, and longed to be sick.

What exactly is happening here? At this point, Guy has no cause to reproach himself. Yet the words “reprimand” and  “upbraiding” suggest that he is already guilty of some kind of transgression. Could it be that he  finds that Bruno’s plan, so outrageous and evil on the face of it,  also possesses elements that make it intriguing, even attractive?  When Guy curses himself, is he acknowledging that attraction, and feeling mortified by it?

At any rate, Guy has only one more night on the train. The next morning he alights in Metcalf, Texas, his home town, to see his mother and to confront Miriam. For the moment, these other concerns drive Bruno from his thoughts. But it turns out that this is a brief respite. Bruno is not so easily dismissed from Guy’s thoughts –  or from his life.

Strangers on a Train is a fascinating novel with many twists and turns. Its cast of characters ranges from the severely warped and damaged to cheerfully ordinary folk. But the strangest and hardest of them to understand is Guy Haines. As the novel opens, Guy has everything to live for. Having made the youth mistake of marrying Miriam, a woman in no way worthy of him, he is preparing to divorce her and marry Anne Faulkner. The daughter of wealthy, indulgent parents, Anne is Guy’s lode star, the source of all the goodness and virtue that he longs for in his life: “…she is the sun in my dark forest.” In addition to having found a genuine love that promises future happiness, Guy is a rising star in his profession, the practice of which affords him intense satisfaction. (The almost idolatrous regard in which architecture and its practitioners are held put me in mind of The Fountainhead, and of Frank Lloyd Wright’s seemingly endless hold on the American imagination.)

There is a sense, even from the novel’s beginning, that Guy is poised on a knife edge. Although he sees a way to break through to a radiant life, he has been sullied by Miriam’s crassness and bad behavior.

Here, Guy reveals to Anne the depth of his disgust with Miriam – and by extension with himself and the rest of the world:

“‘She’s everything that should be loathed….Sometimes I think I hate everything in the world. No decency, no conscience. she’s what people mean when they say America never grows up. America rewards the corrupt. She’s the type who goes to bad movies, acts in them, reads the love-story magazines, lives in a bungalow, and whips her husband into earning more money this year so they can buy on the installment plan next year, breaks up her neighbor’s marriage–‘”

At this point Anne, alarmed and dismayed by this tirade, begs him to stop. He does, but not before  admitting that “‘the fact that I once loved her…loved all of it, makes me ill.'”  Guy desperately wants and needs to be rid of Miriam, and not just so he’ll be free to marry Anne. Miriam was like a disease that Guy must expunge from his body and soul in order to feel himself cleansed of sinfulness. Yes, he needs to be rid of her. But not in the way that Bruno envisions.

Bruno, though,  has fixed his mind on killing Miriam. He know the act will bind Guy to him. And it does. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game that is at once enthralling and terrifying.

Guy knows full well how repulsed he should be. Sometimes he feels nothing but hatred for Bruno, but at other times he feels a strange fascination, even a twisted kind of love. In the margin on p.146, I scribbled, “Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere.” This phrase, whose exact meaning I can only guess at, has haunted me ever since I studied T.S. Eliot in a graduate school seminar. ( Eliot got it from the poem “Au Lecteur” by Charles Baudelaire.) As the novel progresses, the themes of doubleness and twinning emerge with increasing strength. Increasingly, the reader senses that Bruno is an externalized manifestation of Guy’s own evil impulses.

Just prior to the hardening of his resolve to commit the murder, Guy endures a night of almost exquisite suffering. He senses that all the good in his life – his love for Anne, his artistic creativity – is in danger of slipping away, to be vanquished and replaced by something dreadful:

“‘Bruno?'”

“Hi,’ Bruno said softly. ‘I got in on a pass key. You’re ready now, aren’t you?’ Bruno sounded calm and tired.

Guy raised himself to one elbow. Of course Bruno was there. The orangey end of his cigarette was there. ‘Yes,’ Guy said, and felt the yes had been silent, not even going out from him. It undid the knot in his head so suddenly that it hurt him. It was what he had been waiting to say, what the silence in the room had been waiting to hear. And the beasts beyond the walls.

And so there has been “a great reckoning in a little room.”

With that ‘yes,’ Guy has signaled that he is ready to commit an unprovoked act of consummate evil, a thing he would not have considered doing before the advent of Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy is now in league with the Devil.  Here he is, finally, in Bruno’s house, moments before murdering Bruno’s father:

“He took the knob in his left hand, and his right moved automatically to the gun in his pocket. He felt like a machine, beyond danger and invulnerable. He had been here many, many times before, had killed him many times before, and this was only one of the times.

The sense of evil personified – and yielded to –  puts one in mind of the Faust legend (recently encountered in To Heaven By Water – Is everything connected, after all?). An ineluctable fate is being played out in the only way possible. (There is also the sense of base,  unconscious impulses working their way up to the surface, of the powerful, amoral id, which values self-preservation above all else in the world, achieving dominance in Guy’s mind.)

Virtually the entire second half of Strangers on a Train is taken up with Guy’s efforts to come to grips with a new sense of himself and to find salvation in the two beacons of his life: his work, and his love for Anne. This struggle is ultimately sabotaged by his equally desperate need to rid himself of the burden of guilt that torments him without respite.

Although compelling, at the same time I found this section of the novel somewhat flawed structurally and in need of tightening. It was Pauline’s view that the ending felt contrived and that Highsmith, to some extent, lost control of her material, IMHO valid observations. In yet another post-discussion e-mail, Barb suggests that with regard to that last point, “…perhaps [Highsmith’s] very brilliance can lead us to be more  critical of her than of some lesser writers.” And keep in mind, this was a first novel. (And yes – this was the book discussion that kept on going after it had apparently ended!)

Several of us were put in mind of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Others mentioned Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Although I know the story of the Dreiser work, I’ve never actually read it. The plot of An American Tragedy is based on an actual crime. One of my favorite films, A Place in the Sun, is a variation on the same story. IMHO, its stars are two of the most beautiful people ever to grace the screen: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift:

We expended a great deal of effort Tuesday evening parsing the character of Guy Haines. We thought him weak and easily played upon. During the novel’s second half, he alternately agonizes, broods, and vacillates, thereby arousing impatience and exasperation on the part of some readers (myself included).

Frances felt an urgent need to penetrate to the crux of Guy’s personality. She even had recourse to this famous – and at times controversial – reference work: mental !

After our discussion, Frances e-mailed us her thoughts. I find her analysis perceptive and beautifully expressed, and with her permission, quote part of it here:

I’m still thinking about Strangers on a Train.   I am trying to fully understand Guy.   So far all I have come up with is that his personality is not fully integrated in a healthy way, making him prone to self doubt and unable to take a solid moral stance when seduced and psychologically tortured by Bruno into a psychologically exhausted state which made him “ready” to do anything to get rid of Bruno.  Guy’s belief in ordered thinking, whether from Plato’s philosophy of Truth or as in the ideas of the Golden Mean, are constantly undermined by the Chaos, which in this case I think is tantamount to Evil, injected by Bruno keep Guy unbalanced, conflicted and weakened.  Blackmailers or sadists never give up and Bruno was both.  Guy knows man is capable of good and evil yet is never strong enough to side with the Light. He never decided who he was at his core.  He was not able to dismiss his dark side and live a life of rationalized pretense nor is he able to forgive himself understanding he was manipulated into murder…. Maybe he tried to think too much and should have followed his instincts that Bruno was insane and beat a hasty retreat from him.  Bruno was relentless though and kept insinuating himself into Guy and later Guy and Anne’s life….. In the end, this is a sad story of two men who were lost before they even met.   One wonders if Guy could have been happy with Anne and the child as Anne gives us peeks into her perception of Guy as someone who needed her and who was not a happy sort of man.
Oh, well.  It was a great book.   I am glad I struggled with it despite my distaste of evil.  It slid off the page and disturbed me just as poor Guy was disturbed by Bruno.  That is no mean feat for an author to achieve.   I sense Highsmith  was trying to work out some of these issues in her own life.   That is what I thought the long ramblings of the tortured Guy about social law, as well as the wonderings about God and creativity,  lost souls and personal conscience were all about, in part, at least.   They seemed very personal to me.  Just imagine, there she is the author of great talent yet her works are not beautiful in the classic sense.   They are marred and defined by their psychological depravity and views into the mind enveloped by darkness.   Was she a lost soul as well?  Perhaps.

Frances mentioned Tuesday night her feeling that the evil bodied forth in this novel was “seeping” into her. I didn’t have that feeling while I was reading it – but oddly, I have had it while working on this post. I find one point in Frances’s analysis to be especially provocative: “In the end, this is a sad story of two men who were lost before they even met.”

As for Patricia Highsmith and her demons – well, beginning with her troubled childhood and on into her adult life, she certainly had them.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith

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The familiarity of most people with the title Strangers on a Train is largely due to the fame of Hitchcock’s film:

It is almost impossible to talk about the novel without also bringing the film into the discussion. Hitchcock made radical alterations in Highsmith’s narrative. Some of the changes are small: Charles Anthony Bruno’s name becomes “Bruno Anthony.”  (Why, I wonder.) But there is one change that is radical: Guy sneaks into the Bruno mansion not in order to kill the paterfamilias but to warn him that his “lunatic” son is trying to arrange his murder. Hitchcock transforms Guy into a beleaguered but basically decent person, a far cry from the tormented soul in Patricia Highsmith’s novel. For those of us who were familiar with the movie but not the novel, the fact that in the latter, Guy actually carried out the murder of Bruno’s father was deeply shocking.

Chris, our discussion leader, asked whether we preferred the film to the novel or vice versa. For me, they were not really comparable. Starting  with a very cunning plot premise, Highsmith proceeded to write an immensely powerful psychological novel. Hitchcock’s film is a masterpiece of suspense and contains some of cinema’s most memorable scenes (the tennis match, Miriam’s murder, the out-of-control merry-go-round at the climax). But they are  two distinct and different entities.

(In the role of Bruno, Robert Walker is riveting. It was his last great role: he died soon after making this film. He was 32 years old.)

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In addition to those already mentioned, Strangers on a Train brings to mind other writers and literary works. Guy’s brooding indecisiveness put me in mind of Hamlet – “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt….” His losing battle with the forces of evil  made me think of Hawthorne – the Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter and even more so, some of the short stories. In tales like “The Minister’s Black Veil” and “Young Goodman Brown,” Hawthorne evokes a sense of sinfulness so dreadful it cannot even be named. The Devil lurks at the margins, waiting to spring into action. Henry James internalized this force brilliantly in the hapless, hysterical ( or is she hyper intuitive?) governess in The Turn of the Screw.

Patricia Highsmith may have been a troubled individual with her own share of negative personality traits, but one senses that her education in the liberal arts (at Barnard College) served her well.

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Tuesday night’s discussion was immensely enjoyable. I can thinking of nothing more invigorating than hanging out with a group of such vibrant intellectuals. It’s like being back in a college, minus the papers and exams. And the fact that all are so devoted to crime fiction gladdens my heart and heightens my respect and affection for the genre.

7 Comments

  1. Frances Goodson Wang said,

    Roberta,

    This is a achingly beautiful review of Strangers on a Train. You pulled all of the threads of our discussion together magnificently and made eloquent sense of our wide ranging comments while adding so much more to the analysis. Thank you for this.

    Although a disturbing book because Evil is a challanging topic to confront or to consider, Strangers is never the less a fascinating read. Our group’s discussions are intellectually stimulating and much appreciated by me. Hats off to all of our members
    and to their very insightful comments.

    Thanks to Chris for bringing this complex book and Highsmith’s great talent to our attention.

    Frances

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for your praise, Frances. And of course, thanks for your contribution!

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    Well done, Roberta! You captured the essence of our discussion. As well as doing a very good job of reporting on it, you provided some additional and important information about the book for your readers. Your analysis of the two main characters (Bruno and Guy) and the comparison of the book and film is excellent.

    BTW, I’m the person who mentioned “An American Tragedy”. I felt that the protagonist (I wish I could remember his name!) in that Dreiser story and Guy in “Strangers” both saw their lives spinning out of control because of the actions of two women in their lives. They felt guilty because they wanted these women out of the way. In the Dreiser story, the protagonist’s working class girl friend was pregnant by him and wanted them to be married. This marriage would end his relationship with a wealthy and more beautiful woman with whom he was now involved. In “Strangers”, Guy’s wife Miriam was pregnant by another man and was standing in the way of Guy marrying his upper-class and wealthy “fiancee”. Both men were guilty of nothing but wishing for these two women’s “removal” by any means, but not necessarily through death. As we know, the results were disastrous for all of the parties in both novels.

    These two books have the unbearable suspense that makes you want to stop the natural course of events from happening. As you may have heard me say, I call these books a kind of ‘Titanic subgenre’ where you read hoping that the inevitable can be stopped from happening. (“A Judgment in Stone” is such a book”).

    I plan to read the biography of Patricia Highsmith. She was a fascinating, albeit strange, person. I remember reading an interview written on her and the writer sounded appalled by what she had said. Perhaps I’ll try to locate that article. It would be especially interesting now.

    Thanks again for your great piece on “Strangers on a Train”.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Pauline,

      I hadn’t realized all those parallels with An American Tragedy. I wonder if Highsmith had read it before she wrote Strangers on a Train.

      I hadn’t actually heard your wonderful locution “Titanic subgenre” – very useful, & certainly apt for these two novels, and for Rendell’s Judgement in Stone. I would add to the list Pompeii by Robert Harris – for obvious reasons!

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