Tuesday, September 8, 2015

...and we're back with another novel by Patricia Highsmith: A Game for the Living

Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994
(originally published 1958)
282 pp


"You are about to find out who is responsible for this...but it doesn't matter in the least...It's just a silly game -- a game for the living."  (198)

Right off the bat, I will admit that this is not one of my favorite Highsmith novels.  It's a departure from her usual stuff, which is okay, but she really wasn't all that terrific at putting together an existential whodunit novel which, when all is said and done, describes what I think she was attempting with A Game for the Living. I'm not the only one who has an issue with this book -- according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson, Highsmith herself "came to regard A Game for the Living ... as one of her worst novels," and she wrote in her Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction that this novel "was the only really dull book I have written."  

As the book begins, you actually do find yourself in Highsmith land. Set in Mexico, two very different men are in love with the same woman, both are her lovers, and both are very civilized about the whole thing.  She is also very accommodating; there are no fights between the two men (who are friends), and everyone seems to accept the situation as it is. But, when one of the men returns home from a trip and finds her dead in bed, things start to change.  He, Theodore, is positive that the other man, Ramón, is Lelia's murderer -- after all, he knows that Ramón is prone to violent outbursts.  Theodore has even come between the two a few times when Ramón was on the verge of hitting her.  Ramón had also said that someday he'd "give her up" or "kill himself."  Theodore also realizes that 
"between killing oneself and killing the object of one's passion was not much difference...Psychologically, they equated sometimes."
The two do a sort of mental and emotional dance wondering if the other one is guilty, and matters don't improve when Ramón decides to confess.  But far from being the end of the story, his confession is actually just the beginning.  The limits of friendship are constantly tested in this novel;  Highsmith also uses the novel to explore the nature of guilt.  It's also a book that examines religious belief (which I enjoyed) and art (which I also enjoyed).  Yet, while many of these same themes are to be found in her other novels, looking at it as whole, the book  is a kind of a trainwreck of poor plotting, very little in the way of character development outside of the two main characters, and a lack of intensity that for me is the hallmark of a Highsmith novel.  And then there's that beyond-flat ending.

If my lack of enthusiasm is showing, there are plenty of reasons why.  The biggest one is this: I didn't feel this book like I have the others. If you're a regular Highsmith reader, you know what I mean. I'm at the point where now I have to take breathers between reading her novels because they're so dark and so intense, but I didn't get that here.

I'd say try it but proceed with caution. Do not make this your first Highsmith novel or you may never go back to another one.


  1. Nancy, at long last, I can honestly have read one of the authors showcased. Every now and again, all good writers slip up and write one or more less compelling novels. Thank you for your insight.

  2. This one is just plain bad. Considering the excellent books she wrote before this one, there's just no comparison.


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