Saturday, June 11, 2011

Blog entry #1 audio books for cataract surgery: Strangers on a Train

I began this blog—or at least I designed the site – last summer (2010) when a horrible bout of bronchitis/asthma/sinusitis resulted in a series of steroid prescriptions. I was keeping vampire hours, unable to sleep because of the meds but unable to do any real work either. So I started playing around with website/blogsite design—thinking I’d begin blogging the way Steven Shaviro does —as a means of working out ideas and publishing small critical pieces online ( See Pinocchio Theory

For a whole slew of reasons , though,I became a largely non-blogging blogger until this summer.

For several years I’ve had cataracts in both eyes. I am very, very near-sighted and have been wearing glasses and/or contacts since age 7. Because nearsightedness lengthens the eye there are all kinds of pressures on the structure of the organ itself, and the extremely nearsighted eye ages more rapidly than it would normally do. Which is how I found myself sitting in the Southern Indiana Eye Clinic this May scheduling cataract surgery.

The cataract procedure (which involves replacing the lens of the afflicted eye) is extremely quick and, for me at least, painless—both during and after. The patient is sedated but not put fully “under,” so the recup time from the anesthesia is fast. There is a week between surgeries--. That is, they “do” one eye—in my case, my right eye; wait a week, then do the other eye. During this waiting period I could not wear eyeglasses or a left-eye contact lens: so I lived in a strangely bifurcated world. Nearly perfect vision and beautiful focus in my right eye, while my left eye remained totally unfocused and so nearsighted as to be nonfunctional (I could see fuzzy shapes and muted colors but no detail). In this state, I was able to do a good deal more than I originally thought I’d be able to do—cook, watch some TV, listen to music and the radio.

Note: If you’re contemplating this kind of surgery and have the terrible pre-surgery eyesight I had, you should plan on a week pretty much off work. You can do phone consultations, and meetings that don’t require reading and writing notes. But e-mail is very difficult, and you can’t really write without driving yourself batty.

So, off-work and unable to really read, I turned to the audio books I’d downloaded for this very purpose. And that is what this first posting is about.

I began my audio sojourn with Strangers on a Train (1950), Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel (included in Selected Novels and Short Stories by Patricia Highsmith narrated by Bronson Pinchot). Both darker and more homoerotic than Hitchcock’s film of the same title, the book pays the same incisive attention to detail that makes the Ripley novels such a pleasure to read. So it’s a good bet for an audio book, since the act of listening forces the audience to slow down, not skip ahead, and notice the twists and turns of language and the things (objects/ people/emotions/thoughts) being dissected. The central plot involves two men who meet on a train. The more psychopathic of the two suggests that they “swap” murders. Bruno (the psychopath) offers to murder Guy’s troublesome wife if Guy (the ostensibly saner of the two) will murder Bruno’s father. The perfect crime, according to Bruno, since there’s nothing to link the murderer to the victim. Of course like all such “it can’t fail” ideas, Bruno’s scheme is doomed from the start—since the thing that will ultimately link him to Guy’s wife is his own obsessive fascination with Guy (In the novel Bruno stalks Guy, buys him presents, writes him long letters—so many that Guy thinks that Bruno is acting like a lover).

Obsessive homoerotic bonding—especially bonding over the body of a woman-- is a familiar trope in Highsmith’s novels and it figures prominently here. Even the supposedly heteronormative Guy is described as fixated with Bruno. Joan Schenkar, the editor of the Blackstone audio volume, calls Guy and Bruno alter-egos. I suppose to some degree they are. But there’s something almost too fatalistic and pat in seeing the two men as romantic dopplegängers, as though Guy were fated to meet Bruno and confront his dark side; as though there were only one person in the world who could be your Harold Wilson, your Double. The way I heard it was slightly darker—since I think Highsmith is suggesting that ANY two people can become alter-egos if only their relationship is co-dependent enough. And here you don’t even have to commit a murder together—as you do in Double Indemnity—to become psychologically imbricated with each other. It’s sufficient for one of you to raise a perverse notion and for the other to hear it, for a valence bond to be formed. In fact, the novel is peppered with alter-egos or doubles for both men—a fact that is both psychologically troubling and literarily brilliant, since it so completely unmasks the doppelgänger motif as a plot function while still making us care about it.

Hitchcock turns the story into one of his wrong-man narratives, climaxing in that beautifully shot nightmarish carousel sequence—a sequence that leaves us all on the edge of our seats wondering if Guy’s innocence will be proven. Guy is not innocent in the novel. And in fact, as Joan Schenkar suggests, it is his initial moral stature that seems to pave the way for him to be so absolutely and easily corrupted. He is simply too nice (read : weak and passive) to hold out against Bruno for long. And perhaps he doesn’t really want to hold out. Since in this story, as in any good fairytale, the murderous dark side is much more compelling and interesting than the domestic light side is.

I began listening to this book, the day after I had my first surgery, when a series of tornadoes ripped through south central Indiana, and the tornado siren

blared like an air raid alarm. My husband and I spent much of that evening in the basement of our home—bottles of water and thermoses of espresso, at the ready. Skip was also reading a Patricia Highsmith novel—Those Who Walk Away (1967), another intense exploration of two men bound in mortal conflict and homosocial fascination. So there we were in the basement with our respective books, and the very strangeness of the situation intensified, I think, the experience of listening to Strangers.

Bronson Pinchot seemed a good enough reader at first—and the voices he used for the narrator and for Guy were fine, if a bit detached. Distant, steady and a bit low, but not basso. It was the way he did Bruno and the women that finally defeated me. For Bruno, I think he was trying to imitate the voice Robert Walker used in the Hitchcock film, but without the shading and nuance. Still I don’t think I would have found the Bruno voice quite so annoying if it hadn’t co-existed with the truly grating “female” voice (not quite falsetto, but hesitant, shy-sounding, whinging) used to portray Bruno’s mother and Guy’s fiancée Ann. Ann particularly suffered, since the story itself seems to set her up as a strong businesswoman, independent enough to risk living with Guy prior to their marriage (this is in 1950). The voice Pinchot used for her, however, seems to drain the character of stamina and frequently borders on a whine. For me, the grain of Pinchot’s voice ultimately affected the texture of the prose, so I dreaded the scenes where Ann would play a major role or where Bruno was closeted—Hamlet-like—with his mother. By the time we were able to emerge from the basement, I was ready for both the storm and the audio book to end (our property remarkably suffered little damage, even though up and down the block whole trees went down, so we were lucky)

Final recommendation—it’s not as accomplished as the Ripley novels, but if you like Highsmith, it’s worth looking at. But do wait until you can LOOK at it and let your own internal voice carry the narration.

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