Friday, October 22, 2010

The Lies That Are Our Lives: Patricia Highsmith's This Sweet Sickness

In AMC's television show Mad Men, Don Draper lives in a world of precarious reality. It is his job to manufacture the consumer culture of the 1960s through his work in advertising, and his identity as a husband and father proves to be as flimsy and artificial as the slick ad copy he writes.

As he cracks under the strain of his secrets (affairs and alternate identities just for starters), Don Draper struggles with the idea of authentic identity. Is it something we find within ourselves or something we create? Is it permanent or malleable? What about us is real? What if it's nothing?

Don Draper has a dangerously psychotic and delusional ancestor in David Kelsey, the hero of Patricia Highsmith's novel This Sweet Sickness. Like Don Draper, David is living a life of appearances in the early 60s. He buys a beautiful home in the country for his wife Annabelle, he maintains a prestigious job to keep them in a well-appointed lifestyle, and he enjoys quiet dinners of steak and wine by candlelight with her on the weekends.

Unfortunately, there's a problem: Annabelle turned down his marriage proposal over a year ago, but David has chosen to pretend that she accepted -- to pretend he's leading the life he really wants.

David must carefully balance his comfortable delusion (Annabelle and their house in the country, which he's actually purchased) with a grim reality (living in a boarding house during the week while working for a chemical company), and the pressures of two lives prove to be more than he can withstand. Finally he must turn to fraud and violence to maintain the delicate illusion of happiness.

What's wonderful about This Sweet Sickness is that David Kelsey's imaginary life -- the house in the country, the pleasant job, the marriage to Annabelle -- is only slightly more imaginary than lots of middle class lives of the 50s and 60s...or 2010. He has chosen to see certain things around him and not see others despite all evidence, and it is terrifying to watch what he has to do to keep reality at bay. This novel is considered a thriller, and the source of its tension isn't just David's conflicts with other people, but his conflict with his own mental house of cards. Add one more lie or take one away, and everything collapses.

Patricia Highsmith is also the author of the Tom Ripley novels, including The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley possess an extraordinary talent for rationalization, Ripley for his sociopathic behavior and Kelsey for his delusions.

I think readers find the persistence of David's delusion so disturbing because it isn't all that different from the ones by which we all lead our lives. "If I do the right things, someone will love me," we think. "If I work hard, I'll have a good job," or so we hope. There's a certain fakery required for our modern existence, and the only difference between David and us is that he's not as adaptable. This failure to adapt eventually crushes David Kelsey's mind.

Reading this novel gives us cause to think of the reality we take for granted. Every time I read it, I find myself suffering a little of the sweetly sickness of the title: what are I imagining that just isn't true? How much of my life is a lie? How would I know?

David Kelsey finds out, and as we watching him finding out, we get both the thrill of his downfall and a sneaking worry about our own.


Raquelle said...

This novel sounds amazing. I'm definitely going to check it out. It's a good opportunity for me to re-explore Patricia Highsmith.

Will Ludwigsen said...

I always have a hard time writing these columns because I have such weird tastes. This is a book that's very claustrophobic, very dreamy, very squishy under your feet. There might be people who find that disturbing, and I can only read the novel once every couple of years. I think it's one of Highsmith's best.

Colleen said...

We all have weird taste at GLW, Will! You fit in perfectly! ha!

Bybee said...

I haven't read much by Highsmith, but what I've read I've been enjoyably unsettled by. Good job comparing this protagnist to Don Draper.