Short story: “Where the Action Is”

by look i have opinions

“Where the Action Is,” by Patricia Highsmith

Collected in Mermaids on the Golf Course; also here

? words (I’ll work it out someday)

A Highsmith story (or novel) often takes the form of a creepy, absurd, horrific, or misanthropic joke, drawn out at sober and detailed length, the creepiness/absurdity/horror/misanthropy snowballing as it goes on, passing the point where laughter seems appropriate. Instead of laughing, you get an enjoyable shudder, a kind of How did we get away with that?

This one is heavy on irony. Craig, a small-town photographer, accidentally snaps a picture of a tearful young woman running to meet her parents after being held hostage. The photograph becomes famous and wins a Pulitzer; the woman withdraws from social life and plays the part of a damaged but gracious victim. She even begins a career as a model, using her “sad-dog face” to sell perfume and clothing. Craig and the other characters spend a slightly ridiculous amount of time speculating whether she was “really” raped or just wanted an excuse to end her engagement. (Nobody dwells on the idea that she might be legitimately traumatized for other reasons.) Their curiosity is perfectly drawn: sordid, cynical, not especially malicious.

Meanwhile, Craig acts his part as well. Like the young model, he takes full advantage of the career boost, giving interviews, discussing how conflicted he feels about profiting from a stranger’s suffering, doing everything he can to seem deep and compassionate.

In a curious way, Craig realized that he had to hold onto his conviction that Lizzie Davis’s life had been altered, ruined—or he couldn’t make a success of the article-plus-photos that he had in mind. “You think she’s a phony?” Craig asked in a soft, almost frightened voice.

In the interview scene that follows, he “prepare[s] himself as if he were an actor,” and actually succeeds. “He believed, he knew now, that he was being sincere[.]” For the rest of his life, the story implies, he will be driven by this same hollow sincerity, building his career on suffering and compassion. In a way he seems more damaged than Lizzie Davis. He’s given up his innocence willingly.

I like stories about characters who are unwittingly trapped in falseness, selfishness, and ignorance by their own minds and choices. This one, of course, doesn’t have the depth of “The Depressed Person” because it places us at a comfortable distance from the main character; we can sneer at Craig instead of wanting desperately to save him or get away from him. I suppose misanthropy is never as effective a literary attitude as empathy.