Book Review

A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

six weeks late, it's the TotN CHRISTMAS SPECIAL 2021!

cw: mental illness, depression, alcohol abuse, social anxiety

Did I already write a post about this? 

I didn’t think so. 

I feel like I’d remember if I did, but then again I might not. There’s not much going on in my life again. COVID has got out of bloody control once again here in Ontario (Omicrontario, more like, harrumph, harrumph!).

It’s Christmas Day and I’m walking Cubby around the quiet streets, hiding but not quite hiding enough, I suppose. 

Ultimately – and I find myself thinking this a lot, and I always have – I don’t really understand why people want to spend time with other people. 

I mean, obviously, it’s nice not to be alone sometimes, but I just… fundamentally don’t think there’s really much point in being around other people unless one is either consuming food or intoxicants or is being paid to be there. 

I just find it impossible to relax, y’know, when I’m around more than one (or at most two) other people. Sometimes, even when there’s only one other person, if there’s no clear understanding as to the purpose of why we are together, it’s terrifying, too. No, not terrifying, more like confusing.

Christmas is a good example: why… why gather? And I mean any year, ever, I’m not talking about the context-specific COVID-19 surge (everyone who is here took a test and everyone tested negative), but still… the COVID situation could have been an excuse to avoid spending time with people, because what… what’s the point? I don’t mean that existentially, I mean it literally, bluntly: what is the purpose of this meeting/gathering/collecting of people? 

Like… when I’m at work, the interactions makes sense: there is work to be done, I have things to do… if I’m with other people and I’m boozing then I know what’s going on: I’m boozing, it’s good, times are nice; if there’s a meal to be had there is the very clear timeline of that meal. But with a whole day of unplanned, unscheduled time without constant eating or drinking I’m just at a complete fucking loose end – if I’m alone I can read or write or cook or listen to music or watch TV or sing a song or play computer games or do housework or get absolutely bladdered: if i’m alone I don’t have to check or confirm that I’m doing the “correct” thing. But when I’m with other people… what am I meant to be doing? Who is in charge here? What am I meant to be getting out of this? What is the purpose? Are the end and the means meant to be the same, just that state of “being around others”? Is the fact that I don’t- 

I started crying.

Yeah I’m not-

And again.

I didn’t really drink at all for 3 weeks in December and I’m in a mental health fucking nosedive. And I suppose it just made me realize just how little there is in my life that matters to me. And I’ve tried not drinking lots of times and it’s not a magic fucking fix for the emptiness of existence, like people say it is. The human relationships I have don’t become more significant because I’m sober, they become less easy to swallow, they become less easy to ignore…

Love and other people are meant to be the most important things in a life. Or money and career success is meant to be the most important thing in life or how many people you fuck or how many achievements you achieve and… I just think I’m too depressed to ever enjoy life. 

I’m plodding down a suburban street with my dog who is walking at a tortoise’s pace, smelling everything, peeing on everything. I think he’s happy, I think he’s content…

I just feel so incredibly empty, I just feel so pointless, I just don’t feel like I matter. What is this?

///

Patricia Highsmith fucking got this, this blankness that is life. There is only drama is that which we cause ourselves; humans are forever the architects of their own destruction. 

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any of her novels, but reading A Dog’s Ransom recently – it was a few weeks ago I read it, who knows how long, ages ago, it feels like a lifetime ago… I just did a big sigh. I’ve been doing a lot of crying while I’ve been typing. Well, not typing, I’m outdoors and it’s late December so I’ve been voice-to-texting, so it’s not typing.

The title of this Patricia Highsmith novel is A Dog’s Ransom, and in the first chapter a dog is kidnapped. 

By the conventions of normal thrillery narratives, one would presume that the rest of the novel is spent figuring out who kidnapped the dog and then trying to get the kidnapped dog back to its home. However, Patricia Highsmith is a master in her field- wait is that a sexist phrase, “master”-

Patricia Highsmith is a powerful figure renowned in her field (e.g. a writer of psychological thrillers) precisely because the obvious route never becomes the narrative.

A quarter of the way into A Dog’s Ransom, the reader already knows a) who kidnapped the dog, b) that the dog is dead, c) that the dog’s body will never be returned, d) that the person who is ransoming the dog is arbitrarily trying to exploit some pretty boring rich people he happened to notice fawning over a dog – there is no motive beyond the purely economic. 

Where does the novel go from there? 

It would have been impossible to guess from that point, and the plot continued to be unpredictable (though never unforeshadowed) throughout. The through-line of the novel, though, is that people are haunted by the things that have happened to them and the things that they have made happen to other people. Sometimes those hauntings are positive feelings, sometimes they are not. 

Often the haunting of the self is a mixed experience. 

We can be proud of things of which we are disgusted. We can be ashamed of things that caused us praise. 

Highsmith explores the ways in which people are fucking idiots and the ways in which we are alive. 

The protagonist of A Dog’s Ransom ends up beating a near-homeless man to death. 

The people whose dog is ransomed buy a new dog within a week of the dog-napping and don’t really care about the $2,000 they gave, pointlessly, to someone ransoming an already-murdered dog. 

They move on. They erase the past and they lie about it. 

What if the past was fucking shit? 

What are you meant to be, if you are no longer your shit past? 

A shit past is something to write about. 

In my shit past, at least, there was a life during which it felt like things mattered (though maybe the utter meaninglessness of my present is just the effects of the extrahard medication the Canadian doctors have me on?); it just feels more real to be hated; it just feels more meaningful to be the cause of misery. To be the cause of love… what is that? what is it to love? I don’t know.

I need to get myself back into therapy and back to fucking Europe. And I should probably get off this medication. Wuhey!


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1 comment on “A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

  1. Not a comment but some questions; what medication(s) are you on and do you have an Onlyfans page?

    Liked by 1 person

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