Where new writing finds its voice


Peter Higgins

David Thomson
Secker & Warburg, 1985

That most eloquent and poetic of film critics, David Thomson, is up to his eyeballs in movies. The scale of his addiction is such that it forces the reader to wonder how he finds the time to watch so many films and write so elegantly about them. Does he ever sleep? Are there any films, -anywhere in the world, that he hasn’t seen at least twice? 

One might think that inventing the essential Biographical Dictionary of Film would be enough to prove your credentials and ensure your place in the pantheon of great critical writers (up there with Pauline Kael, Clive James, Kenneth Tynan and Anthony Lane). But Thomson had to take it further. As if in answer to his own famous double question – ‘Where do films come from? Where do they go?’ – he produced the book Suspects. First published in 1985, Suspects is a disturbingly -believable patchwork of fiction, metafiction and postmodern trickery.  

Yes, fine, but what is it actually about? OK. Deep breath. Here goes. Imagine if such characters as Rick ‘Casablanca’ Blaine or Travis ‘Taxi Driver’ Bickle or Judy ‘Vertigo’ Barton were real people, with real lives going on before, and (though not in all cases) after, the movies that featured them. Now imagine that the people from one movie might have met (or even been related to) characters from other, unconnected, movies. 

Such a novel, filled with characters already created by other people, and already living in the heads of the movie-loving readership, would be almost insane, wouldn’t it? Yes, it would. In fact, it would be so insane that, in accordance with its hall-of-mirrors logic, Suspects was ‘actually’ written by none other than Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) in The Shining. You (along with Shelley Duvall) may have been under the impression he was just typing ‘All work and no play.’ over and over, but really he was doing something much more worrying: he was writing Suspects. Which is, as the narrator helpfully reminds us, ‘A mad book, a unique book.’ 

You can say that again. But was it worth the effort? Is there anything to this novel beyond a lot of clever-clever showing-off? Yes, because Thomson understands as well as anyone the absurdity of the entire project and the potential annoyance the reader may at times feel. At one point he pleads: ‘try to read without having to slap me’. And, while his tone throughout is serious and detached, he creates just enough sympathy for his narrator (an iconic movie character himself) and injects just enough black humour to keep the reader hooked. Towards the end, as things become as clear as they’re ever going to be, he even gets in a sucker-punch that might just leave you reeling. I’ll say no more, beyond the fact that it involves a film they show on TV every Christmas, and what really happened to that film’s much-loved hero. The narrative is meandering and mysterious, packed with murder, double-crossing, betrayal, intrigue, lies and passion. We are taken on an epic journey across a mythical, fictionalised, crime-ridden America. That country is the other main character in this book, just as it was in Nabokov’s Lolita. In fact, Nabokov was clearly a major inspiration for Thomson, and echoes of his work sound throughout: ‘there is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings,’ complains one particularly insane inmate of this particular asylum.

Thomson is a great film critic and an interesting writer, but at times his language veers dangerously close to self-parody. For example, ‘I found Travis once pretending to be his uncle Jeff, and Mary Frances vomiting with fear.’ That vomiting with fear is over-egging the pudding a little. But then there are those moments when film criticism and fiction coalesce and a terrible kind of dead-pan
poetry is achieved, and we can forgive him just about anything:

‘Tossing curve-balls at the ceiling so that they bend round the light bulb, never hitting it, always missing explosion.’

‘He asked to be known as “The Dakota Kid” after he had died, and if he didn’t rise again. But he had donated his body to science, and they cut him in pieces.’

Wherever films come from and wherever they go, Suspects makes one thing absolutely clear: when they are unleashed on to that glowing screen, they no longer belong to their makers; they belong to us, and we can do with them whatever we want.