The Talented Ms. Highsmith
Re-Entering an Author's World of Sweet Cruelty
In her more than 20 books, Patricia Highsmith created some of the most unsettling tales of human deception and psychological nightmare in recent literary history, halls of mirrors in which appearances and attitudes often have greater weight and consequence than actions do. Highsmith's work possesses the same urgency as that of fellow noir/crime writer Jim Thompson--the reader imagines he or she is experiencing firsthand the blossoming of a psychotic or demented mind. But where Thompson's writing is sparse, blunt, and hot, so stripped-down that the reader almost feels perched at the edge of the unreliable narrator's consciousness itself, Highsmith's prose is composed and highly detailed, meticulously fleshing out the familiar space around her characters, forcing us to admit it would take only a few twists of fate or mind to find ourselves in a similar situation.
Born in Texas in 1921, Highsmith spent most of her life in France and Switzerland, and her books slip in and out of print in her native country. Now, partially due to the not-too-shoddy 1999 film version of her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (also the subject of the very good 1960 French film Purple Noon), the expatriate author's work is regaining American favor six years after her death. (An adaptation of the sequel, Ripley's Game, is currently in production; it was also previously filmed, by the German director Wim Wenders, as The American Friend in 1977.) In light of her renewed popularity, W.W. Norton & Co. is reissuing nine Highsmith novels and five short-story collections over the next couple of years. First up: Strangers on a Train (1950), her debut novel, and A Suspension of Mercy (1965). Norton has also gathered 60 of her short works in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith.
As Graham Greene writes of Highsmith in the foreword to The Selected Stories: "She is a writer who has created a world of her own--a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger, with the head half turned over shoulder, even with a certain reluctance, for these are cruel pleasures we are going to experience." Not many reading experiences are more cruel or pleasurable than reading Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into a movie in 1951. The novel itself should be taught in school next to Albert Camus' The Stranger, so brilliant is its existential examination of a seemingly decent, intelligent man who slowly hangs himself through his passivity and ever-worsening choices.
The strangers of the title are Guy Haines, a budding young architect, and Charles Bruno, a budding alcoholic gadfly with a mother complex. Haines is frustrated by his estranged wife's psychic stranglehold on him; Bruno hates his father for undermining his sycophant lifestyle and getting in the way of his cloying relationship with his doting mom. The men meet on a train and, after a few formalities and cocktails, Bruno presents a fantasy plan to Haines: Each will murder the other's enemy. The killer would lack any motivation or link to his victim, so police would never suspect him.
Highsmith masterfully and subtly portrays the mild-mannered and slightly weak-willed Haines' slow descent into a martini-fueled maelstrom created by the obsessive Bruno. With his whining attachment and shadowy lust for his mother, his creeping-vine obsession with the successful Haines, and frequent drunken heebie-jeebie freakouts, Bruno is a shining contender for the Literary Psychotic Hall of Fame. But Highsmith wouldn't be content with just a battle between the forces of good and evil, so she shades the gray areas inside Haines, revealing his conflicting feelings about Bruno, a mix of repulsion and enchantment.
Though not as hair-raising and complex as Strangers, A Suspension of Mercy ranks among Highsmith's best work, along with The Cry of the Owl, Edith's Diary, Eleven, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Suspension tells the bent tale of an unhappy marriage between Sydney Bartleby, a struggling author trying his hand at writing for television, and his wife, Alicia, an amateur painter. In his frustration and struggle to prove himself as an artist and breadwinner, Sydney loses himself more and more in his fantasy/writing life, finally hitting on a character for a TV series. Christened "The Whip," this character seems like a tongue-in-cheek parody of Highsmith's own Tom Ripley, a suave man of many faces who lives above the law. Rather than providing a vent for Sydney's more violent urges, however, the character further blurs the line in Sydney's mind between fantasy and reality.
In her novels Highsmith nestles her contempt for the foibles of humankind in roller-coaster plotting and psychological nuance; her short stories sometimes read like malicious, moralizing assaults. This is particularly true of the stories in "Little Tales of Misogyny," one of the five mini-collections gathered in Selected Stories. The titles tell it all: "The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife," "The Breeder," "The Mobile Bed-Object."
Sharing the same one-dimensionality, but with more evident humor, is a batch called "The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder," in which all sorts of creatures, from the lovable elephant to the lowly rat, exact vengeance on deserving humanity. In "Hamsters vs. Websters," even the nerdy rodents of the title get their turn turning off The Man: "Larry observed it all from the darkness. And he realized he didn't care. He didn't care what happened to his father. It was a little like watching something on the TV screen. Yes, he did care. He wanted the hamsters to win." Sadly, Highsmith's strongest collection of stories, Eleven, isn't included here, but those that are make for good brain candy on days when you'd like to slip out of your skin and pretend you're not human.
Many writers try to portray the darker sides of human nature, but few can do it as convincingly or pleasurably as Patricia Highsmith. She exposed the darkness beneath the calm veneer of the middle class and well-to-do. Her own misanthropy is so enjoyable that a reader can find refuge in her work, but it's a dangerous shelter. The risk in reading Highsmith's books lies in getting pulled so far into her vision of lurking menace that you lose the power--and desire--to escape.