Patricia Highsmith, Misanthrope

Books discussed in this essay: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and The Blunderer (1954). Slight spoilers.

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Patricia Highsmith could have been a character in one of her novels, a dark and distinctly odd personality. She was a smoker and an alcoholic, a bisexual who never stayed in a long-term relationship, and supposedly, a cruel misanthrope who preferred animals to people. She published her best-known novels in the 1950s and 1960s, of which her most famous is The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Highsmith_Talented_Ripley_DellIn The Talented Mr. Ripley, Highsmith’s writing style is a little old-fashioned by today’s standards, perfectly conveying the time and place of the story, but her word choices are so precise and evocative that when reading it, I could almost see the action unfolding in technicolor in my imagination’s eye. I hope it’s not spoiling anything to tell you that there is a scene where a murder takes place, and that scene is so well narrated that I actually felt like I was the one committing the crime. At the risk of sounding like a fuddy-duddy, I don’t know if people write like this anymore.

Her antihero, Tom Ripley, is a character who is impossible to like, or even to sympathize with, but he does fascinate. Tom is not particularly clever or charming, or even that self-aware. Rather, he is a very lucky opportunist who wants to be anyone other than who he actually is — he despises himself — and he gets away with what he does through a combination of skillful lying and unthinking brazenness. Therein lies Tom’s talent: He doesn’t just lie effectively, but he convinces himself that his lies are what actually happened. Since he believes them so sincerely, everyone around him must believe them too.

We may not like Tom Ripley, but we do love his story, as it goes completely against the kind of story we’ve been conditioned to expect, in which the good guys triumph and no one gets away with murder.

Highsmith_BlundererThe Blunderer, which was published a year before Ripley, might have been a warm-up for the later novel. Highsmith does nothing to dispel her reputation for misanthropy with this thriller. First, let’s take a look at the women characters, such as they are. Two of them are shrill, nagging wives who both die violent deaths, and it seems they deserved them. The last is pretty much a non-character, who falls in love with Walter (the most non-romantic person imaginable) without any provocation whatsoever and spends the rest of the novel not doing much.

Highsmith is obviously more interested in her men than her women, specifically three men. The first is Walter, the titular blunderer, who when his wife supposedly commits suicide by jumping off a cliff during a rest stop on a bus trip, he does pretty much everything he can to make himself look guilty of murder. Walter has none of the misplaced charisma of Ripley. He is milquetoast, indecisive with his feelings, slow on the uptake, “nothing but a pair of eyes without an identity behind them.” After reading a news story, Walter becomes obsessed with a man named Kimmel, who really did murder his wife at a bus stop (as revealed in the first chapter). Kimmel is in every way repulsive, who considers himself so much above the rest of humankind that he can get away with murder; he thinks of himself as “powerful and impregnable as a myth.” Highsmith takes care to mention Kimmel’s physical appearance at every opportunity, his fatness, his lack of grace and bad eyesight, his repulsive thick lips like a heart.

It takes a lot to get the reader to feel even a modicum of sympathy for such a man, who did, after all, brutally strangle his wife without any sense of remorse whatsoever. However, when Corby, Highsmith’s third man, comes into the book, she almost manages to do so. Corby is the police detective obsessed with pinning both deaths on the husbands, by any means necessary. While Walter is stupid and Kimmel is arrogant, Corby comes across as nothing less than evil, which is all the more shocking because he represents justice.

Again, Highsmith brilliantly turns our expectations upside down and has us rooting for Kimmel and Walter to triumph over Corby. She is an expert manipulator, and it shows in this novel, but after finishing it, I felt icky, contaminated. These are not people I’d care to know, and Highsmith offers no alternatives, not even a hint of one. The world is full of people like these, she seems to be saying; take a close look at anyone and you’ll find something to disgust you. So while The Blunderer is a well-written novel and an effective piece of horror, it is not a book I can say that I liked.

Highsmith was clearly a talented writer who adroitly explored the dark side of human nature, but is she a writer that many readers could love? For this reader, the answer is probably not.

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If you want to see if you can love Highsmith, check out her 10 best books according to her biographer. Highsmith also wrote a lesbian novel under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt, that has recently been adapted into film; read the story behind it.

But is she alive? Gillian Flynn and the “unlikable” female character

Books by Gillian Flynn discussed in this essay: Sharp Objects (2006); Dark Places (2009); Gone Girl (2012).

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Why do we insist that female characters in fiction be “likable?” What is likability anyway? “Likable” is often a code word for a woman who does not challenge the norm. The cultural expectation of women as selfless nurturers is so ingrained in our psyches that we find it shocking when a woman, even a fictional one, behaves in a way that is self-serving. She is labeled “unlikable,” as if the only purpose a woman serves is to get other people to approve of her.

We tend to think of women, especially fictional women, as types, usually in some kind of binary arrangement: madonna or whore; good girl or slut; princess or witch; crone, mother, or maiden. In reality, women come in all the variations of humanity, just like men, even the unpleasant flavors. Some women are shallow, narcissistic, capricious, cruel, cynical, dysfunctional, insensitive, unrepentant–all qualities that men can be. Female characters should also have a wide variety of qualities, if they are to seem as real and true as male characters.

Take the women in Gillian Flynn’s novels, for instance. Not one of her protagonists can be called “likable.” Libby in Dark Places is self-involved, dysfunctional, deeply damaged:

I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

Camille in Sharp Objects is also damaged, insulated, unwilling to coddle men or give them what they want. She sympathizes with the other girls who are outsiders and don’t play by the rules, even her violent sister:

The photo showed a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin and too much hair for her head. The kind of girl who’d be described by teachers as a ‘handful.’ I liked her.

And then there is Amy of Gone Girl, where Flynn pushes the boundaries of unlikability about as far as she can. Can she not only create a female protagonist who the reader doesn’t like, but one we actively hate, and still pull us into her story? Judging by the success of this novel, I’d say yes.

Likability, as Roxane Gay puts it so astutely in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends,” is a code of conduct. When a woman is said to be “likable,” she is behaving according to how society expects her to be. An unlikable girl is a problem for society. The problem, especially when discussing fiction, is that likability can be boring. It doesn’t challenge us at all. Flynn’s women make us feel uncomfortable and reexamine our assumptions about women. Making us feel uncomfortable is what horror is supposed to do.

When we read about a woman, the relevant question isn’t whether we like her. It’s whether we believe in her. Or as Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, puts it: “Is this character alive?” A character who is alive, who is the primary actor in her own story, is a character who engages us and helps us see ourselves more clearly–even if what she is showing us is our darker side.

Our darker thoughts are as much a part of us as our strong and powerful qualities. We are women, but we are also humans, and that means we have flaws. The job of horror is not to portray our ideal selves, but our worst selves, the selves we don’t usually allow ourselves to be–for fear of not being liked, perhaps? We feel uncomfortable reading Flynn’s novels because we glimpse ourselves in her unlikable women. She puts voice to the dark thoughts we all have. She helps us accept and even embrace our “dark places,” in the process rejecting the unattainable expectations society has always put on women to be perfect, saintly, likable.

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. — Libby in Dark Places

Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman’s body experiences. — Camille in Sharp Objects

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. — Amy in Gone Girl

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Gillian Flynn, not surprisingly, was not a nice little girl herself.

Special thanks to Roxane Gay for her essay on the importance of unlikable female protagonists. 

Gothic horror: We’re all mad here

Books discussed in this essay: American Gothic Tales (edited by Joyce Carol Oates; 1996). Also see the reading list at the end of the essay.

I was recently reading an anthology of American gothic tales, spanning from the 18th century to contemporary writing. It was a good collection of stories, all suitably weird or creepy, but aside from the earliest stories, I wasn’t sure that they all truly qualified as “gothic.” That got me to thinking about what gothic means exactly and why it is my favorite sub-genre of horror.

02133255b81d234fe909022ed7ae73a8Gothic literature has been around since at least the mid-1700s, and there are a lot of definitions of the term gothic. But academic classifications don’t get at why gothic continues to appeal, why we keep writing and reading gothic stories. The earliest gothic fiction, by authors like Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, were by their very nature melodramatic and unrealistic; they made an easy target for parody, such as what Jane Austen does so skillfully in Northanger Abbey, but they set the stage for two-and-a-half centuries of great writing by such diverse authors as Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Rebecca du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice (yes, I’m leaving out the guys, of which there are many, but this is a site about horror by women).

A story has to have three essential ingredients for me to consider it truly gothic.

The first ingredient is by necessity an element of the uncanny. Gothic literature is concerned with the thin spaces, such as between the material and nonmaterial worlds, or between life and death–even the gaps between universes. What lurks in those spaces we don’t know and can’t comprehend. Spirits haunt this realm; supernatural beings lurk in the corners; madness lies within. This is not the place for shiny glass and steel skyscrapers; there are no spaceships or computers here. Gothic fiction stands in opposition to science fiction–it’s about what we cannot know rather than what we can discover, and it has a marked sense of fatalism as opposed to optimism. Neither is it the realm of realistic fiction, of suburbs and apartment buildings and cocktail parties. Gothic fiction eschews everyday experience for the extraordinary, the bizarre and grotesque. It explores ideas and themes which reveal that the universe is a vaster space than we can ever hope to understand.

goreyNext, gothic fiction is linked inextricably with nature. By “nature,” I don’t mean the sunny, flowering, tamed outdoors where we like to have picnics. Rather, the nature of the gothic landscape is wild, implacable, indifferent to our needs and desires, and uncontrollable despite our best efforts. Nature is always encroaching on the human world; that’s why buildings in gothic stories are usually ancient, crumbling, and moldering, and gardens are overgrown; they are constantly threatened with being overtaken by nature. When people enter natural spaces in gothic stories, they find themselves in treacherous, menacing environments: tangled forests, fetid swamps, windswept moors, craggy peaks, bottomless black lakes. The weather is also hostile; usually, it’s foggy or snowing, or a storm is raging. Animals are mysterious, feral, imbued with unsuspected powers.

The natural aspect of gothic fiction reflects the dark region inside our own psyches, as we too are a part of nature, even though we frequently strive to deny it. This is the final ingredient. Gothic literature delves into our depths to disclose the darkness within: the acts we believe ourselves incapable of, the feelings we hope to bury and ignore. It subverts our pretense to civilization and reminds us that we are all susceptible to death and decay, that there is no escaping it. In gothic literature, our inner human nature, like the natural world itself, is uncontrollable and governed by forces we cannot fully comprehend. In gothic fiction, the prevailing emotion is fear, and that quite often leads to madness. Trying to look what we can’t comprehend square in the face is enough to drive anyone insane.

In the gothic worldview, humankind is incapable of complete understanding of the universe; we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can know or discover everything. The real truth is that we are a very insignificant part of a vast, indifferent universe, a truth that, once acknowledged, might drive you insane. Or it might just set you free.

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Gothic horror by women–required reading:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • We Who Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
  • Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters