Three of the most cheerful events in the past decade of American publishing have happened within the preceding twelve months alone, events which prove that despite the everywhere-decried effects of corporations, chain bookstores and the Internet, literary publishing remains, to some degree at least, about the books. In the first two occurrences, at the trade publisher W.W. Norton and then at Henry Holt, the same young editor–inspired by novelists Jonathan Franzen and Stewart O'Nan–acquired and published several early novels of the seminal American writer Paula Fox, followed closely by a collection of short stories by Richard Yates, a writer with an enormous following among contemporary American authors but who had fallen nearly entirely out of print. Credit for the third happy event, this August, goes to Norton again, for launching a republishing program of one of the strangest and most fascinating writers of the twentieth century, Patricia Highsmith.
There's no downside to these three critically important, visionary American writers being brought to new prominence. All had long, fruitful careers, yet all failed, in the common wisdom, to find the audiences they deserved. In the case of Yates and Highsmith, they never really got into what Richard Ford calls "the permanent, big-money main arena of American literary fashion" until after their deaths: Yates appeared in The New Yorker for the first time only this year, and Highsmith was brought into the limelight only by the Hollywood filming of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Fox–who, in the first of two defining differences from her peers in rediscovery, is alive and well and publishing a memoir this autumn–also was published in The New Yorker for the first time some thirty years after writing her first novel, as well as being profiled in the New York Times Magazine, among the other publicity attention that has recently found her.
Most interesting about the three closely linked rediscoveries, however, is that each of these writers, in his or her way, concentrates nearly exclusively on the darker side of human experience, particularly the middle class, white experience, producing novel after novel of relentless desperation and nearly unremitting sadness in characters who lack few of the social or material means to be happy. Of the three–and this is the second defining difference–Fox is the greatest artist, exploring her difficult world with a perfected language, mordant humor and transcendent literary insight that renders as art her portion of the spectrum of human experience.
No such transcendence is to be found in either Yates or Highsmith–although I may simply have missed it in Yates, having given up after six or seven brilliant and brutalizing books, fearing that I might find myself reaching for the Prozac or, like his characters, for the bottle. In novel after novel, using unadorned language and an optic uncolored by sentimentality, each sketches, establishes and explores some of the most crushing emotions that humans can experience: desolation, abandonment, hopelessness, addiction and pure brute loss. They are, in this respect, Gothic novelists: novelists who have worked with a very limited palette of human emotions, one that most notably excludes joy or love, connection or harmony, completion or satisfaction, differentiated from the classically defined Gothic by the fact that the horrors they describe are not supernatural and exist largely in an interior landscape, from which they haunt their characters' always subjective and often liquored-up experience of reality. The characters' condition, furthermore, most often surpasses any real tragedy that may once have triggered it and has become, for these characters, a fact of the human condition, one that will not be cured.
Yates is a literary writer, of course, and Highsmith, at least as reflected by her many American publishers–ten or so in America, as opposed to England, France and Germany, where one publisher in each country supported her through her entire career–wrote "genre," although that is a judgment that very few of her critics take seriously. The classification rests largely on the fact that, early and often, people tend to kill each other in Highsmith. But once one teases out the ubiquitous murders and suicides, one sees that these are, in essence, stories and novels with a great similarity to those of Yates, and fall squarely within what could be called the literature of endogenous depression. "Ralph took a quick, deep breath. He could have collapsed with defeat, with unhappiness, and yet at the same time an insane energy boiled within him." "Life was nothing but trying for something, followed by disappointment, and people kept on moving, doing what they had to do, serving–what? And whom?" This Gothic sensibility, this unremitting sadness that Highsmith shares with Yates, is the more useful grounds for classification of her notoriously unclassifiable writing, which is shelved unpredictably in literature and mystery sections of bookstores. More than anything else, Highsmith's lifework chronicles and explores the fundamental mechanics of unhappiness, both emotional and ethical, in which live her dissatisfied and unfulfilled characters.