Murder of the Middle Class

Murder of the Middle Class

Patricia Highsmith was a master writer of crime and suspense.


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.


Highsmith herself, born in Texas, lived in self-imposed exile. Her largest audience by far was in Europe, and when she died six years ago in Switzerland at 74, one of her bequests was of $3 million to the Yaddo writers colony–European money, one presumes, given her own recounting of being dropped by editors all over New York based on sales figures. Her strange career was launched with one of the most accomplished books she would write, Strangers on a Train, with which Hitchcock brought her to immediate fame through his classic film of the same name. She was no sooner launched, however, than she declared her independence from commercial considerations: Her second book was a pseudonymous entry into the period genre of the lesbian novel, with the difference that her housewife, liberated from a stultifying and conformist marriage, defies the moralizing rules of the genre and ends up happy.

There followed some two dozen novels and collections: stories of miserable, dangerous and bizarre events in the most normal of settings. Characters lose their lives to their fantasies, are blackmailed, commit murders, become fundamentalists. Middle-class men find themselves peering through women's windows, dogs are kidnapped, an architect is jailed when a building he designed, through no fault of his own, falls down on a group of children. Central among the novels is the celebrated Ripley series, a subtle exploration of the life of a young American of uncertain sexuality who escapes the bigotry of New York in the foxed fifties for the comparative freedom of postwar Europe. Once there, he proceeds to conduct a career of outward bourgeois normalcy supported by a secret life of fraud, forgery and the constant willingness to kill.

In person, she was no less unexpected than her books. She was a kind, soft-spoken woman who adored animals and expressed consistent commitment to a broad range of liberal principles–one of her books is dedicated to the fighters in the first Palestinian intifada, of the late 1980s–and admired Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood and Iris Murdoch. And yet, in an hourlong conversation I had with her in 1992, on tape, she made pejorative comparisons between the inferior Swiss children and, in America, Mexicans and "Negroes"; informed me that four times as many "Slavs" were killed in the Holocaust as Jews and that it is wrong therefore, to say that Auschwitz "was Jewish only" just because "somebody whose grandmother" was killed there says so; and delivered herself of the opinion that we should pay more attention to the fact that "Afro-Americans" had pushed other "Afro-Americans" onto the slave ships, although, she advised, I'd best not say so because I'd get "clobbered."

Unlike her conversation, however, in her work she never indulged in bigotry or even small-mindedness and never laid blame. To the contrary, the narrative sensibility with which she explored her vast fictional universe was one of sensitivity and empathy not for the righteous–it is the righteous, in Highsmith's universe, who suffer–but for the guilty, who very, very often get away. And each time they do so, each time they return to the world of the normal, which is unable, or unwilling, to punish them, the line between them and us becomes a little bit more blurred.


The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith makes it possible to experience virtually the entire range of which Highsmith was capable, an experience of real emotional horror. And yet, to a degree of which Yates, ultimately, was incapable, it is a horror that means something, a horror that accuses the human condition of gross inhumanity and condemns its victims for the cowardice–emotional, ethical and political–of collaborating in their own misery.

Highsmith, the English journalist Lucretia Stewart has pointed out, reserved some of her deepest compassion for animals, and it is in the group of stories that opens this large collection that Highsmith's strangeness, and daring, first becomes apparent. Selected stories from The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder all take up the improbable challenge of presenting animal owners from their pets' point of view. As one reads one sees that "beastly" is not, as is first assumed, used in the most common adjectival sense to modify the noun "murder," but is also murder literally carried out by beasts. Those are, in fact, anything but beastly. They are calm, logical and richly deserved.

Chorus Girl, for example, is a long-lived circus elephant who has outlasted her original, much-loved trainer. The new one, Cliff, is not exactly abusive but acts with the quotidian cruelty of humans to animals, beating the beast to train her. "I gave Cliff a kick, hardly more than a prod, with my left foot. I caught him in the side, and I heard a cracking sound like the breaking of tree branches. After that Cliff did not move again." Djemal is a mistreated camel in an Arab country, who, when his master turns his back, finds himself with the opportunity to attack. "Djemal bore down and seized Mahmet's djellaba and part of his spine in his teeth. Mahmet fell, and Djemal stomped him, stomped him again on the head." The Baron, a small dog left–apparently–to his master's partner, Bubsy, after his master's death, is able to chew Bubsy's nebulizer tube out while Bubsy is suffering an asthma attack.

Each of the stories succeeds in large part because of the purity of the voice and the perfection of motivation that Highsmith invents for the animals. The animals are the perfect murderers, killing with neither malice nor, really, violence, in that their use of their physicality is instinctual and they are, after all, only protecting themselves. They are by nature cold: They don't love, nor do they really hate, and our sense that they do is anthropomorphic. Nor can they be punished for their murders, for which they have no legal liability–they can be put down, as is Chorus Girl after killing her trainer, or attacked, like the murderous overpopulation of Hamsters in "Hamsters vs. Websters." But they are not really guilty in any conventional sense, because guilt is a human concept.

And it is this inability to experience guilt that, equally, so fascinated Highsmith in her characters. Throughout this volume–throughout her work–characters again and again find themselves existing with the most appalling guilt, and yet are unable to experience it, as when Roland's ferret Harry kills an old man and Roland finds himself hiding the man's body. "Roland…realized that he didn't dare think too much about what Harry had done…. Or–if Roland ever thought of Harry as a murderer, he put it in the same realm of fantasy as the murders in the books he read, real yet not real. It was not true that he was guilty, or Harry either."

But Roland, despite his denial–"it was not true"–is guilty: He literally used his wild ferret as a weapon to carry out his murder, he hid the body and he did it all on purpose. And yet, like the animals, he escapes both emotional guilt and legal responsibility. Again and again, throughout these stories, characters kill with impunity. A businessman, retired to a farm in Maine to recover from stress, finds himself feuding with his neighbor; he shoots one of the neighbor's dogs, then takes to spending "a lot of time up in his bedroom, binoculars and loaded rifle at hand, in case anything else belonging to Frosby showed itself on his land." He makes no judgment, never even remarks on the singularity of how he has come to be spending his time: It simply is what he's doing. With equal ease, he puts the neighbor, then himself, to death. The father of a child with Down's syndrome expresses his frustration by brutally murdering a passer-by. Thereafter the murder inhabits his memory as an empowering incident, proving that he is not as helpless before fate as his son makes him feel. A highlight of the collection is "Something the Cat Dragged In," a story about an English country party where the household cat brings in a pair of human fingers. "The two fingers were dead white and puffy, there was not a sign of blood even at the base of the fingers, which included a couple of inches of what had been the hand. What made the object undeniably the third and fourth fingers of a human hand were the two nails, yellowish and short and looking small because of the swollen flesh." When the victim is identified and his murderer found, the friends agree to bury their secret. No judgment is required. In this artist's work, there are crimes but little punishment.

If there are murders throughout these stories there are also suicides, that particular form of murder where the victim and perpetrator are one. A young actor faced with the death of his mentor attempts suicide. "Simon rubbed his palms together, breathed deeply, and felt himself smiling. He was happy, in a quiet and important way." A businessman faced with exposure of murder calmly puts a gun barrel to his mouth. A widow returns from helping a neighbor: "Somehow she knew she was going to die that night. It was a calm and destined sensation. She might have died, she thought, if she had merely gone to bed and fallen asleep. But she wished to make sure of it, so she took a single-edged razor blade from her shelf of paints in the kitchen closet–the blade was rusty and dull, but no matter–and cut her two wrists at the bathroom basin." A French woman, disappointed in her quest to befriend her favorite English novelist, steps into traffic. "Odile had wanted to injure herself, perhaps kill herself, though she had realized this only a few seconds before she leapt into the taxi's path."

Like the guiltless and unpunished murders, suicide is an action that exists wholly apart from everything else in the character's life, a psychic event with its own volition entirely, available to the happy and miserable alike. Highsmith's characters don't mourn death, they erase it; they don't repress bad memories, they expunge them completely; and when they do express the profound miseries that motivate them, they do so in ways that mean nothing to them–through murders they don't understand, acts of cruelty that seem unmotivated (precisely, in fact, like the animals of the beastly murders).

In this placid coexistence of guilt, self-destruction and the everydayness of consciousness hides the key to Highsmith's deep strangeness: Her characters are, nearly to a one, psychotic rather than, as is more familiar to readers, neurotic. Their guilt exists within their psyches with complete self-containment, allowing for none of the familiar "acting out" we're used to. There can be none: In psychosis–for example, in multiple personality disorder–the mind is perfectly divided, with the more normal portion of awareness having no access whatever to the pathological, none of the little hints and signs, interpretable dreams, recurrent guilts or other mental mechanics of neurosis. "It was as if she had an unsolvable mystery within her…. She didn't ever dream about the murder…in fact, she often thought it might be better if she did dream about it."


Highsmith was a relentless opponent of aestheticized "style" in her writing, and although she was capable of great lyricism, she employed it very rarely. The result is a prose style that absorbs none of the shock of what it describes, a diction that refuses to relegate horror to a genre–noir, horror, mystery–where it would be, at least to some degree, detoxified. Her universe only occasionally ventures out of the determinedly middle class; her characters–engineers, bankers, writers, academics, accountants–only occasionally are found outside a rigorously defined normalcy, rendered all the more strange by her European exile, which left them all, in speech and attitudes, stuck in the past.

That makes it tempting to think that Highsmith's underlying artistic agenda is to uncover the horror of the normal. She does do that, but what she's really after–and she goes after it in virtually every single one of her books–is the normality of horror. What Highsmith wants to tell us is that it's not the horrible violence we share with animals but our ambivalent guilt, which is unique to us, that is truly strange. And what she wants to tell us is that our denial–not mere repression but outright denial–of the horror implicit in being human is universal.

Why, then, has Highsmith always been such a marginal figure in American literature? The problem–and it's a huge one–Highsmith poses to her critics and publishers is the unflinching harshness of her Gothic palette, her restriction to such a limited and depressing range of human experience. Because, as the Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa puts it, a novel is not part of our bibliography but rather our biography: A good novel becomes nothing less than part of our experience of life's possibilities. We may not individually have been fugitive female anti-Vietnam War activists. Marge Piercy, however, supplies that portion of life's possibility for us. We may not have been Palestinians angrily confronting Israeli border guards, nor indeed Israeli soldiers ambivalently policing Palestinians. Amy Wilentz insures that careful readers know quite exactly what it is to be both. It is this act of identification with an impossible other and their experience that makes writing and reading, in the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II's view, fundamentally subversive acts–no one who has been Anne Frank, he points out, can be a Nazi.

When, therefore, a writer creates a universe too restricted in the possibilities of human experience, a universe that concentrates too deeply on the sad, there seems some bad faith about it, as if the writer is misleading us in our growing conception of the world. To read Highsmith without a sense of the ethical, even political, analysis of guilt that winds through her whole life's work is, I think, to relegate her to marginality, and this is in general what, in America, we have done with her. We have, in a way, denied her insight–her painful and complicated insight into guilt and denial–much as her characters deny their guilt. That leaves her, so to speak, denied in the unconscious of our literature much like guilt is denied in her characters: always present, never cured, never acknowledged and never understood. Perhaps that's not such a bad legacy. Perhaps that's what makes her work, as the literary bull and commercial bear markets come and go, classic, returning again and again in new movies, new reprints, new articles: a body of writing that is joyless, plain, troubling and beautiful.

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