Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Little Tales of Misogyny

Little Tales of Misogyny
by Patricia Highsmith


Now there’s an attention-grabbing title. Patricia Highsmith presents seventeen different stories that circle around the label satire, but never quite claim it. Whatever her intent, she likely manages to irritate the super-feminists, happy-ending enthusiasts, and sticklers for traditional story arc.

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box — her left hand.
— “The Hand”

I can’t claim any of those labels either. As in, don’t treat me like I’m incapable because I’m a girl, but I will go ahead and let you change that tire if you’re offering. As in, endings suit the style of the story not the will of the reader, or the most frustrating of critique groups. Those who write have heard it before: “It’s just I, like, just don’t get it? Like, I don’t know people like this.”

There’s a fine line between riling others with smugness and just being a good-natured pain in the ass. It’s the difference between, say, Dr. House at his best and at his worst. I decided to take Highsmith’s stories more as a poke at convention rather than any serious superiority. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but one can’t control the reactions of their readers, nor should they really try. Most of the time, I found myself laughing a bit at the some of the ridiculous, abrupt endings to the stories.

The morning of her departure on the world tour, Diana stood on the sill of her attic window, raised her arms to the rising sun, and stepped out, convinced that she could fly or at least float. She fell onto a round, white-painted iron table and the red bricks of the patio. Thus poor Diana met her earthly end.
— “The Evangelist”

Highsmith takes her spare writing style to an extreme here, presenting every character in a very matter of fact way. Even the descriptions are more like an inventory list. Here are the people, here is the situation, these are their things. In a way, that’s what makes the semi-satire work. Even though she became more cynical as she got older, I don’t buy the argument that she wrote these stories to be hateful towards women specifically, but rather that they’re her usual display of the awful ways people can behave. She doesn’t endorse it, but she’s not criticizing either. It is what it is. Your discomfort is your problem.

Much like The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, it’s not a collection of stories for every reader, but it’s an interesting jaunt into unusual territory. I wouldn’t have wanted the book to go on much longer than it did, but in my journey through Highsmith’s work outside of her Ripley series, it was a title I could not resist.

Book # 8/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, though this book was published on its own in 1974.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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