Written by Patricia Highsmith — The title of Patricia Highsmith’s story collection, reissued this month by Virago, remains highly provocative even 40 years after it first appeared. As a reader, you wonder if these tales will highlight the cruelty of misogyny from a feminist perspective. Or perhaps the stories themselves are designed to be misogynistic. With an author of such disquieting, acid prose as Highsmith, it would be unwise to expect any comforting certainties.
It is hard to ignore the biographies that accompanied the resurgence in Highsmith’s reputation since her death 20 years ago. Acclaimed as the finest psychological crime writer of the 20th century, her work was the product of a dark and disturbing – and sometimes hilarious – imagination. Little Tales of Misogyny encapsulates those tendencies in stories that are often very funny, despite the cruelties Highsmith inflicts on her characters.
As she entered middle age, following numerous relationships with women, Highsmith apparently developed a curious dislike of her own gender. Then again, she seemed to disapprove of all kinds of people as she got older. One ex-partner, Marijane Meaker, wrote an astonishing account of their fraught relationship. When she met Highsmith again in later life, Meaker said the author simply hated everybody. Only her cat could make Highsmith happy.
Once you get away from the life and submerge yourself in these sketches of ill-fated femininity, the power of Highsmith’s writing grips you. It’s a very short volume of 17 stories that hold you in their thrall thanks to the pared-down style. Sometimes they feel like modern fairy-tales and, as such, they can be read again and again.
The Hand is particularly redolent of fables as Highsmith takes a grim, gleeful delight in the tradition of asking a daughter’s father for her hand in marriage. It’s a bloody beginning to a collection in which the women usually come a cropper. Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman is a stark and shocking story of the fate of a woman in prehistoric times, though there’s some short-lived hope in the effect she has on the men beguiled by her artistic temperament.
Though not typical crime stories, Highsmith’s sketches offer short, sharp shocks without the comforting element of a morality tale. As an author, she was famously untroubled by the notion of justice in her stories and her Misogyny tales are typically unsettling in their resolutions. The Mobile Bed-Object is an account of a young woman’s willingness to be used by a series of men that ends with a harsh finality.
Some of these women are sympathetic, others less so. The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife is another provocative title for a story about the perfect murder of an unsuspecting husband. It’s one of several tales in which characters with psychopathic tendencies lurk in suburbia without getting caught. In Highsmith’s topsy-turvy world, you sometimes find yourself sympathising more with murderers than victims.
The stories are so lean and uncluttered that it’s hard to detect an authorial opinion, though they will undoubtedly provoke a reaction. When the hidebound housewife in one story is felled by a can of baked beans at a demonstration for women’s liberation, you might emit a small cheer.
Fortunately, such a response need not mark you as a misogynist. Highsmith is toying with us, and we are powerless to resist as she pulls the strings of these female stereotypes. While the treatment of them might be nasty and brutish, Highsmith is also attacking the American society that confined women to particular roles. As much as she disliked certain types of women, there’s a satirical streak running through this collection about the country that she abandoned in 1963.
Little Tales of Misogyny is not exactly rare but this edition from Virago, a publisher dedicated to books written by women, is the first in the UK for 35 years. It’s quite an event for fans of Patricia Highsmith. It’s not typical of her body of work in the crime genre, though it boils down her fictional world into a series of toxic vignettes that are as powerful as many of her novels.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars