One of the best qualities of great fiction--and all great art, really--is the way in which it establishes a version of the world so distinctive, yet so convincing, that we emerge from it enchanted, persuaded that our customary way of seeing has been no more than one aspect of an optical illusion.
Which is very much what happens in reading "The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith," a new anthology that includes five of Highsmith's seven-story collections and which has been released to coincide with new paperback editions of her classic novels, "Strangers on a Train" and "A Suspension of Mercy." In a 1970 essay that serves as an introduction to this volume, Graham Greene calls her "the poet of apprehension." And there is no one who has written about unnatural death in so many of its guises, rendering it somehow entirely natural without reducing its mystery in any way.
Highsmith is best known in this country for her casually murderous protagonist, Tom Ripley, who first appeared in her 1955 novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and for "Strangers on a Train," which made her literary reputation thanks to Alfred Hitchcock.
The mystery in Highsmith is the great literary and philosophical mystery: Who are we and why do we behave the way we do? "I hate labels," she said, and defied them all. Much has been said of Highsmith's "amorality," but hers is the very strict morality of the 20th century novelist, the obligation to describe human behavior precisely as it exists in the world--ridiculous, unreasonable, sometimes horrifying--without judgment or fear. She has been difficult for filmmakers--no matter how modern--who have always felt the need to invent some comforting justification for her protagonists' behavior. She was years ahead of her time. She was unflinching.
Though Highsmith has always been considered a better novelist than short-story writer, many of the stories are extraordinary, and one becomes increasingly aware of her enormous power and range. There is the early collection "Little Tales of Misogyny," in which Highsmith describes some traditionally feminine type, "The Prude," "The Victim," "The Fully Licensed Whore, or the Wife," and renders her so unattractive that she seems to deserve her predictably violent fate. Some stories seem dated, all of them the stuff of high camp. But, as usual, Highsmith is playing with us, and it is difficult to know just what she is doing here--satirizing the stereotypes or the women themselves.
In "The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder," all sorts of domesticated creatures, plus a couple of wild things--a rat, for instance, and a ferret--eventually kill or maim their human tormentors. When Highsmith writes about homicide, it is usually unjustifiable (even if understandable), but she had a reputation for preferring animals to most humans, and her bias is apparent here. A trader is stomped to death by an otherwise good-natured camel he has abused, while the man's compatriots cheer the animal on. A factory farmer is pecked to death (with his wife's encouragement) by chickens driven mad by all of the now-familiar techniques used to improve egg production.
But the most satisfying stories are the later ones, such as the brilliant "Not One of Us," in which a sophisticated group of friends turns instinctively, like a pack of wolves, on one of its members and drives him to suicide. Highsmith makes you feel their distaste, its rightness, yet you are never quite comfortable with the game, the victim's punishment so disproportionate to anything he has done to provoke it.
In "The Button," an accountant is working madly on his clients' tax returns. It is the April rush, and you feel his exhaustion, his growing irritation. He hears his wife and son, a boy with Down syndrome, in the next room talking baby talk. His anger and distaste rise to a terrible pitch, he muses on his terrible disappointment with the child, on the way his wife has grown fat and dull (to him). Then he is taking a walk, strangles the first lone man he sees and comes home, some cosmic balance finally righted. He never gets caught, but he can now be kind to his son, generous with his wife, patient with the life he has been given.
This is Highsmith at her best, building step by step a set of obsessions or feelings that must somehow be released, until violence seems inevitable, almost easy to understand. She has a genius for describing the impulse to kill without justifying or even pretending to fully comprehend it. Which is why she is no more a practitioner of the murder mystery genre (under which she is all too frequently misclassified) than are Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Camus. W.W. Norton is to be commended for making her available to us again, for giving us another chance to experience her strange, wise and deliciously disturbing cosmology.
Joan Smith is the former book editor of the San Francisco Examiner.