Obsessive, acute and unsettling. There are only so many words as to describe Patricia Highsmith's ductus and the characters she has created over a lifetime of writing. Her relationship with her characters, however, has always been tender and affectionate. Ever since The Talented Mr. Ripley I've only come across a handful of writers who love their characters as much as she did; unconditionally, and particularly the ones that are broken - the ones that she broke.
There is a large variety of damaged characters in Eleven, one of her earlier works and the first published collection of short stories from the year 1970. This book is a true find for me, as I think that with each story, she establishes herself as a creator of dense and gripping story arcs. After reading this book, I find myself with a new appreciation for the art and craft of the short story narrative, and especially the one Highsmith provides, in only ten to twenty-five pages for each of those eleven stories.
'Victor heard the elevator door open, his mother's quick footsteps in the hall, and he flipped his book shut. He shoved it under the sofa pillow out of sight and winced as he heard it slip between sofa and wall to the floor with a thud. Her key was in the lock. 'Hello, Vee-ector-r!' she cried, raising one arm in the air.'
These are the first few lines of The Terrapin, the chilling tale of a young boy, who suffers years of mental abuse by his mother until he finally breaks free and revolts.
Personal revolt seems to be a common denominator in Highsmith's stories, in different sizes, shapes and forms that is, let it be the invasion of personal privacy by a man who, while waiting for a letter from his love interest starts to read his neighbor's mail in The Birds Poised To Fly, or the upheaval of a married woman against her husband in When The Fleet Was In At Mobile. There is a deep apprehensive quality about these tales, one that is palpable between the actual story lines. The plot is like a stretched leg, a trap Highsmith lays for her characters to stumble across in order for them to stand out dysfunctional and broken, against a storybook world they never quite fit in.
Lucille is a paramount example, in The Heroine, the tale of a nanny about to start her first day of work in an (up until now) immaculate household. The story begins with the job interview, which she is very anxious about. We soon find out why, and other anxious qualities seem to emerge, deeply unsettling ones.
'But there went her eyes too wide again, as if to deny her words. Her eyes looked much like her mother's when they opened like that, and her mother was part of what she must forget. She must overcome that habit of stretching her eyes. It made her look surprised and uncertain, too, which was not at all the way to look around children.'
At this point we already know that there is something terribly wrong with this girl, and we strongly hope that the parents find out before it's too late.
They won't - but as much as these stories revolve around upheaval, in the end Highsmith's characters always do find some sort of relief - and may it just be the certain knowledge that they are doomed, like Tom Ripley, alive and positively rich, but ravaged by paranoia, or Geraldine in When The Fleet Was In At Mobile, when she sees the policemen coming towards her:
'Then her scream came as if it had been waiting just for that. She heard it reach the farthest corners of the park, and though they yanked her with them around the table, she took another breath and let it go again, let it shatter all the leaves and shatter her body (...) Then his face and the lights and the park went out, though she knew as well as she knew she still screamed that her eyes were open under her hands.'
Buy it - read it, you won't regret it. Eleven on Amazon