Saturday, January 19, 2013


Auctorial descriptives like Dickensian, Kafkaesque, and Orwellian are easily understood literary adjectives - most people know what these words mean even if they have never read Dickens, Kafka, and Orwell.  There are many other good ones - Joycean, Pinteresque, Proustian, and Ballardian.  But two things I've stumbled upon recently have had me thinking about Patricia Highsmith and what the auctorial descriptive for her would be (and what it would mean).

I just finished reading Out by Natuso Kirino and it is very Highsmithian - or Highsmithic.  Out is the story of four Japanese women who work the night shift in a boxed lunch factory.  One abused woman strangles her husband and the other three help to get rid of the body.  By chopping him up and packing him into 53 plastic bags.  And disposing of the parts in and around Tokyo.  Even though Yayoi has a compelling reason to kill her husband, she is a murderer.  And her three friends aid and abet the crime by butchering him in a bathroom.  So we are essentially following or rooting for flawed, guilty, or bad characters - which seems to be a common theme in Patricia Highsmith's books.  Tom Ripley, Guy and Bruno in Strangers on Train, to name a few.

In Out, much is made about how hard it is to dispose of a human body.  Or to do it well, so you don't get caught.  It reminded me of Tom Ripley's troubles getting rid of bodies in Ripley Under Ground.  Ripley kills a visiting American art collector in the wine cellar of his home in France (while he has a houseguest) and almost farcically has to drag the body up the stairs and across his property to bury it.  Then he has to go back and dig it up and dump it in a river.  And later on, Ripley has to dispose of another body in the Austrian countryside.  He tries to burn it.  But he botches the cremation.  The women in Out do a better job but have similarly difficult time.  And I rooted for both to succeed.  While I have not settled on a good definition of Highsmithic (which I prefer to Highsmithian - I like the -mythic sound), I'd say Out is Higmsithic.  There is much more to the story - the butchering and disposal of the abusive husband is just the start of things.  At times, the suspense and horror in Out were nearly unbearable.  An awesome book, I can't believe it took me almost eight years to read it.

There is a TV show on the ABC Family channel called Pretty Little Liars that I also think is somewhat Highsmithic.  (The show is blantantly Hitchcockian - the references to Psycho have all the subtlety of a hand grenade.)  The series follows what happens to four teen girls after their friend Alison is murdered and after a prank blinds another girl. A shadowy figure known as A torments the girls via text messages and dirty tricks.  The girls try to solve the murder of their friend and unmask A.  If I were a teen girl I would probably think this is the greatest thing on TV.  My wife is a big fan of the show and that is how I came to watch it.  We were watching some old episodes to prepare for the start of the show's winter season when I noticed at the start of an episode that Nate is holding and reading a copy of Patricia Highsmith's The Blunderer.  Nate  has already stalked and killed Maya (who is Emily's love interest) and is now targeting Emily (one of the titular Pretty Little Liars).  He does so by going after Paige, Emily's new love interest.  I haven't read The Blunderer so I don't know what plot elements the show is using from the book but I bet they are there.

And I guess this is a sign that I should read The Blunderer sometime soon.  Perhaps after I finish Grotesque, Natsuo Kirino's follow up to Out.  And now that I have this idea about the Highsmithic in my head, I wonder what else is out there?


Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Highsmithic... I like it. I'm reading a supposedly Highsmithic book at the moment – Harriet Lane's Alys, Always, which has been compared to Highsmith's Ripley novels. I'm not that far into it yet so I can't comment, but Lane is a self-confessed admirer of Highsmith.

Out sounds interesting too.

Excellent post!

Book Glutton said...

I got Alys, Always from the library yesterday (after I read your comment) and just finished it. Definitely Highsmithic. I enjoyed it. Won't say anything more until you've finished it.

Also, just found out yesterday (Jan 19) was Patricia Highsmith's birthday.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Blummin' 'eck, I'm still not even halfway through it!

Book Glutton said...

My wife has been working a special detail on the midnight shift for the presidential inauguration and so she was asleep during the day over the weekend. So as not to disturb her, I sat on the couch and quietly read all weekend. I'd love to pretend I normally read that fast but I don't. Special circumstances, and the book was only two hundred pages.

J F Norris said...

In The Blunderer the protagonist has major difficulty in trying to dispose of a body wrapped in a carpet, IIRC. He's kind of a Walter Mitty who dreams up murder plots until a real one causes him trouble. Any of that turn up in the episode?

Was directed to this post from Nick's blog. Not only do I want to read Lane's book I want to find this series. I wonder if it's DVD yet. I'm not a cable subscriber so ABC Family Channel is out. Disney allowed this kind of a show on their affiliate? I'm surprised by that.

Ever read Highsmith's biographer's novel? After he wrote Beautiful Shadow Andrew Wilson wrote a dark crime novel -- THE LYING TONGUE. Very Highsmithian... er, Highsmithic.

Book Glutton said...

Pretty Little Liars is out on DVD and you can also stream it from Netflix or Amazon.
Until I saw a character reading The Blunderer (in the opening scene of the episode - they clearly want you to see it) I had not thought about Highsmith in connection with the show. I don't think there is much Blunderer specific content in the episode - I really have to read the book. Disposing of bodies is somewhat of an issue in the show. And a troublesome police detective - which I think is Blunderer-related. I plan on looking for Highsmithic things anytime I see the the show from now on. I was so thrilled to see a Highsmith book on the show (and they do use a lot of books in the series - quite nice -and unusual- for TV), especially a more obscure one like The Blunderer, that I blogged about it right away before I had time to give it much thought or do some research and reading.

I have the Wilson biography but didn't know about The Lying Tongue - I will check it out, thanks.