Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, by Marijane Meaker.
Highsmith is a small, personal memoir about a brief period in its author's life: specifically, her two-year relationship with mystery author Patricia Highsmith, who is one of my very favorite writers of all time. Highsmith, who wrote Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, specialized in psychological thrillers, in which characters are set adrift and become increasingly screwed up and either amoral or deliberately immoral. Often, her characters know they're doing bad things, do them willingly, and then get forced into nasty situations where they make even nastier choices. You follow her protagonists into their desperation and decay. Frequently, her novels revolved around relationships between two men; these were usually corrupting and often featured homoerotic overtones. Highsmith knew that she was fixated on the two-men dynamic, and sometimes fretted about it, but she played it brilliantly. Meaker, also a writer, admired Highsmith's work. Then they met, and fell in love.
The book is a fascinating look at their relationship, and at Highsmith, but the most interesting parts to me, and I suspect to many of you -- mosellegreen, I'm looking at you! -- have to do with the world they lived in. The past really is another country, and my favorite bits had to do with the little details of life as a professional woman, and a lesbian, in 1950s Manhattan. For example, Meaker mentions just in passing that they made dinner plans based on what they were going to wear, because many restaurants at the time refused to serve women who wore pants. In NEW YORK CITY. (That, for me, really sold the time and place. Discrimination in the workplace, public disapproval of homosexuality, we can wrap our brains around, because it's a familiar concept. Women can't wear pants to a restaurant? *Bizarre.*)
Meaker paints the romance in its good and bad lights. One scene, in particular, is touching: on occasion, Highsmith liked to open the closet door on Meaker and leave her blinking in the light. She would think nothing of taking Meaker's hand over the table at a restaurant, which startled Meaker, who was much less comfortable being gay than Highsmith was. She wasn't public. Her friend Bill, who had been her writing teacher in college, didn't know Meaker was gay at all. When he came to visit New York, and saw Highsmith at the same party, he mentioned to Meaker that he'd heard Highsmith was "of the Sapphic persuasion. Did you know that?"
And then Highsmith came over, very, very drunk.
Pat walked up to where Bill and I were sitting, not looking at Bill, leaning down to say, "You want to go home? I want to. I hope you want to."
She had a glass of gin in one hand that looked dangerously close to being spilled on me. I stood up, and Bill did, too.
I put my own drink down and said to Bill, "I think I'd better get her home," as though she was going someplace I wasn't going. I took the glass from her hand and put it on the table. Then she took my hand.
"You could put her in a taxi," Bill said softly to me. "Do you want me to help? We can call down to the doorman."
Pat overheard and said, "She wouldn't do that to me." She looked down at me, pushing her hair back with her hand. Her eyes were watery and her voice was thick with affection. "You wouldn't, would you?"
I thought, Oh, the hell with it and said, "Not on your life."
It's not all sweetness. Highsmith was a wanderer, a drunk, and -- particularly in her later years, as Meaker found out when they met again more than thirty years later -- a vicious, vicious bigot. She hated blacks and was outright fanatical in her hatred of Jews. Meaker blames Highsmith's Texas upbringing, but it seems to me that her Eurocentrism also plays a part; Highsmith travelled extensively in Europe, and eventually moved to Switzerland, where she settled, and her later years saw her on a very European leftist-style anti-Israeli bent, to the point that she dedicated one of her later books to the intifada. (Meaker, I think, is reluctant to acknowledge this because of her own, more mainstream leftist leanings, which I think is understandable. If you have sympathy for the problems of the Palestinian Arabs, it's got to be jarring when your friend and ex-lover agrees with your sympathy and then spins that off into a deranged rant against the "heebs.")
The book is a nice slice of life, and a very cool look at another world. Check it out.
Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend.
And then you have the romance that works. Friend and her partner of twelve years (then, twenty-two, now) move out to rural Minnesota to pursue the partner's longtime dream of owning a farm.
It's interesting to compare Friend's experience in the country with that of Meaker and Highsmith. In the fifties, an initially friendly family turned ice-cold after their daughters spied on Meaker and Highsmith making out; Friend and her partner Melissa, by contrast, have a pretty groovy time, even after an unfortunate mishap involving a neighbor's borrowed farm equipment. Their troubles are internal -- Friend, the writer, has a rough time adapting to country life, particularly when she winds up working on the farm so much that she has no writing time; Melissa has her own inner turmoil. But these problems are gracefully addressed, and not wallowed in; the book is a light, fast read, and it makes you smile. You can't not like a book that begins, "Farms have fences. People have boundaries. Mine began crumbling the day I knelt behind a male sheep, reached between his legs, and squeezed his testicles."
There's not a lot to really say about the book -- it's a light read, a fast read, and it's just all-around sweet.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel.
I've been a fan of Alison Bechdel for a long time. I've read her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For for ages, and decided to check out her new graphic novel. I'm really glad I did. It's a very impressive piece of work, very personal and strange and touching and eerie.
In Fun Home, Bechdel revisits, as do so many writers, her relationship with her father. It's a deeply personal memoir, and Bechdel, whose skill I'd only seen in shorter pieces, really shows her mastery of sequential art. Her panel-to-panel and page sequences are remarkable; some parts are told out of sequence, as she examines and re-examines aspects of her life on a thematic level. Thus, a conversation with her mother around the time of Bechdel's coming out is seen more than once, in extended and abbreviated fashion, in order to dramatize the different levels of significance of the event, and give the reader new insights into what was already seen. Sequences from her childhood are dramatized throughout the book, not in the order they occurred, but in an order that leads them to give new light to the narrative. The effect is a story that, while perfectly clear and coherent, leads the reader to fall through Bechdel's memories with her. The out-of-sequence bits bubble up very naturally, as Bechdel's storyline leads her, and the reader, to a deeper understanding of Bechdel and her late father, and the parallels and divergences of their lives.
I don't want to tell you too much about "Fun Home," because I went into it knowing absolutely nothing. You should do the same. Because a few pages in, there's a surprise that, if you know nothing of Bechdel's family history -- I didn't -- sets you completely on your ear. Which is how it hit Bechdel, as you shortly learn. More than that, I won't say, but this is a hell of a book. Go and read it.