Friday, February 27, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Edith’s Diary,”
by Patricia Highsmith

(Editor’s note: This is the 44th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Jason Starr, the New York author of The Follower and [with Ken Bruen] The Max. He has two other novels due out later this year: Fake I.D., coming from Hard Case Crime in June; and Panic Attack, a Minotaur Books release set to reach stores in August. Starr is also a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet.)

At first glance, Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary may seem like an odd choice for a “forgotten book” pick. Highsmith, who passed away in 1995, has hardly been forgotten. In many countries, especially in Europe, she remains a household name, and last year she topped a London Times list as the best mystery writers of all time. In the United States she has garnered more of a continuous cult status. She is best known as the author of the crime novels featuring Tom Ripley (especially 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley), and Strangers on a Train (the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock classic). In the 1990s, Vintage Crime reissued the Ripley novels and Atlantic Monthly Press published several of her standalones, and over the past several years W.W. Norton has brought the rest of her extensive backlist into print. Still, in the United States Highsmith hasn’t received the same respect in the crime-fiction genre as her contemporaries, such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Jim Thompson. And her best standalone novels haven’t received nearly the attention they deserve.

Part of the “problem” with Highsmith is that her books don’t fit neatly into the crime-fiction genre. Her controlled, formal, almost old-fashioned writing style makes her work hard to classify. If she had written in pared-down hard-boiled prose, it would be easy to think of her as the female Jim Thompson, because her books are as dark, or even darker than Thompson’s were. Like Thompson’s classic The Killer Inside Me (1952), The Talented Mr. Ripley was a groundbreaking novel that spawned a whole new genre of crime writing. It’s not surprising that Highsmith and Thompson (coincidentally, both Texas natives) shined when writing standalone works. Thompson wrote entirely standalones, and while Highsmith wrote several additional Ripley novels, they weren’t nearly as compelling as The Talented Mr. Ripley. Her attempt at penning a series seemed artificial and forced, as if she were trying to shoehorn Ripley into become a recurring character. Perhaps novels that focus on a single anti-hero function best as standalones, as they’re really stories about decline and feature protagonists who are in the end too damaged to viably go on to another book. In her standalone novels, however, Highsmith’s talent shined. In addition to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, her best works include Deep Water (think John Cheever with murder), The Glass Cell (a thriller about prison torture), This Sweet Sickness (a brilliant novel of obsession), and her flat-out masterpiece, Edith’s Diary.

First published in UK in 1977, Edith’s Diary chronicles the lives of Edith Howland, her husband, Brett, and their son, Cliffie, who leave Manhattan in the mid-1950s for a suburban life in Pennsylvania, near New Hope along the Delaware River. What seems like the beginning of an American Dream becomes a suburban nightmare, as over the course of about 15 years Edith’s life gradually deteriorates. Her husband abandons his responsibilities and eventually leaves Edith for another woman, Cliffie becomes increasingly delinquent and psychotic, and a dying, senile uncle comes to live in the family home. At the center of this novel is Edith, the most compelling and psychologically complex character Highsmith ever created. From the outset, Edith is as unhappy in the suburbs as April Wheeler is in Revolutionary Road. But unlike April, she lacks the ability to express her frustration and doesn’t have the desire to escape her circumstances. Instead, Edith’s only reprieve from her everyday drudgery is her diary. In the beginning, her diary chronicles the accurate details of her life, but as things fall apart around her, her diary eerily becomes increasingly cheerful. In chronicling the dichotomy between Edith’s real-life world and the escape into the alternative universe of happiness that her diary provides, Highsmith is at her absolute best, creating a devastating portrayal of a woman unable to comprehend her own emotions.

The book is written with Highsmith’s usual ethereal weirdness. In a Highsmith novel you never feel like you’re quite in the real world, and the surreal creepiness works especially well here, in a novel in which things are never quite as they seem. The timeline of this book, set against the tragic historical events of the 1960s, gives the downwardly spiraling story another level of resonance.

Edith’s Diary isn’t really a forgotten novel, since it has gained many fans over the years; but it’s certainly a neglected book, and it’s a must-read for crime-fiction fans and any lover of great literature.


Paul Brazill said...

great piece. i love the book. Highsmith was a big fan of Graham Green's catholic guilt, and of course, 'crime & punishment'. This sweet sickness and the Blunderer are fave's too. cheers.

Anonymous said...

loved this book - but why was cliffie such a loser and why did edith continue to care for bretts uncle? this is a book that stays in the mind.

Anonymous said...

I had the distinct impression that Cliffie was gay. There are a number of descriptions of him early on that indicate he is "spineless" and "less than a man" which is how they said gay back then. Many gay people did take to drink. Alcoholism could also serve as a metaphor for being gay. The Lost Weekend was originally about a man who realizes he's gay, but they had to change it to alcoholism.


Anonymous said...

I read "Edith's Diary" for the first time when I was a teenager. I liked it, but I didn't really "get" it. I've read it at least once a year for the last twenty years and as I get older it means more and more to me. A book so simply written yet so unbelievably compelling, chilling and touching. I truly marvel at it.