Book Review

Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith

the stories are short but the misogyny is loooooong

cw: discussion of misogyny, violence

Patricia Highsmith was a prolific novelist and racist famous for the creation of several truly iconic thriller conceits and charming dickhead characters who have appeared (and reappeared) in high profile films for over 70 years

Matt Damon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 masterful adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley was one of the few films I intentionally watched multiple times while still young and stupid enough to not realise that rewatching films is a sign of a fundamental intellectual failing, and that shines in comparison to Alfred Hitchcock’s dull and soulless adaptation of Strangers on a Train (1951), a narrative so perfect and also kinda timeless that I find it bizarre there hasn’t been a good attempt to film it/modernise it.

There’s also the recent filmic adaptations Deep Water (2022) and Carol (2015) as well as a recent documentary (also 2022) on Highsmith herself, a documentary that has been broadly slammed by progressive reviewers – and even some conservative ones(!) – for failing to properly address Highsmith’s documented bigotry.

I mean, I haven’t seen that documentary (yet?), and I also haven’t seen Deep Water, Carol or the 2002 film where John Malkovich plays a middle-aged Tom Ripley based on one of Highsmith’s many sequels to her most famous novel (or second most famous if you want to try and pretend that Strangers on a Train is more famous than The Talented Mr Ripley, which – to people who were alive in the ’90s – it definitely isn’t (and come on come on come on Law Paltrow Blanchett Seymour Hoffman (Hoffman?) what a cast oof))), but to deny Highsmith’s legacy influence on cinema – and psychological/erotic thrillers in particular – is to deny something very tangible and real.

In this collection of what one can probably call flash fiction, there isn’t enough time for complexity and twist, but there is a lot of the kind of blunt retrogressive moralising that can often be found in this cinematic genre.

Little Tales of Misogyny is a 1990s reprint of a small collection originally published in 1977, released in a very small format as part of a series of books celebrating the 60th birthday of Penguin. There are about 20 small pieces in this sub-100 page book (booklette, almost!!!), and, as the title makes clear, they all share a theme, a style and a worldview.

Reminiscent of what I remember from the structure of the one collection of Angela Carter’s short fiction I read about a decade ago (but without any magical realist elements), these stories are tale-like brief narratives that all depict women as victims of violence, motivated by either ignorance or malice, using sexuality as a weapon slash means of control that ultimately always backfires.

There is an implication in all of these stories that the violent fates that happen to these women – often tinged with a racist element (all men are dangerous but some are more dangerous than others (for Highsmith, the ones who aren’t white)) – are deserved.

Female sexuality is depicted here as if always about power rather than pleasure and the overall worldview exhibited by these stories is one of a bleak, blunt, hopelessness where nothing good ever happens and whenever anyone thinks something good is happening that’s because they’re a fucking idiot or they are a man who is already rich (as rich men never seem to face consequences for any of the violence they perpetuate against women in these stories).

It’s a hateful, pessimistic, joyless view of the world, and though one can perhaps claim a little bleak thrill out of reading these little bleak tales, it does leave a nasty aftertaste, as there isn’t a redemptive note anywhere and there isn’t an implicit wink or nod or tongue in the cheek – this is a book containing multiple examples of rather frank, realistic, depictions of male violence against women, so it isn’t really satire and it also doesn’t feel like a call to arms or something pedagogical calling for the cessation of misogyny. The book feels like it comes with a shrug, a “that’s the way it is” kinda cheerlessness. A dismissal, I suppose, of female autonomy and of female joy and pleasure. Women are depicted here as perpetual victims, living in a man’s man’s man’s world and just waiting for death.

Not really sure if I’d recommend this unless you’re feeling very nihilistic and pessimistic and want to revel in that…

Oh, and if you want to read it because you love misogyny and want to read some, the best way to experience this book is to go to your nearest large body of water, tie a concrete slab around your neck and wade out to two metres deep and wait for five minutes or so for something special to happen and then – and only then – crack the spine. I guarantee that if you hate women and feel like they deserve violence, there is no better way to experience this book than in that manner in your local lake/sea/river/pool! Happy reading! is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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