A review of Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes by Patricia Highsmith

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes is a worthwhile collection in that it demonstrates Patricia Highsmith’s artistry when working with the smaller palette of the short story. It isn’t a patch on the novels though.

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes
by Patricia Highsmith
ISBN: 0871133415
Bloomsbury, February 2005

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes is a collection that originally appeared in 1987 and, as many of the stories fall outside the conventionally demarcated ambit of crime fiction, it could be said that we here see Patricia Highsmith flexing her wings. Yet this would be a mistake, for Highsmith is a writer who has always followed her own star and, anyway, it remains true that “you can’t run away from the landscape of your dreams” (as Ross Macdonald, another highly individual crime writer, has written). It is therefore hardly surprising that these ten stories continue to reflect her themes and concerns. Here are five highlights from Highsmith’s collection.

The first tale is “The Mysterious Cemetery”, a modern Gothic in the style of L.P. Hartley. When a cancer hospital discards organic tissue in a nearby cemetery, tumorous growths appear in their stead and these monstrosities become a focus for increasing horror, fascination and speculation. “Is cancer not natural to man?” a philosopher asks at one point. This is a theme for many of the stories: the paradox of death in life, the question of the “nature” of nature.

Set at a time in the future when medical care has made the prospect of living forever a realistic one, “No End in Sight” tells the story of Naomi, the oldest woman in the world. Her life is an affliction and a living horror, a decrepit state of dependence that is akin to infancy. Although full of dread, this is an amusing story; Naomi’s humiliations have a black comedic aspect. And life is always better than death. In characteristic fashion, Highsmith finds an opportunity to mention that in death coffins don’t protect us from worms, rather it is “the fact that worms come from those old fly eggs already within us.”

Written in the third person and from the point of view of the persecuted mammal, “Moby Dick II; or The Missile Whale” seems at first sight an unusual kind of story for Highsmith to write. It is an animal story, like Jack London’s White Fang. What relates this latter-day fable to the body of Highsmith’s work, I’d suggest, is the whale’s predicament as a hunted prey; and the writer’s sympathy for it. The whale simply wishes to live its own life, but is enraged by the persecuting mob of human beings. In fact, the whale is not unlike Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s most famous protagonist, in being an amoral pragmatist that kills to survive and prosper.

The conflict between surrogate mothers and neo-conservatives in modern America (circa 1987, anyway) is the subject of “Rent-a-womb vs. the Mighty Right”. It is a story in which Alicia, a put-upon heroine torn between her conservative mother and liberal friends, must make a moral stand. On a deep level though – and I feel this about many of Highsmith’s stories here – it seems to be about something else entirely.

Attentive readers of Patricia Highsmith’s work will be aware that the verb “to forge” is an important one for her, carrying as it does the twin senses of making and faking. Her best novel is The Tremor of Forgery and the importance of this notion seems to relate in part to Highsmith’s sense of her own vocation as a writer: clearly “writing fiction” involves making and faking both. Patricia Highsmith was also – and here the notion of forgery carries an even greater weight – a lesbian who felt the need to move from the conservatism of 1950s America to a more liberal Europe in order to forge an identity. “Rent-a-womb vs. the Mighty Right” is a story about making and faking, about mothers who carry children not their own; and it is a story about Highsmith herself.

Finally, there is “Trouble at the Jade Towers”. This is a nightmarish Kafkaesque entertainment centreing on a cockroach infestation of a New York City apartment block, and its tone is one of savage glee, a reveling in chaos.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes is a worthwhile collection in that it demonstrates Patricia Highsmith’s artistry when working with the smaller palette of the short story. It isn’t a patch on the novels though. For an introductory exposure to Highsmith’s distinctively disquieting qualities as a storyteller, and to her unique brand of anxiety-inducing enchantment, I’d recommend one of the early novels, perhaps Deep Water or The Cry of the Owl. These show her full powers in all their glory.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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