Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith
Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith is an impressively good comic. Which is funny, because much of the book shows us Ms. Highsmith writing comics and hating it. Yet this story of some of her life is easily one of the best graphic novels of the year.
Highsmith was a lesbian but despised herself for it. She smokes but says she’s quitting. She writes comics but refuses to put her name on them, calling them “garbage”. She goes to a psychoanalyst to try and cure her homosexuality, but even though she’ll sleep with a man as part of her attempt to be respectable, she won’t commit to marrying him.
She meets Stan Lee, and they get drunk debating writing and talent and whether comics are only for the illiterate. Then he makes a pass and she turns him down. She writes Strangers on a Train, her first major novel.
The book is colored in monochrome, a burnt orange that makes browns and tans and the flare of a cigarette lighter, and, when Highsmith is thinking about the adventure comics she hates, a lurid orange. It contrasts beautifully with the black-and-white of the life she doesn’t like, as well as giving a historical feel, the look of a faded photograph.
The art by Hannah Templer has a streamlined feel that matches the mid-century time period. It’s gorgeous and expressive and a pleasure to read, handling layers of imagination and romance and practicality. The cost of her treatment drove her to work she hated, and we see bits of it woven through the panels that tell her story. Comics is the only medium that can do this so effectively.
There’s so much in this book. I found myself wondering whether one has to be miserable to be a writer. How much did her self-dislike drive the immediacy and criminality of her stories? Yet she also wrote Carol (aka The Price of Salt), envisioning a happy ending for two women even if she didn’t have one, in a world where wives were blackmailed with their children to stay with their husbands. Selling the book was a struggle for just that reason — she’s told with a couple of women, one would have to die or return to her husband. Yet getting it out, eventually, changed readers’ lives. Even if it had to be published under a more salacious title and a pseudonym until its reissue in 1989.
Highsmith seems like an interesting person to know, cracking, when shown into group therapy with other women who are “latent homosexuals”, “Surrounding me with like-minded women is surely the answer to my problem.” (Probably one of the imagined conversations the writer acknowledges in describing the book as a “fictionalized, narrative version of a true story.”) But in real life, she was racist, unpleasant, and yet magnetic, a topic covered in writer Grace Ellis’ foreword.
When asked “Why do you have to be such a bitch?”, she answers “I only know how to be myself.” I know a lot of women who can relate to that, both the name-calling and the essential self.