Flung Out of Space Review

By | Monday, June 06, 2022 Leave a Comment
I've been nominally aware of Patricia Highsmith for several years now, but until recently, I couldn't have told you anything about her. I could maybe have said that she was the writer of The Talented Mr. Ripley and she also wrote some comic books, but that's about it. I don't know that I've ever read any of her work -- certainly not her prose and, if I've read any of her comics, it would've been ones she'd written anonymously and no one's ever identified her as the writer of them. But that's why I was intially interested in reading Flung Out of Space, as it's based on her life.

I would hesitate to call this a biography, though. In the first place, the entire book takes place between 1945 and 1952 (based on some of the context clues) which accounts for a very small snippet of Highsmith's life. Second, author Grace Ellis notes in the foreword that it has been fictionalized; the broad strokes are true but the details are a bit fuzzy (intentionally) in a number of places. Third, it's less about what she did in her day-to-day life anyway and more about the type of life she led and the impact she had on those around her.

That said, the period this book covers was a seminal time in her life. She was trying to work as a writer in 1945 -- which was no small feat to begin with, made that much more challenging by her being a lesbian. She had to fight misogonistic and homophobic attitudes pretty much at every turn; so the book opens with her writing comics for Ned Pines' Better Publications. The medium was considered trash, often even by those who worked in the field, and Highsmith routinely chucks sample copies of her comics in the garbage without the slightest hesistation. The book follows her as she works to break into "real" publishing and grapples with her identity as a lesbian, even going so far as to seeing a therpaist to try to "cure" her. The story ends with the publication of The Price of Salt, her second and argueably her most ground-breaking book.

Ellis and artist Hannah Templer do an excellent job of giving Highsmith a voice, and showcasing who she was as a person and what she found herself fighting against. I like that there's not a particularly singular incident just to show "hey, don't forget lesbianism wasn't really tolerated back then" but it weaves in and out of the story as a pervasive undercurrent. The offhand comments, the strange looks, etc. The stuff of a thousand paper cuts. And yet Highsmith, despite wrestling to "normalize" herself and fit into "regular" society, always immediately recognizes the artifice for what it is and returns to her authentic self.

And kudos to Ellis and Templer, too, for showing that authentic self. She frequently comes across as abrassive and condescending, even when she's trying to flirt with someone. She casually drops anti-Semitic comments. She looks down on whole industries (most notably comics publishing and retail) despite working in them to ensure she has enough money. There's no sugar-coating here. Highsmith did turn out some excellent prose work, work that she was justifiably proud of, and connected with readers on points that had literally never been made before in publishing. But she was hardly a figure above criticism, and Ellis and Templer do not put her on a pedestal.

I think that's what makes this something beyond a biography as well. We don't see Highsmith as the subject of historical importance or worthy of academic study or anything like that. She's just a person, struggling to get through her life, much like everyone else does. She has her virtues, but she also has her problems. As readers, we connect with Highsmith at an emotional level and, while I suspect there are few today who face the same challenges she did, we can still all empathize with the struggle.

The book came out in hardback in April from Abrams' ComicsArts imprint and retails for $24.99 US. Well worth picking up just on its merits as a great story, but if you've got any interest in comic creators and/or the industry in the 1940s, or Highsmith in particular, you'll be excited to read this.
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