Patricia Highsmith’s small g

Patricia Highsmith’s last novel Small g has just come out in paperback, and with its absorbing and deceptively light story, it makes for an interesting summer read. Moving the book forward at a quick pace is the fierce plotting of its villain, a fashion designer named Renate Hagnauer. The homophobic Renate was once married and still presents herself as straight, but her strongest emotional attachment is to one of her female apprentices, Luisa Zimmerman. Like Highsmith’s best-known character Tom Ripley who idolizes the first man he ever murders, Renate cannot help but punish the object of her obsession. Her treatment of Luisa is less obviously brutal than the murder that Ripley metes out, but the wounded rage behind her manipulations and outbursts should be familiar to Ripley fans. The fact that Renate does not go to the same extremes as Ripley makes it possible for her to exist in the middle of an oddly light-hearted novel. The young Luisa, while escaping her employer’s sadism, finds romance along with friendship at her neighborhood bar in Zurich. The nickname of this bar, “the small g,” refers to a typographical notation in a guidebook: the bar with its partially gay clientele has a lowercase “g” next to its listing.

The combination of heavier and lighter elements – Renate’s psychological violence with Luisa’s romances – makes for a disturbing read at times. To get the disparate plots to fit together, Highsmith sacrificed the psychological depth that characterizes much of her work. Renate’s point of view is provided only in brief glimpses; I wanted more but recognized that too much of this pained consciousness would pull down the overall tone of the book. Luisa is not revealed in much detail either. For much of the novel, she is seen through the eyes of Rickie Markwalder, a gay man who helps her escape Renate’s economic and emotional control. Ricky is explored mostly on the surface too, but since he is fairly superficial – his first encounter with Luisa in the novel yields the observation that she is “so pretty” with “narrow lips, ready to smile” – Highsmith’s thin treatment of him seems more like an appropriate approach to his character and less like an eerie loss.

The irony of Small g is complicated, and I would not recommend it to someone unfamiliar with Highsmith. I would start with Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley or my favorite The Animal Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. But for those who know Highsmith and the richness of her ironies, Small g does provide a curious view onto gay culture – its smallness and sincere joys, its wealth and poverty and its fragility.

Originally posted on 7.30.2005