FEATURE

Love on the Run

NO ONE HAS KNOWN what to do about lesbians for a very long time.

Todd Haynes’s film Carol (2015), an adaptation of crime grande dame Patricia Highsmith’s obscure 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt, while sometimes exquisite, is the latest uneasy-making case in point. The problem is there, too, in the original novel, Highsmith’s gorgeously bipolar fantasy, a cocktail-soaked sapphic wet dream. Not even lesbians, it turns out, know what to do about lesbians. Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt at twenty-nine, after a decade in New York City as a writer for comic books. Always attuned to the seamier, under-the-radar side of midcentury American popular culture, she had already begun to perpetrate her own special kind of dark, secretive carnivalesque. The rights to her first novel, Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, were immediately secured by Alfred Hitchcock, who released the classic film of the same name in 1951. She was also part of another kind of underworld—an underground yet professionally well-established Manhattan cohort of closeted lesbian “creatives,” including the extraordinary photographer Berenice Abbott, the novelist Djuna Barnes, the New Yorker Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, and the visionary artist-gallerist Betty Parsons.

Highsmith has long been notorious, of course, for her ultra-perverse crime fiction, particularly a set of interlinked kinky psychological thrillers featuring the sociopathic con man Tom Ripley: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991). (The ferociously misanthropic novelist died, self-pickled in vitriol and alcohol, in 1995.) Ripley is deceitful, manipulative, vicious—and his creator obviously dotes on him. On Wikipedia, a group of murder-and-mayhem geeks have devised a chart listing his many crimes across the five books: ten outright homicides (the first by bludgeoning in a rowboat), five more for which he is indirectly responsible. His antics are almost comically appalling.

By contrast, The Price of Salt is a love story—unusually for its time, a lesbian love story with a putatively happy ending. The heroine, Therese Belivet (from whose perspective we see all the novel’s events), is a nineteen-year-old sales clerk and aspiring theater-set designer. Her love object is Carol Aird, a wealthy thirty something New Jersey woman who, as the story begins, is divorcing her malicious husband, Harge, and fighting for custody of their small daughter, Rindy. Though marketed as dime-store pulp fiction (it sold over a million copies in paperback), The Price of Salt would seem to depart from the schlocky plot conventions established in earlier lesbian novels like Radclyffe Hall’s potboiling The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Djuna Barnes’s doomy, melodramatic Nightwood (1936). At story’s end, neither of Highsmith’s protagonists has committed suicide, gone mad, or gone straight; neither has descended into soulless dissipation, been blackmailed or driven to psychological collapse by what Radclyffe Hall, in The Well, referred to, without humor, as “the terrible nerves of the invert.” All of which, paradoxically, makes Highsmith’s novel far more daring than lurid would-be morality tales like Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1934), in which a teacher kills herself when accused of “unnatural” desires. Given the stigma attached to female homosexuality—and given that she was both a compulsive sapphic seductress and a lifelong closet-dweller—Highsmith was paranoid enough to publish the work under a pseudonym (“Claire Morgan”) and refused to acknowledge the book as hers until just before her death.

Among people who know the novel at all, it’s a commonplace that this one is “different” from other Highsmith fiction. I disagree. It’s true that no one gets bludgeoned or garroted in The Price of Salt, but once one starts looking, one can’t help but notice sinister touches throughout—enough to give the work a peculiarly sickly cast. Having first read it in my early twenties, with, I confess, a fair dose of baby-dyke enthusiasm, I am struck now, rereading it in jaded later-middle age, by how discomfiting the book is: how gothic and errant in its plotting; how eerie, foreboding, and ultimately diffident as a vindication of lesbian desire. Haynes artfully captures this off-kilter feeling with a sludgy, miasmic quality in the cinematography. Carol looks as if it were shot through a pair of thick, occluding spyglass lenses: There’s virtually no daylight, no liberating vistas opening up the visual field. The characters are often seen at night, chiaroscuro-style, through rain-obscured windows or in dulled plate-glass reflections. Even the lovers, presumably smitten and euphoric, mainly appear together enclosed in dim, claustrophobic spaces: deep-cushioned restaurant booths; sleazy, shuttered motel rooms; the cavernous front seats of Carol’s late-’40s Packard.

Despite its usual pigeonholing as a romance, The Price of Salt is, I’d posit, a “crime fiction” of sorts—without a Ripley, obviously, but featuring something possibly even more outré: two lust-intoxicated women who break a social and libidinal taboo so entrenched that even now, one can still feel shocked by the headlong lusciousness of it all. Lesbianism is the “crime” here, and has the same giddy, anxious, plot-driving role that murder, stalking, extortion, voyeurism, and other criminal tropes play in the classic Highsmith thrillers. There’s even what you could call a “true crime” element. The social opprobrium the lesbian characters face in The Price of Salt is sordidly, yet realistically, rendered. While not exactly against the law, lesbianism was nonetheless usually viewed as a form of “criminal deviance” in the 1950s. When she began writing the novel, Highsmith had just ended a tormented yearlong affair with a blonde, alcoholic, exceedingly Carol-like woman named Virginia Catherwood. The dissolution of Catherwood’s marriage had been harrowing. Her husband had her and a female lover trailed by a detective: Their hotel rooms were bugged; Catherwood lost custody of her young daughter. (Highsmith transcribed key elements here, of course, in The Price of Salt.) Given such a climate, it is perhaps not surprising that Highsmith not only represents female homosexuality as “criminal” in the public eye, but often seems to feel it as such—as a kind of offense against the cosmos. Punishment may be postponed after such dire self-soiling (the novelist implies) but punishment there must be.

Granted, skeptical readers (lesbian readers especially) may wonder here if I am overstating the case. At first glance, after all, Highsmith’s love story unfolds ravishingly enough. Across the crowded display floor of Frankenberg’s, a midtown department store, Therese falls instantly in love with the stupendously soignée Carol. The mysterious Mrs. Aird is soon inviting the younger woman for weekend visits at her plush suburban manse. Neither woman says anything about what is happening between them, but as the sexual tension grows, they set off on an impulsive road trip to the Midwest. In the novel’s central scene, they consummate their affair—deliriously, sumptuously—in a seedy Waterloo, Iowa, motel room. Alas, it turns out that a detective is following them and has bugged the room, securing evidence for Harge and his lawyers. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve long had a hunch that Nabokov’s depiction of sex renegade Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old nymphet’s madcap drive through tacky midcentury America in Lolita may have been inspired by Highsmith’s cross-country lovers-pursued-by-gumshoe gambit in The Price of Salt. (The chronology would be right: Lolita first appeared in 1955 in Paris.)

In a panic, Carol flies back to New York, leaving Therese devastated. There’s an anguished phone call from Carol saying she can’t see Therese anymore; but then, in an unexplained about-face, she declares that she wants to be with Therese even if it means losing Rindy. Therese, wounded, rebuffs her. Near the end, Therese is hit on at a hip party by a glamorous British leading lady. Before any knickers can twist, though, Therese (already showing signs of becoming a dreadful junior-dyke pussy-tease) skitters off, deciding it’s Carol she wants after all. Naturally, Carol, gleaming and golden—a veritable ornamental carp of a woman—is conveniently nearby, dining in a luxurious restaurant, where an exalted Therese walks boldly toward her. Stunningly, on the novel’s last page, it appears they are about to be blissfully reunited.

Todd Haynes, Carol, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). The Weinstein Company.

Much as I love this dizzyingly erotic book, there’s something magnificently bogus about this ending: an inauthenticity that becomes even more glaring when one sees the events recast in précis. The Price of Salt was partly inspired by a chance meeting Highsmith had while working at Bloomingdale’s in December 1948, an episode that in real life went nowhere. A glamorous blonde in furs asked Highsmith for assistance, and Highsmith at once became almost insanely infatuated, making two unsuccessful stalker-like trips to New Jersey to find (and presumably spy on) the object of her coup de foudre. The novel is exactly what didn’t happen between Highsmith and her own “Mrs. Aird.” And the fantasy goes still further: It emerges that not only is newly divorced Carol gorgeous, rich, and the proud possessor of a chic new apartment in uptown Manhattan (so long, New Jersey suburbs), she’s also a scholarly expert on antique furniture and plans to set up her own upscale shop. Simultaneously, a series of lucrative set-design gigs with renowned avant-garde Russian directors in exile fall into Therese’s lap. You can easily conjure up the future iterations of such mutual good fortune: Therese and Carol—artsy (if still discreet) power couple of lesbian Manhattan! Yum.

In an intriguing aside in The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009), the second and far more freewheeling of the two Highsmith biographies to date, Joan Schenkar notes that lesbian producer-director and Actors Studio member Terese Hayden wished, somewhat perversely, to adapt The Price of Salt for the stage as a heterosexual love story, in which the Carol figure would be changed into a man named Carl. That the idea fizzled is a good thing: Making the story over into banal heterosexualia strikes one as bathos exemplified.

But Hayden’s urge to rewrite is also suggestive, for there’s undoubtedly something about The Price of Salt that invites readers to meddle with it. As a narrative, it seems profoundly unstable in tone. In retrospect, even Carol and Therese can seem to the reader a bit puppet-like: sexy dolls to be played with, then left wherever they happen to fall, together or apart. This has everything to do, I think, with the fact that Highsmith’s original ending—is anyone surprised?—was not the one we read. Her first version was entirely dysphoric: Therese and Carol’s affair implodes and the lovers go their separate ways. Apparently, Margot Johnson, Highsmith’s agent, objected to the prevailing dreariness and thought the novel might do better if Highsmith gave it a “happy ending.” Highsmith resisted for a while, then, surprisingly, agreed. Thus the revised finale in which Therese and Carol moonwalk toward the future and prepare to lubricate their love forever.

To get the estranged couple back together, though, Highsmith is forced into all kinds of technical contortions. A boggling number of sketchy plot turns are crammed into the last few pages, as if the narrative itself were suddenly experiencing violent mood swings. No doubt the momentum provided by the first half’s enthralling arc of arousal—truly gut-dropping as the two women come closer and closer to their first erotic embrace—propels some readers safely through the dodgy, question-begging resolution and onward into a state of uncritical rapture. But if you’re the slightest bit cynical, you sense in every compressed little gambit the novelist’s diffidence and impatience: OK, I have to do this, so let’s get it over with quickly. The euphoria feels odd precisely because it banishes without explanation a host of anxiety-provoking elements that elsewhere estrange and complicate the story. Witness, for example, a disturbing early episode involving one of Therese’s coworkers at Frankenberg’s: a dumpy, seemingly friendless widow named Mrs. Robichek, who, for reasons never made clear, invites the heroine to her dark, stuffy apartment and makes her try on an ancient set of hideous velvet dresses. The atmosphere becomes suffocating, Robichek ever more witch-like, and Therese, having ingested something “sweet and burning,” ends up falling into a sort of coma in an overstuffed chair.

The scene is opaque and even frightening—like a scene in a gothic novel. It also uncannily prefigures Therese’s first visit, only a few pages later, to Carol’s house. There, Carol—about whom we know little at this point—invites a strangely exhausted Therese to lie down for a “nap,” then sits by the bed, regarding her sleeping guest with sorceress-like curiosity. Adding to the unease readers may feel at the juxtaposition, Highsmith chooses this moment to introduce one of the novel’s most shocking suggestions (even for otherwise unflappable readers): that the deeply pleasurable feelings blossoming between her female lovers are incestuous in nature. Like it or not, Baby-Therese and Mommy-Carol will go there several times in the book, starting with the freaky description here of Carol bringing the half-asleep Therese some hot milk, “as if she were a child sick with fever”:

The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill.

Embryo-Therese, fictional stand-in for the embryo-reader, can do nothing but shudder and gulp and surrender.

Haynes and his screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, omit Robichek and the hot-milk scene, as if reluctant to engage with the kinkiest, hardest-to-resolve aspects of Highsmithian psychosexual fantasia. All the more paradoxical, then, their decision to present Carol’s daughter, Rindy, onscreen. Rindy is a glaring problem in both book and film. In the novel, Highsmith is scrupulous never to give Rindy any narrative or emotional airtime. Therese sees her only fleetingly, in a photograph. Rindy is, after all, the real threat to Therese’s happiness: her covert rival in what could rapidly emerge as a primal battle for Carol’s love. In an insightful and unusual review from 1990—the novel had just been reprinted for the first time under Highsmith’s real name—the British critic Victoria Glendinning found in it a dark allegory of maternal abandonment. One takes her point. It would have been awkward for Highsmith to introduce Rindy as a character without compromising the novel’s careening, erotically supercharged love story. Were Rindy to be presented attractively, she might draw sympathy away from the lovers. But at the same time, it would hardly have done to portray Rindy as an obnoxious brat who somehow deserves to be left behind in New Jersey with the unpleasant Harge. Highsmith never resolves the underlying psychic impasse. By flying the coop with Therese—and later reuniting with her—Carol seems to be saying fuck it not only to Harge and marriage but also to motherhood and Rindy. Rindy becomes the book’s designated human sacrifice. She is the price of salt—the price one pays for the “crime” of taking a female lover. At novel’s end, the awkward surplus child seems almost to have been forgotten by Carol and Highsmith both.

One of the novel’s great ironies is that Highsmith had endured her own Rindy-like deprivation as a child in Texas. When she was twelve, her mother, Mary Highsmith, and stepfather, Stanley, both graphic designers, left her in her grandmother’s Fort Worth boardinghouse for an entire year while they went to work in New York. Highsmith often said that this year was the most awful period of her life. It left her with a towering lifelong resentment toward Mary (whom Highsmith outlived by only four years), though it’s clear that she was painfully in love with her, too. (Note that Mary, like Carol, was the physical type to which Highsmith was sexually partial. Tall, taller, tallest; blonde, blonder, blondest.) In The Price of Salt, Highsmith may be revisiting this childhood damage through fantasy. Which is another way of saying that the more one starts to think about the Therese-Carol-Rindy triangle, the more troubling it becomes.

In its psychic rawness and ambivalence, The Price of Salt carries the unmistakable stigmata of Highsmith’s conflicted feelings about her homosexuality. One yearns for the taboo thing—the maternal body?—yet to gratify one’s wish with real-world intimacy is to face insuperable guilt and shame, the blighting sense of one’s “criminal” delinquency. One suspects that underlying everything—every mote of Highsmithian self-disgust—are those primitive fears of abandonment suggested by Glendinning. The “maternal body” is fantasy, after all, and ultimately intangible; and besides, Mommy already left you behind a long time ago. The Highsmithian lover becomes that crazy-making contradiction: both the criminal genius and the doomed malefactor—ecstatic rebel and cast-off, terrified child.

Such cruel paradoxes seem somehow built into Highsmith’s sapphic romance—written, as it were, into the fictional DNA. Highsmith, one might venture, was never able to rid herself of an ominous, dissipating sense of the pathological element in human life. Like a retribution, it was there in society’s repressive dictates and in her own psyche. These deep contradictions both undercut and intensify the nostalgic seduction supplied by the warm and glittery 1950s Manhattan setting. Carol and Therese seem to be forever swirling down Old-Fashioneds and double Gibsons, listening to Billie Holiday, and smiling a little too intently at one another. The Price of Salt, read straightforwardly, depicts the beginnings of the kind of relationship Highsmith herself could never enjoy. The novel is, I think, its author’s wish-fulfilment dream, but one in which anxiety-dream elements, the same stuff she transmuted elsewhere into bizarre suspense fiction, keep looming up like neurotic symptoms to invade the mise-en-scène. It’s a rarity—a love story lit by a weird, unwholesome, noirish glow.

Terry Castle is currently preparing a scholarly edition of The Price of Salt for Norton.