WHILE READING your novel Deep Water (1957), I felt as if you had gradually thrust us into the muddy waters of your protagonist’s troubled mind.
The book is narrated in third person through the perspective of Vic Van Allen, an inhibited man in his late thirties, who runs a small press in the affluent town where he lives with his wife, Melinda, and their six-year-old daughter, Trixie. Vic longs for a quiet life among the snails he breeds and the books he reads. Much to his chagrin, however, Melinda has had a succession of lovers in the recent years, and their marriage is on the rocks. Vic affects indifference, but everyone in town has already noticed his wife’s erratic behaviour. To make matters worse, the more he tries to turn a blind eye to what it is happening, the more daring Melinda grows, parading her lovers in all public events in town.
You draw a sharp contrast between the quiet, content surface Vic shows to everyone, and his boiling anger; between the facade of a happy marriage he tries to sustain, and the building violence between him and his wife. Vic and Melinda are off on a path of threats and mutual destruction. They seem to derive pleasure in trying to control and debase one another, but their methods are different: while Melinda tries to degrade her husband by acting in an ostensibly unfaithful way, Vic degrades her by acting like the perfect husband, deliberately putting himself in the position of victim, and making everyone in town despise her.
However, as the story progresses, their relationship is shown to be so toxic that it is difficult to pinpoint who is the victim of whom. Moreover, because Melinda is always shown through Vic’s perspective, we gradually get the feeling that there must be some piece lacking in her portrait. Is she being judged by the simple-minded town people because she dared to transgress the behaviour they expected from a woman? Or is she really that selfish? Vic is so uptight and controlling, that we cannot help but think that she may have been driven to her extreme behaviour out of necessity to break free. We don’t really know.
The book is more a character study than a thriller. From the beginning, we feel that there is something cracked with Vic. He affects indifference and affability, but he’s paranoid and mean. He knows how to hurt, and takes pleasure from it. And yet it is precisely this ‘cracked aspect’ of Vic that endears him to us. He is so vulnerable to the smallest details. Although a well-regarded member of the Little Wesley township, he is a psychopath – but a charming one. And we never really know if he is fully aware of it.
Because it is told from Vic’s point of view, and through the perspective of his disturbed mind, the book is peppered with black humour. A threat to put arsenic into one’s meal makes for a charming evening; after a party that ends with a very suspicious drowning, Vic gives a diving doll to his daughter; he tries to assert himself and to frighten off Melinda’s admirers by spreading a rumour that he killed one of her past lovers. You highlight the irony of the fact that the sociopath is highly respected in the community, while Melinda is despised for her very frankness. Furthermore, you make us do the same as the townspeople: we are made to empathize with Vic, and we are driven to despise Melinda.
We are thrown deeply into the breach in the facade: the gulf between the way Vic wants to be seen by the people in town; the way he wants to be seen by Melinda; the way he thinks he ought to act; and the way he really acts. As his “hard knot of repressions and resentments” is untied, his fantasies gradually blur each of these lines.
“Shut the noise out with your own noise. You could set up a little din of merry voices right inside your head.” – Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water
“‘Oh, I don’t think it’s going to be boring,’ she said. He smiled. ‘Is that a threat?’ ‘Take it the way you like’. ‘Are you going to put arsenic in my food?’ ‘I don’t think arsenic could kill you.’ It was a charming evening.” – Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water
“Vic kept looking at Wilson’s wagging jaw and thinking of the multitude of people like him on earth, perhaps half the people on earth were of his type, or potentially his type, and thinking that it was not bad at all to be leaving them. The ugly birds without wings. The mediocre who perpetuated mediocrity, who really fought and died for it. He smiled at Wilson’s grim, resentful, the-world-owes-me-a-living face, which was the reflection of the small mind behind it, and Vic cursed it and all it stood for. Silently, and with a smile, and with all that was left of him, he cursed it.” – Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water
About the book
- Virago Press, 2015, 304 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1957
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- Film adaptation: Eaux profondes (1981, IMDb)
- This book was read for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club (#VMCBookClub) in February
“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reason that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarrassing.”