In Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, a novel of obsession and one man’s descent into madness, David Kelsey appears to have a decent life and a good future in front of him. He lives in a small town, and as a bachelor he rents a room in a boarding house. According to the landlady, he is the perfect tenant. He’s quiet, neat, pays his rent on time and never brings a woman back to his room. David’s workmate, a unhappily married man named Wes, certainly envies David his solitude. Wes complains abut his wife Laura constantly; apparently, according to Wes, she’s a cleaning fanatic, neurotic and prone to violent bursts of temper. Wes constantly wants David to visit hoping to ameliorate Laura’s anger. A new tenant at the boarding house, Effie Brennan, tries to strike up a relationship with David. She gets nowhere, but she becomes friends with Wes.
David is consumed with what he calls “the Situation.” He moved to this town and took the job for its large salary (1959, 25K), and he left behind, Annabelle, a girl he had just met in California. Even though he never made formal promises to Annabelle, he assumed she would wait for him, but Annabelle marries suddenly and moves to Hartford Connecticut with her new husband, Gerald Delaney. David, obsessed with Annabelle, refuses to move on. He’s written to Annabelle a few times telling her he loves her and she replied a couple of times. Undeterred by her marriage, he buys a remote cabin, furnishing it to what he imagines is Annabelle’s taste. He goes every weekend to the cabin, which he bought under the name William Neumeister. The name Neumeister may have initially been created as a means to buy this cabin with no one’s knowledge, but over time, it’s as if David is Neumeister–a more ‘confident’ man, perhaps a version of the self David would like to be. David tells everyone at the boarding house that he spends his weekends visiting his ailing mother in a nursing home (she’s actually long dead), but in reality, he spends that time at the cabin imagining that Annabelle is by his side, enjoying wine, enjoying the meals he cooks.
I don’t think that we can imagine David’s behaviour is healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but when the novel begins, David is still functional. He decides it’s time to press Annabelle to meet him in New York and when that doesn’t happen, and Annabelle tells him she has had a baby, he goes to her apartment to make her change her mind. …
Annabelle’s marriage to another man and then having a baby should be clear hints that she will never be David’s wife, but when reality hits David, instead of accepting it, his fantasies become more elaborate. To an outsider, David’s actions seem bizarre, but David’s actions are sealed with his own logic–a logic that underscores his desire to ‘spring’ Annabelle from her husband. This is great fiction, but at the same time, with David as our increasingly unreliable narrator, this is terrifying real. David’s first foray into violence increases his spiral into total insanity.
There are some cruel ironies to this tale. Effie Brennan is a lot like Annabelle in many ways, but David rejects her tentative attempts at friendship. David fails to realize that Effie loves him and finds her annoying. Here is this very nice, sweet, available girl, and she is arguably more interesting than Annabelle, but David only finds Effie “draining” and sees her as a nuisance. When it comes to Effie, he thinks it’s “easier to get rid of a bulldog with its teeth sunk in his wrist.” While he finds Effie intrusive, pushy and annoying, he never grasps that Effie’s behaviour and questions about his private life pale when compared to his single-minded insane pursuit of Annabelle. Life could be very very good for David, but his obsession controls all.
This Sweet Sickness easily makes my best-of-year-list. Highsmith follows the tense, claustrophobic trajectory of David’s terrifying descent into madness with bitter detail. David has led a double life for the past two years, lying about visits to his mother, while using the weekends to indulge in fantasies about the non-existence relationship with Annabelle in a non-existent life. When it’s clear that David’s imagined future with Annabelle will never materialize, he sinks into madness. The lines between David Kelsey and his alter-ego William Neumeister blur as the two identities blend into one.
David shut his eyes, lifted his glass and took three big swallows. Neumeister. He hadn’t thought of him in days until tonight, and there was little Effie keeping his precious secret. Neumeister had served his purpose, sailing serenely victoriously over tumultuous waters, up and down riding the waves, a strong ship in full sail. Neumeister had never lost. It was too bad Annabelle had never known Neumeister, even though Neumeister had in a way lived with her
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