Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book 23 - The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith

I’m surprised at myself for not being aware of Patricia Highsmith sooner - she has such a deliciously sardonic yet razor-sharp view of human nature. I’d already seen the Anthony Minghella movie when it came out in 2000, and even though it was a very good film and quite well-cast, it nevertheless tainted my own personal envisioning of the novel. I can’t help but picture the big stars Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in their respective roles. I hate it when that happens!

In any case, TTMR was excellent. I’ve mentioned before in my review of A Suspension of Mercy how Highsmith has a way of making you relate to her characters, no matter how unlikable or despicable they may be. When characters get themselves into crazy or self-destructive situations the choices they make, however irrational, are understandable according to their motive and reasoning. This makes for intelligent and satisfying suspense.

TTMR was published a decade before ASoM, so Highsmith was on the right track for her characterization of Tom Ripley. The title itself describes the basic premise of an ordinary young man who discovers he has some special talents indeed. In a way, the novel is like a twisted version of A Portrait of the Serial Killer As a Young Man. By all accounts, Tom Ripley sounds like a very scary dude. But the story begins with Tom leading a rather unhappy mediocre existence in NYC and you kinda feel sorry for the guy as he seems kind of stuck in a rut and lacks the resources to get himself out.

Then our dear Tom is presented with an opportunity to go to Europe for the first time with the task of bringing home an errant millionaire’s son, Dickie Greenleaf. Tom is completely enthralled by Dickie and wants more than anything to be his friend. At first Dickie genuinely enjoys Tom’s company, but soon enough gets the creepy feeling that his new friend may like him just a little too much. And of course it doesn’t help that Dickie’s girlfriend Marge insinuates that Tom might be gay. It’s in meeting Dickie that Tom realizes his true nature. Does Tom really want to be with Dickie, or does he actually want to be Dickie? Creepy!

The novel smoothly vacillates between you feeling repulsed yet fascinated by Tom Ripley. When Dickie distances himself from Tom, you really do feel Tom’s torment at the possibility of being rejected and alone again.

Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.

When Tom assumes Dickie’s identify, not only is he uncannily good at impersonating the one-time friend he murdered, he also relishes being him, like how he spends his evenings “handling Dickie’s possessions, simply looking at his rings on his own fingers, or his woolen ties, or his black alligator wallet”. Creepy!

And then, when it looks like Tom has to give up Dickie's identity because the police are closing in, you go back to feeling bad for Tom again:

This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.

It’s a real tribute to Highsmith’s skill as a writer. As another reviewer sums this up rather well:

What the reader has to remember again and again is that you are inside Ripley's head, and that every word is skewed toward his notion of reality. Reader's can conclude for themselves Ripley's motives and feelings, as he will never tell them outright. This, I think, is the most intriguing quality of reading the novel -- what the reader brings to the book and their own perceptions of emotion and morals informs the story almost more than anything Highsmith lays before you. In that way, she manages to insinuate just how much Ripley is like the reader, and as uncomfortable as that may be to conclude, it also rings impressively true.

Reading the book also inspired me to finally see the 1960 film adaptation by Rene Clement, Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon), which was in itself a good film, but it disappointingly over-simplified or white-washed some key elements of the novel, namely replacing any homosexual undercurrents for friendly male competition and conceding to the conventional need for the murderer to get caught. Perhaps this was an indication that having a complex yet sympathetic protagonist-villain was still an unthinkable concept, at least in cinema, a few decades ago.

My only complaint is that the 1992 Vintage Crime paperback edition had a fair number of typos in it. It made for distracting reading!


Craig D. said...

Neither of the film versions are really satisfactory. Purple Noon is excellent on its own terms, but as an adaptation of the novel, it's far too simplistic, and the ending is a betrayal. The 1999 film digs deeper into the complexities of Tom, but it also makes him too innocent, turning a planned murder into self-defence and tormenting him with the guilt that rarely bothers him in the novels.

The only place to see the Tom of the novels represented with any real accuracy on-screen is in The American Friend. It may not seem very faithful at first since it's Dennis Hopper in a cowboy hat, but he captures the character better than any other actor. He's even better than John Malkovich, who seemed to be playing Hannibal Lecter instead of Tom Ripley.

meezly said...

indeed, The American Friend is on my list, but I'm going to wait until I finish Ripley's Game first. thanks for reminding me I still have to read this ;-)

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