Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

The theme of this book is the path from sociopath to psychopath.  Highsmith's writing style lends itself to that path quite in a quite horrifying and thrilling way.  She writes short, sparse yet impactful sentences that highlight and mirror the cold, sparse, calculating thoughts and actions of the - protagonist?  He's no hero - Tom Ripley.  The point of view she uses, limited third person, allows you both see through Ripley's eyes and into his head; you feel his loathing for Marge, his love and lust and jealousy and finally rage at Dickie; his quick fear of the police and detective and equally quick dodges, feints, parries and evasions.  He's imminently talented at, well, evil.  Or perhaps, covering up for evil, in this case two murders.

Is Ripley gay?  I think his protestations to the contrary are of the "methinks the lady doth protest too much" variety.  His disgust for Marge seems to imply it - although that may be chalked up to simple jealousy rather than misogyny.  You could call Ripley bisexual, but I think he's more of an asexual characters.  If this were written later - and perhaps Highsmith does do this with Ripley later in the series - I think he would have at the very least made a pass at Dickie, and possibly Marge as well - making her fall in love with him would have placed Ripley in even a better place than becoming her platonic friend (of sorts; he cultivated something with her that she may have called friendship but he certainly never would have).

What's quite possibly the most brilliant aspect of this book is using that unique third person point of view to both see through Tom's eyes, see in his head, and also zoom out for wide shots as well.  His reasoning behind murdering two people, one of whom is his friend, is really quite well thought out in a psychotic, narcissistic, anti-social way.  Tom is entitled to Dickie's friendship, and ultimately Dickie's life.  Of course, we get to zoom out and see how fucked up that point of view is as well.

In addition to asking myself whether Tom was gay or not - I also wondered if this was classified as  noir. My gut and what little I know of noir says yes; this occasionally reminded me of Mildred Pierce with it's sparse language and detailed characters and brutal action portrayed in a cool way.  Library of America classifies it as noir in a set called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s.  Some other things I read online (here: indicate that The Talented Mr. Ripley is indeed noir.

At some point in the book, I decided I wasn't going to read the whole series, but now I've changed my mind.  I'd like to know what happens to Ripley next.  He's a hard character to read about; completely unlikable.  But Highsmith, somehow, makes him sympathetic, which is an amazing feat.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley, #1)The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The arc of this book is the path of the sociopath to psychopath.  Highsmith's sparse, short, blunt writing style lends itself to this, mirroring the sparse, blunt, cold calculating thoughts and actions of the - protagonist? he's no hero - Tom Ripley.  Her genius use of the third person limited point of view allows us to see through Ripley's lamprey eyes, feel his lust and fear, and closely follow his various dodges, parries, feints and evasions of his murder victims' friends, family, and the Italian police.  The point of view also lets us zoom out on occasion and see the whole scene, to gain some a bit of perspective on the whole messy business.  The motives are always left unclear - was Ripley more in love with Dickie or Dickie's lifestyle (I mean, come ON - the murder victim is named DICK for god's sake, clearly a symbol of some sort for latent homosexuality of the 1950s variety at the very least).  What is clear is this is a brilliant piece of noir.  Somewhere in the first third, I thought to myself "I don't want to read anymore of this."  Now I've added the whole series to my list of things to read - somehow, Highsmith made this crocodile of a man into a sympathetic character.  That's some brilliant writing.

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