Sunday, May 3, 2009

House of Mirrors (Books - Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith)

What to say having finished Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Ground? Certainly it provided amusements in a macabre sort of way, superficially much like those in The Talented Mr. Ripley. My attention was taken and led me through to the end swiftly, even if it didn't create the incredible grip of suspense that the first Ripley book had. But what that first novel offered was a character study of a disturbed young man, pushed to psychopathy by an intense sense of victimization and defeat. He was a loser who so desperately wanted to be a winner he would do anything. He had lost everything, finally even himself and he replaces his lost self with the handsome, wealthy character of his friend Dickie Greenleaf, after murdering him. Tom Ripley assumes this new character first with facination. He is an amateur, committing awful crimes to save his life. The trouble is that in Ripley Under Ground, Tom has succeeded in that replacement. He is a winner. He is a professional. He has married a lovely woman. Collects beautiful art. Has a house in the country outside of Paris with one woman who serves him meals and another who cleans. Now Tom Ripley hires an artist named Bernard Tufts who create fake paintings of an artist who committed suicide several years earlier. This fraud earns him and a gallery who sells the work a decent income until a collector suspects the fraud and Tom must impersonate the long dead painter for whom they had created the character of a recluse. But now when Tom commits fraud and murder, it is just about perpetuating a scheme. It is about about not losing income, not being caught. He may be doing these things to save his skin, but not to save his life as he did in the first book.
He stared at 'Man in chair' over the fireplace, and bounced on his heels with satisfaction - satisfaction with it s familiarity, its excellence. Bernard was good. He'd just made a couple of mistakes in his periods. Damn periods anyway. Logically, 'The Red Chairs,' a genuine Derwatt should have the place of honour in the room over the fireplace. Typical of him that he had put the phoney in the choice spot he supposed.


'I cannot understand your total disconnection with the truth of things,' Murchison said. 'An artist's style is his truth, his honest. Has another man the right to copy it, in the same way that a man copies another man's signature? And for the same purpose, to draw on his reputation, his bank account? A reputation already built by a man's talent?'
It is as if Highsmith feels she must explain the book. Really she explains away the whole theme with that second paragraph, rendering the novel that follows a bland if somewhat sick amusement, even with all its bloody crimes and near misses. The same class of crime is being committed as in The Talented Mr. Ripley. The same themes of identity are being explored, but without the point. Ripley Under Ground toys with identity games because it worked in the first book, but it is just a house of mirrors.

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