Friday, March 13, 2009

Unreality (Books - The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith)

So far The Talented Mr. Ripley is living up to the creep-factor it is known for. I am trying to figure out what the magic ingredient is. It is not merely that Tom Ripley has no remorse for whatever scheme he is carrying out - tax fraud, pretending he knows a young man so that his wealthy father will pay for him to travel to Europe and bring him home to run the family business - but that his lying is so easy, so automatic, as though he would not think of doing anything else, even if he has a flash of momentary fear. Tom Ripley's talent is for making himself empty so that he can fill up with bits of other people - he's a cannibal.

It is little wonder that Patricia Highsmith's novel became a movie, such clear pictures does her writing create, not just of the look of a moment but of the essence of it.
Automatically, as he strolled to an empty space at the bar, he looked around to see if there was anyone he knew. There was the big man with red hair, whose name he always forgot, sitting at a table with a blonde girl. The red-haired man waved a hand, and Tom's hand went up limply in response. He slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.
This paragraph reveals Tom Ripley's perspective to me, which reads like a three-year-old's - there is the 'big man with red hair,' then the big man 'waved his hand,' an isolated subject and verb with no humanity in them - it's a man without a name and a some thing he does. People do not exist for Tom Ripley and therefore what he says to them or does to them is immaterial - he lives only for himself.

In this opening scene in the bar Raoul's where the red-haired man drinks with his blonde girl, Ripley meets Mr. Greenleaf, who engages Tom to bring his son home from Europe. Tom goes for dinners at the Greenleaf home.
He felt himself beginning to sweat, and he tried to relax. What was he so worried about? He'd felt so well tonight! When he had said that about Aunt Dottie -

Tom Straightened, glancing at the door, but the door had not opened. That had been the only time tonight when he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt it he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true: My parents died when I was very small. I was raised by my aunt in Boston.

Mr. Greenleaf came into the room. His figure seemed to pulsate and grow larger and larger. Tom blinked his eyes, feeling a sudden terror of him, an impulse to attack him before he was attacked.

'Suppose we sample some brandy?' Mr. Greenleaf said, opening a panel beside the fireplace.

It's like a movie, Tom thought. In a minute, Mr. Greenleaf or somebody else's voice would say, 'Okay, cut!' and he would relax again and find himself back in Raoul's with the gin and tonic in front of him. No, back in the Green Cage.

'Had enough?' Mr. Greenleaf asked. 'Don't drink this, if you don't want it.'

It is because he barely exists as a real person that Ripley has no moral sense. He lives mostly in overlapping frames of unreality which Highsmith is very good at creating. Frames within frames that create a rubbery world with uncertain time frames and male and female figurines with no names inhabit them, and through this unsteady world Tom Ripley walks, occassionally worried he will be caught, but unperturbed about the consequences of his actions for anyone else. Highstreet has fashioned a magnificently creepy universe and a story line that just makes one want to turn the page 'automatically' and read on.


Sam said...

I was absolutely fascinated by the Tom Ripley character - sociopaths tend to scare the hell out of me. The other books featuring Ripley, while not quite having the same impact on me, were interesting, too.

Books like these help me understand the Berney Madoffs of the world...not that I'm calling Madoff a murderer (despite his responsibility for at least two suicides).

Ted said...

Interesting, Sam, to think of Madoff in light of Tom Ripley. That hadn't occurred to me.