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Thursday
Jul282011

Ripley's Game

Jonathan had been imagining Tom Ripley a frequent visitor at Reeves Minot's place in Hamburg.  He remembered Fritz turning up with a small package at Reeves's that night.  Jewellery?  Dope?  Jonathan watched the familiar viaduct, then the dark green trees near the railway station come into view, their tops bright under the street lights.  Only Tom Ripley next to him was unfamiliar.

We all have, gentle Reader, our biases and delusions (despite overwhelming literary evidence to the contrary, until recently I had always thought this actor to be the perfect incarnation of this literary character), even if biases are as much an indication of the dullard as the highly creative mind.  Yet it is rather amazing that one movie critic claimed he had always imagined this actor in the guise of one of English literature's most famous gentleman murderers, a dream fulfilled in this film.  The association seemed particularly egregious given how one of Ripley's victims recalls his assailant:

He had probably already talked about a man in his thirties, with brown hair, a little over average height, who had socked him in the jaw and in the stomach.

The numerous other descriptions throughout Highsmith's novels of the young American socialite and murderer all amount to the same: not bad-looking, fit, a nice fellow, well-dressed and charming in that effusive way that comes naturally to those of immoderate intelligence.  But what he was not was peculiar or remarkable.  One might remember him because "his face stood out among the faces of the French," yet one would probably not be able to determine why one came to that conclusion.  The fact of the matter is that Malkovich was twenty years too old, too bald, and, most importantly, far too eccentric and flamboyant to evoke anything but a caricature of Tom Ripley.   After all, what is easier to portray than over-the-top evil?  Thus the casting of this film is far more accurate: Tom Ripley as a bland and shy everyman who uses such traits to become a master of disguise.  Disguise not of the fake beard and thick glasses stripe, but in the much more subtle vein of being able to cast shadows upon his intentions and motives, to convince people of different truths at different times.  And nowhere is this facet of his unique personality better reflected than in this novel.

The life Ripley has earned for himself – if earned is really the right word – has much of what we have come to imagine as idyllic Europe: a posh mansion in the French countryside; uncluttered days speckled with gardening, reading, language study, good food and, as he himself admits, more than a bit of Sunday painting; a beautiful and unmeddling spouse who cares as little for daily responsibility as he does; and, most importantly for our purposes, a regular stream of side jobs and scams to supplement his in-laws' generous per annum.  Like most people who have gained society's favor through underhandedness, however, Ripley is the target of more than a few wagging tongues.  Everywhere he goes, someone recognizes him from that scandal with Dickie Greenleaf a few years back, perhaps even from the whole Derwatt Ltd. imbroglio.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an entire novel could be based on a single insult.  What is unexpected is that the insult could come from the likes of Jonathan Trevanny.  Trevanny, as it were, would seem to embody quite the anti-Ripley.  He is British, not well-off, married to a good woman without any materialistic schemes, a decent father to his only child Georges, and more than a bit underemployed as a framer in a small French village not too far from the Ripley estate.  But Jonathan Trevanny has one trump card: he is terminally ill. 

How can looming death become an advantage?  Well, life is full of important decisions that we often dismiss into the glorious sunset for some other day's agenda.  But if our days are necessarily limited, what then?  And what if we are young enough to feel that nothing of any value has been accomplished in this life?  Were Jonathan Trevanny a good and kind man who only wanted the best for his family, few readers would be able to endure the Jobian hardships that batter him from all sides.  But Jonathan is far from a noble soul.  And at a party Jonathan falls victim to the rumors about Tom Ripley and snorts mockingly in his presence, leading the American parvenu to place Jonathan in a special cage in his mind for further reference.  As his leukemia, or whatever he has, continues to plague him, he receives word through the village grapevine that his doctor may be concealing the true severity of his condition.  Jonathan makes a few meek inquiries and is only met with the blushing reticence found in equal measure in the completely innocent and the utterly guilty.  At the height of his neurosis and doubt, Jonathan is approached by a man whose real name we know to be Reeves Minot.  Minot is a career criminal, and a frequent collaborator of Ripley's, and we proceed to learn much more about why Minot and Jonathan meet than Jonathan could ever figure out, even by the end of the novel.  Nevertheless, what seems like a rather banal plot – asking a dying, bitter man to devalue life even more and take a couple of souls with him to hell – turns into a stupendous contract with evil.  The evil, naturally, being Tom Ripley, who allows Minot one opportunity to prove his mettle before interfering to save Jonathan's life – on a train, no less – an act of mild remorse that furnishes us with an impetus for a breathless, if no less elegant second half-novel.  

There are many marvelous features of Highsmith's novels (including, most superficially, how convincingly she is able to convey a male perspective), but despite many critics' clucks and coos amoral or immoral behavior cannot be counted among them.  As it were, Highsmith is almost a textbook moralist.  Every character who chooses the wrong path receives in short order a lovely comeuppance; those who adhere to stronger values – there are, I confess, not that many such heroes – survive danger more or less intact.  That Jonathan finds killing so easy because he himself feels the tip of the shroud rings true, if true only for the snivelling coward that Jonathan most certainly is.  Making the victims interchangeably evil Mafiosi – today we would probably employ a terrorist or two – reinforces the suggestion that crime merely takes a weak will, opportunity, and some kind of immediate reward.   The one exception to this rule seems to be Tom Ripley.  Tom Ripley, you see, gets away with so many crimes that we begin to doubt his subjection to earthly or heavenly laws.  What begins as a cruel prank devolves into an inexplicably fascinating portrait of what seem to be almost comically opposite men devoted to the same murderous aims.  But are these men all that different?  Sure, the talented Mr. Ripley has money, intelligence, and a sufficiently unsavory reputation for people to stay out of his way; the not-so-talented Mr. Trevanny has none of that, nor does he have any time to shunt his wretched track.  Yet both possess what can be labeled hubris, and what is better understood as an overweening belief in the centrality of their own petty existence.  Tempered, of course, with passages like this:

Jonathan was not worried, because he knew he would hang on, that this wasn't death, merely a faint.  Maybe first cousin to death, but death wouldn't come quite like this.  Death would probably have a sweeter, more seductive pull, like a wave sweeping out from a shore, sucking hard at the legs of a swimmer who'd already ventured too far, and who mysteriously had lost his will to struggle.

Ripley has always struggled to stay afloat because he knows he is expected to drown; Jonathan will struggle only because he does not want simply to crumble and die as befits a person of his cowardice.  And what then is cowardice if not death's early and sustained victory?

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