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Monday
Dec212015

The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel)

Every morning he watched the sun, from his bedroom window, rising through the winter mists, struggling upward over the peaceful-looking city, breaking through finally to give a couple of hours of actual sunshine before noon, and the quiet beginning of each day was like a promise of peace in the future. The days were growing warmer. There was more light, and less rain. Spring was almost here, and one of these mornings, one morning finer than these, he would leave the house and board a ship for Greece.

You may never have considered how you evaluate characters in a work of fiction, but you certainly pass some kind of judgment. For the dreamers among us, there will be a direct correlation between the fictional and real worlds whereby the problems and solutions of one will be transposed into the other. The way in which a character manages his morals should allow you to deselect some of those vapid adventures where "everything is possible" because as one critic noted in a different context, if anything goes then nothing can be funny. How very true. The same can be said of any film or book praised by the irresponsible among us for being "immoral" or "amoral," with some preferring the latter because it seems to involve love. What they are really saying is that they feel repressed by the status quo or normal, good, basic values and this work grants them a fantastic outlet. There is nothing terribly wrong with such a desire provided this outlet is superior to other outlets, which I fear smacks of old-fashioned Victorian dos and don'ts. Good that such simplistic classifications don't really bother the eponymous character of this novel.

Our hero, if that is truly the right word, is first depicted as prey, a role he will come to relish. Whatever we learn of Thomas Ripley in the pages that follow, his innate ability for subterfuge and skulduggery should not be disesteemed. He is tailed into a bar by what turns out to be fortune itself: Herbert Greenleaf, the father of someone he does not know very well has tracked Ripley down as a potential conduit to his self-exiled progeny – if painting and sunbathing in Italy qualify as exile. Words are exchanged that afford the reader far greater insight into Ripley's motives than Greenleaf could ever dream of contemplating and a deal is struck: Ripley is to travel to Europe on Greenleaf's money – the name choice is now painfully clear – to track down Dickie Greenleaf with the aim of homeward persuasion. An odd job for an odd fellow:

A cap was the most versatile of head-gears, he thought, and he wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it. Tom amused himself with it in his room in front of the mirror. He had always thought he had the world's dullest face, a thoroughly forgettable face with a look of docility that he could not understand, and a look also of vague fright that he had never been able to erase. A real conformist's face, he thought. The cap changed all that. It gave him a country air, Greenwich, Connecticut, country. Now he was a young man with a private income, not long out of Princeton, perhaps. He bought a pipe to go with the cap.

No other paragraph in The Talented Mr. Ripley more aptly describes its protagonist. So you will not be overmuch surprised to learn what "the world's dullest face" can do when cornered. And cornered he will be when he comes upon Dickie Greenleaf and the nominal woman in his life, Margaret Sherwood.

Margaret, dite Marge, has all the trappings of a standard issue 1950s American sweetheart. Her only added twist are her two distinct ambitions: publishing her book on photography and marrying Dickie Greenleaf. Dickie is indifferent to both these pursuits, but perhaps because his intellect only allows him to remain on the surface of things, be those things emotions, languages, or human psychology. A nice, unintelligent, conventionally handsome fellow of absolutely no talent; and yet Tom never considers that he would have become much like Dickie Greenleaf had he fed from the same silver spoon. The life of the young couple, apparently not yet lovers in the modern sense of the word, is invaded until Tom makes a fateful decision that involves murdering and replacing an indifferent, third-rate painter whose father is patiently awaiting his return stateside. This is done in a boat in San Remo and will foreshadow another murder involving a car at another Italian location, and the plot has all the petrol it will need for a long and high-speed journey. Tom usurps what he wants of Dickie's existence – primarily, the insouciance and principles of easy living – and does not consider the consequences in their dreadful entirety. He learns Italian by studying it with diligence and interest, and continues relentlessly in his attempts to lead a placid post-War life. But he encounters more than a few obstacles: Marge's inquiries, a porcine boor by the name of Freddie Miles, and a platoon of Italian law enforcement officers who resemble each other just as much as Tom looks like Dickie (Tom is actually interviewed in both identities by the same policeman). These omnipresent coppers come off more than once as disturbingly incompetent, an impression unchanged by Herbert Greenleaf's hiring of an American gumshoe to find his vanished son.   

While refraining from acerbic asides, Highsmith directs her genius to the smallest of details with a precision seldom found in modern belles lettres ("They were interrupted for a minute while Mr. Greenleaf saw that they were all seated"; "he stopped in front of an antique shop window and stared for several minutes at a gloomy oil painting of two bearded saints descending a dark hill in moonlight"; "The Via Appica stretched out before him, grey and ancient in the soft lights of its infrequent lamps"). The result is compelling in the same way that all artistic, thoughtful enterprises are compelling: they modulate our own definition of what art is. Ripley may be a sociopath, but the methods with which he hoodwinks and dispatches nuisances (you will never forget the scene with the shoe) speak of a great mind exercising his cerebral precedence over human mediocrity. The tale has been told in many different formats but almost invariably with an amount of disgust for the peon, the ignorant and the uncultured citizen who would never in a thousand moons be able to figure out the machinations of a certain Thomas Ripley. To her credit Highsmith does not pander to this facile conceit, one that is particularly disdained by oversensitive critics who think the author might have in mind these selfsame critics. We end up rooting for Ripley to succeed, and not only because he is smarter than everyone else. He is an atypical underdog, both sexually and intellectually dangerous, and his knocking off of the rich can easily be interpreted in the Robin Hood language we knew as children, bereft of course of the silly Marxist impositions. The difference is that this Robin Hood wants all of Sherwood Forest to himself. 

The original Ripley differs from the dynamic if altered English-language film mainly owing to the engagement of separate agendas. While the film attends to the glamour of Ripley's new world, perhaps as a function of the medium in which he is portrayed, the novel tries to trace, more or less successfully, his moral architecture. I say more or less because there is only so much one can glean from a psyche that yearns for European culture and nonetheless has committed murder. The film also injects much more ado regarding his boat passages that the novel leaves unexplored; specifically, a hint about the character of Peter Smith-Kingsley is realized on the screen. That Mr. Ripley would like to be anyone except Mr. Ripley is overstating the point; what Mr. Ripley would truly like is the ease and fortune that would allow him to be anyone, including an inflated, idealized version of himself, whenever imitation is to his benefit or amusement – which may be the best definition of an actor ever put forth. As evinced by the quote that begins this review, however, there persists a certain pathos to the financially poor and underadvantaged Ripley, a young man who enjoys wallowing in self-pity as much as using his circumstances as undeniable motivation. Believe it or not, indeed. 

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