Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Talented Mr. Ripley

It’s satisfying to read a book with a great reputation and have it live up to it completely. Over the weekend I read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), and it was a creepy, compelling, and tense as I’d always heard. Earlier this week I complained that Scott Smith’s The Ruins provided only nothing beyond thrills; The Talented Mr. Ripley is the perfect example of a novel that does both. There are scenes as tense as anything in Hitchcock, but the heart of the book, and the reason it’s going to stay with me, is the title character, who by turns is odd, creepy, confused, sad, needy, even sometimes deeply sympathetic. Without diminishing him as a character—and without being obvious about it—Highsmith reveals the complicated mix of emotions that drive Tom Ripley while simultaneously showing us that he doesn’t quite understand them himself. He deludes himself—though always for brief periods—so well that we, too, become deluded, our sympathies engaged. That level of psychological reality is only possible when an author knows a character thoroughly; I get the feeling that, while Tom Ripley could surprise himself, there’s no way he could ever surprise Patricia Highsmith.

In case you’re one of the small number of readers who doesn’t know Ripley as a character, I won’t say more. I do, however, have a question. If you were to come to this book with no knowledge of it or Ripley, how would he strike you in the early pages? How much would you see through? How much would you anticipate? I think of this as the Casblanca problem: if you didn’t already know that Rick doesn’t leave, would you be sure it was coming? I think you probably would, in both cases, get an idea of what lies ahead, but I'll never get to know for myself.

Oh, and a second question: I’ve got the next two Ripley novels in this omnibus volume. Anyone read them? Should I?

And, finally, a warning: October is always my busiest month both at work and at home. I’m finishing up marathon training, and the start of the baseball playoffs means hosting lots of baseball chili parties. I fear that my blog is going to suffer; you should probably expect light posting through October. But never fear: winter is on the way, and there sure ain’t much to do in Chicago in the winter but read.

1 comment:

  1. I read the second one. I'd say that it features a more interesting crime - a long grift - and that it's as compelling a study of the character of Tom Ripley as the first one, but it's just a little less creepy, I think for one reason. Which is that, in The Talented..., there were three or four moments where Highsmith would have Tom recollect something from his past or from recent events that, had we been aware of them up front, we would have thought quite differently of him; and the way he remembers is so close to the way that we all forget and remember the worst things about ourselves, that it's completely unnerving every time she does it.

    The second novel features no such moments, and come to think of it, it also lacks a supporting cast of characters as memorable and well drawn as Dickie Greenleaf, Marge, and Freddy. But it is still a pretty good read. And you should read it, because then we can watch the movie.