Friday, October 1, 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

Part Two of the my blog about Patricia Highsmith's five novels featuring Tom Ripley begins with her first Ripley book – "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

At the beginning of this book, Tom Ripley is unformed, a con man who can't quite fully execute his con. He's been bilking people out of thousands of dollars by pretending to be an IRS agent, but all the checks to the IRS he's collected remain uncashed, even though Tom needs money. He has the beginnings of a con man, but no confidence in himself. So he starts as a small-time confidence man, between jobs, living hand-to-mouth, engaging in cons that only make trouble for himself. In fact, before Dickie's father asks for Tom's help, Tom thinks the father is a cop out to get him.

Also, Highsmith chooses to portray Tom not as a devil-may-care smoothie, but as the person least suited to do the things he must do. Time after time, Tom just barely survives, and unintentionally makes as much trouble for himself as his antagonists.

Tom is acutely sensitive other people. So throughout the book Tom has violent reactions to people, places, and events. He gets physically ill, he makes mistakes, he blunders, he forgets, he lets things slip. All of this creates tension for the reader as we wonder if Tom will make it to the end?

This first Ripley concerns identity theft, of Tom Ripley stealing the identity of Dickie Greenleaf. And yet, it's not as pre-meditated as it sounds. Tom's action are improvisational. When he and Dickie go out in a boat, Tom doesn't yet have a plan. It's while he's in the boat he decides to kill Dickie, it just comes to him. He improvises, like a jazz musician taking a solo. He kills Dickie to luxuriate in the possession of Dickie's clothes, his rings, his shoes. Access to Dickie's fortune doesn't even enter the picture at first. It isn't until later that Tom realizes he could forge Dickie's will, leaving everything to Tom.

It's Highsmith's superb writing that keeps the reader in the game. By allowing the reader to understand Ripley, she gives us the opportunity of identifying with him without condoning his actions. And the tension she creates is palpable.

There's also an enormous amount of detail: for instance, Tom's study of Italian makes him realize that Dickie could never properly conjugate certain verbs. So in his portrayal of Dickie, Tom mis-conjugates the same verbs. He does things left-handed, like Dickie. He practices Dickie's expressions in front of a mirror. I doubt any method actor has ever gone so far in learning to "be" someone else, the way Tom learns to "be" Dickie. Here's an example of how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the

feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was

watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire

world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a

mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolute1y confident

he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar,

delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a

fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a

stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not

be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not

himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he

consciously controlled every move he made. But he no longer

felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at first. He had no

need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the moment

when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was

Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted

out, Dickie rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite.

Here's another section describing how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He had done so little artificially to change his appearance,

but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now.

He wore a smile that was dangerously welcoming to a stranger,

a smile more fit to greet an old friend or a lover. It was Dickie’s

best and most typical smile when he was in a good humour.

Tom was in a good humour. It was Paris. Wonderfu1 to sit in a

famous café, and to think of tomorrow and tomorrow and

tomorrow being Dickie Greenleaf! The cufflinks, the white

silk shirts, even the old clothes — the worn brown belt with the

brass buckle, the old brown grain-leather shoes, the kind

advertised in Punch as lasting a life-time, the old mustard—

coloured coat sweater with the sagging pockets, they were all

his and he loved them all. And the black fountain pen with little

gold initials. And the wallet, a well-worn alligator wallet from

Gucci’s. And there was plenty of money to go in it.

Ripley's talent for impersonation helps him to become Dickie Greenleaf, but also it makes Ripley a more capable person, in the sense that killing Dickie and Freddie gives Ripley a grounding he needs, in order to continue his successful journey.

Finally, Tom has to stop being Dickie and become Tom Ripley again. Except he doesn't. At this point, after spending weeks and months impersonating Dickie, Tom is now "being" Tom Ripley. That is, Tom is playing the role of Tom Ripley. Since he is about to be questioned by the same Italian cop who interrogated Ripley playing Dickie, Ripley decides to play himself more broadly, to heighten the contrast between Ripley and Dickie. Tom takes his own mannerisms and refines them, to draw the distinctions between who he is and Dickie. It's a marvelous and frightening bit of writing.

He might play up Tom a little more, he thought. He could

stoop a little more, he could be shyer than ever, he could even

wear horn-rimmed glasses and hold his mouth in an

even sadder, droopier manner to contrast with Dickie’s

tenseness. Because some of the police he might talk to might

be the ones who had seen him as Dickie Greenleaf. What was

the name of that one in Rome? Rovassini? Tom decided to

rinse his hair again in a stronger solution of henna, so that it

would be even darker than his normal hair.

Part of the undercurrent of this first Ripley book is the sense of pressure, of being a successful American male. The need to strive, to persevere, to succeed, is something implicit in this story. When Tom tells Dickie that Dickie's father gave Tom a tour of the family shipyards, Dickie replies, " I suppose he offered you a job, too. Always on the lookout for bright young


Tom Ripley is driven. And his eventual success seems perversely triumphant, like a Horatio Alger story as viewed through a fun house mirror.

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