Monday, 3 February 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

What a creepy little book. Highsmith takes us into the head of Tom Ripley, and it is an unsettling ride. Tom is a sociopath (or is he?), but an anxious one. And inside his head, we are carried along as his crimes mount, one upon the other, and feel the tension as he skirts the edge of disaster and discovery. Are we tense because we want him to be captured? Or because we want him to get away with it?

Even if we don't side with Tom, the tension in his mind when crisis moments occur is enough to make us tense as well.

Tom is living a scattered existence in New York, running minor scams and not particularly liking himself, when a chance encounter gets him an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe to look up Dickie Greenleaf and persuade him to come home. Tom rather likes life in Europe and he particularly likes Dickie. A lot. In an obsessive way.

This novel dances with the idea of Tom's sexuality. There certainly are plenty of references to gay men in the book, but Tom himself shies away from them. Is he heavily closeted and in denial? Is he asexual but obsessive about this one man? Does he want Dickie, or just want to be him? Are those two desires even extricable from each other? Certainly Tom does not regard himself as gay, but the readers (and the other characters) are left to decide how much to trust his denials.

Tom's obsession grows, and he believes himself to be a gifted mimic (and as far as we know he is, but Tom is not the most reliable of narrators, so I feel suspicious of him much of the time.) The thought of losing Dickie drives him to a series of horrific acts, all done to preserve what he wants out of life for himself.

We are often shown sociopaths as calm, cool, unaffected. Tom is not that. He is anxious, obsessive, jealous. And every time he comes close to getting caught, he reacts out of fear, then tries to think himself out of the consequences. Tom is an uneasy character, and I was uneasy being in his head.

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