Friday, 23 July 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

I often say sometimes I love a song so much it's probably illegal, and very often I love a book so much it makes my heart want to crumple into pieces so devastatingly, I feel I might cease to be.

Of course the melodramatic in me often gets carried away, but the overall sentiment is true. The Talented Mr Ripley is such a book that has that kind of beautiful effect of satisfaction, a bit like wolfing down a chocolate bar when you have not eaten all day; a delight and warming satisfaction rolled into one.

Written by Patricia Highsmith in 1955, The Talented Mr Ripley was the first Highsmith novel to feature Tom Ripley, a troubled protagonist Highsmith would go on to write five novels about. A psychological crime thriller, Highsmith writes the book from the perspective of Ripley, a struggling sociopath; a New York misfit small-time con-man, whom aspires to so much more than his dreary existence. From the dirty, mundane streets of New York city, Highsmith takes the reader to the sleepy beauty of coastal Italy, and the sophistication of the wealthy, the beautiful; thrown amongst a backdrop of crime.

What makes this book so effective is Highsmith's almost simplistic style, which flows easily and engages you. Yet there is an underlying level, a complex psychological undertone in the narrative that draws the reader into engaging with, essentially, a very sinister and disturbed mind.

As every thriller novel should be, it is moreish. But this is also due to the affinity Highsmith achieves between the reader and the protagonist. And this is what is so wonderfully unsettling in itself. The acknowledgement that you almost accept Ripley's utterly amoral actions, even though you also know they are very wrong indeed. You begin to fear for Ripley, fear for him getting caught, wanting him to succeed in his plans. Highsmith makes you fall in love with the lifestyle of the beautiful in the Mediterranean almost as much as Ripley himself. This is partly why you can almost empathise with Ripley's behaviours. It is this complex sensation of the human psyche that makes the book so deliciously remarkable.
This draws strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which often leads the audience into ambiguous feelings towards Norman Bates (interestingly enough, Highsmith's work often reads like a Hitchcock film, with similar themes and suspense. Her excellent novel Strangers on a Train was made into a successful Hitchcock film).

Written at a time before criminologists and Cracker-style TV shows that endlessly bombard us with glossy crime dramas of elaborate psychopaths, Highsmith draws attention to the idea of what a criminal thinks, how a criminal behaves. Just like Norman Bates, Ripley is and can be, charming, likeable, seemingly normal. Unlike classic melodramatic evil villains in books and film, Ripley is subtle, unassuming, sensitive, intelligent. He enjoys art and high culture. The book challenges the too often screaming tabloid headline notion of criminals only being 'monster uncultured lowlifes'.

The book also deals with strong themes of identity, questioning the idea of who we are, what makes what we are. Ripley is a fantastic mimic, assuming new idenities with ease, acting out roles. It not only highlights how we act out different roles ourselves throughout life, but also the interesting paradox of what the self actually is to what we appear to be.

Highsmith may not be a particularly fashionable writer now, and seems to be too often underrated or forgotten about. A troubled personality herself, her own life was filled with personal turmoil. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and as an adult became an alcoholic. She often suffered from depression, and Highsmith found it difficult to have relationships with either sex. Acquaintances often called her 'cruel' and 'difficult'. Her behaviour was often erratic and reclusive. Yet she did also have a dry sense of humour. This dark humour can often be seen in her writing.
She was, arguably, one of the finest modern crime thriller writers, paving the way for characters such as Hannibal Lecter and various psychopathic literature since. She writes with such matter-of-fact-ease, and yet deals with such intrinsically convoluted psychological issues. It is this skill of making such sagacious insights on such a difficult subject accessible, which makes Highsmith's work so remarkable.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley is very much like indulging in delicious chocolate. It is wonderfully enjoyable, supremely satisfying, and yet, also, you have the guilty feeling. The guilt that we humans are all, like Ripley, flawed, and it questions our own capacity to be just that little bit wicked.


Hayley said...

I've never read it. I just might now. (Never watched the movie either because Jude Law is irritating) I loved Strangers on a Train though! (book and movie both)

TrefforestGump said...

In fairness to Jude Law, he is really good in the film. It's actually a very good film, but different from the book. Whilst the book is about art, the film is about music. It's a fair change though. BUT THE BOOK IS AWESOMES! Do it Hayley ;)

Anonymous said...

Reading a book is a good thing.
have you read about the 10 day traffic jam in China? They had loads of time to read, didn't they. It issort of here as well

two said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah P said...

Great article Sian.
I think one of the things which makes this book so radical is its very approachability, and lack of moralising tone. In so much literature and film, "goodness" is rewarded and "badness" is punished. Of course, life is rarely so moral. But this approach in the arts is everywhere from the Simpsons to Madame Bovary and this acts to console us all. There are also complex links to some religious belief and this need to moralise, this is deeply prevelant.
But not in this book.
Highsmith is truly radical and shocking because he doesn't get punished. Ripley escapes his karma. The beautiful people and the beautiful scenery in the book and the film all add to the impact of this.
Highsmith is able to suspend her need to moralise the situation more effectively than any other writer I can think of. Its interesting to speculate whether it was her character and her mental state which allowed her to do so. Her biography speculates that she was a high functioning person with Aspergers.

Anyway I think you've made me think about it in a new way. Thanks Sian!