The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia High Smith *****

I did technically read this for uni, and I’m glad I did, since I probably would never have picked it up otherwise. It’s been a while since a book’s kept me compulsively turning pages into the wee hours of the morning, even when I know I have to be up in a few hours and will feel like the walking dead for the rest of the day. The reason this book gripped me so immediately and relentlessly was primarily down to a combination of these three factors: prose, plot and GAYNESS.

First, the prose. I’ve noticed that all my favourite books, stylistically speaking (though also kind of just in general), were published around the 1950s. I don’t know why that is, or if there’s a word for this style of writing, if it even is one (possibly what’s now called ‘upmarket’ fiction?). Either way, there’s just something about it that really works for me. Simple, elegant, instantly accessible, effortlessly readable, yet, if one pauses to linger over the sentences, often breathtakingly beautiful. It strikes that perfect balance between prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself, and prose that is worth paying attention to for itself, that is, independent of the story it’s telling. It’s the sort of prose I aspire to write, in fact. This is a commercial thriller, so it leans decidedly toward the sparse end of the spectrum, yet even so it had not so much a quality as an ethos or atmosphere behind it, if that makes sense, that was reminiscent of Tolkien, CS Lewis, Agatha Christie, Mary Renault, Kathryn Hulme–those last two especially. This book was quite like one of Renault’s in that, despite the author being a woman her male main characters are exceptionally well-realised fascinating, even alluring, whereas the female characters remain peripheral and rather boring. Paradoxically, I get the feeling it was something to do with the fact that they both preferred the fairer sex, in matters of sex if nothing else. Indeed, Highsmith seems from her Wikipedia bio to have been one of those mannish Radclyffe Hall-type lesbians who really didn’t care much for women except in that one very specific way. Probably she was what used to be called an ‘invert’, or ‘transgender’, in the sense in which Camille Paglia apparently now describes herself as such. Hmmm. This connection may warrant further investigation.

This is a classic thriller, so the plot is as fast-paced (though not especially action-oriented) as one would expect. The only dip in tension was the bit leading up to the murder when Tom’s romping around with Dickie, when it was more of a relationship drama, but that was actually my favourite bit because of the frisson of homoerotic potentiality, which I shall come to anon. It even had me doing the thing where you skim a few pages ahead to see what happens and them go back and read more slowly, savouring the scene; or where the suspense is so unbearable that you have to physically look away from the book. Maybe if I’d read more thrillers this one wouldn’t seem so brilliant. As it is it engrossed me totally from start to finish (well, almost. The ending sort of petered out , which I suppose is inevitable since the final ‘incident’ of the story was a non-incident–he didn’t get caught). I was also expecting the body count to be a bit higher for some reason. She does do a good job of keeping you guessing as to what could possibly happen next. At one point I was sure the painter ‘De Massimo’ Tom invented on a whim would be his downfall (irrationally–how would they ever verify the existence of some unknown painter?). I even wondered whether Dickie was somehow still alive. Now wouldn’t that be a good plot twist, if he came back as a ghost–though I get the impression that’s not the sort of book Highsmith would ever write (but it’s 100% the sort of book I’d read).

Even though Tom, a sociopathic serial killer, would be the antagonist of most other stories (especially at the time this was published), Highsmith puts you sufficiently into his head that you start rooting for him to not be found out (even as another part of me very much wanted him to be found out, mostly out of sheer curiosity as to what would happen. I think the Talented Mr Ripley would have found a way out of even that scrape), an empathy that is more forced by the external dynamics of the situations he’s in, rather than the internal dynamics of him as a character. Each murder seems (to him, and thus to the reader) to be forced upon him, as if it were he that was the victim of circumstances, rather than, ya know, the actual victims. And there really is nothing to like, or even to empathise with, in Tom Ripley as a person per se. He has no real motivations or desires other than wholly superficial ones for status and pleasure (except, possibly, for one, which we’ll get to). His character is essentially empty; he’s a void of personality, hence why he finds it so easy to adopt the personality of others. Highsmith skilfully let’s us in on his sociopathy early on, through the dissonance between what the narrator perceives and what the reader perceives–not only his indifference to the suffering his ‘good clean fun’ causes others, but his complete obliviousness to the fact, even when it would be obvious to anyone else. Similarly, his fundamental narcissism is conveyed in a very subtle way that makes it feel completely natural, for example, this passage:

A selfish, stupid bastard who had sneered at one of his best friends-Dickie certainly was one of his best friends-just because he suspected him of sexual deviation.

He automatically assigns Freddie’s contempt to Dickie, who is dead, rather than Tom, who has adopted his persona, even though it is Tom’s behaviour that has aroused Freddie’s disgust, which is just genius levels of mindfuckery, and insight into exactly how fucked Tom’s mind is.

Although, of course at the same time we’re getting how Tom’s resentment of Dickie’s distaste for homosexuals, although it’s presented as being on behalf of others (his New York friends, the acrobats on the beach), rather than himself, is a result of his total denial about his own homosexuality. That’s certainly the interpretation a lot of readers seem to have jumped to, which brings us to what was, to me, the part of the book that took my most by surprise, but so completely captured my imagination that I’m still thinking about it, and probably will be for some time. And that is that, even though this is a thriller, I believe, if you squint a bit there’s a tragic almost-love story here, not very far below the surface.

I had an idea that the film had some vaguely homoerotic elements, though I haven’t seen it (I probably will now, though I absolutely fucking loathe Matt Damon, surely the most insufferable of all the insufferable sanctimonious cunts who think the fact that they play pretend in front of a camera for our amusement entitles them to lecture us on why those of us who aren’t regularly flying in our carbon-guzzling private jets to our private paedophile islands in the Carribbean are really the privileged and evil ones. And he’s not even good-looking, though many people seem to be under the bizarre impression that he is. Maybe it’s all the carbon floating around. I saw it, and it was every bit as awful as I’d expected.) I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the book, so, as I mentioned, I was mildly (and pleasantly) surprised not only by how blatant it was (it moved very quickly out of the realm of plausible deniability), but how major an element of the story it was. Really, for the early part of the novel the suspense was more that of a romantic drama than a thriller. If I’d been aware that TTMR was a homosexual novel, or at least a novel in which homosexuality was a significant theme, I might well have read it before now. What can I say–a healthy dose of homoeroticism in a piece of media is like an additional draw, one that can get me to buy a book I’m wavering over.

Now, on that. A lot of reviewers seem to be taking it for granted that Tom was homosexual. But I want to look it it a bit more closely to try to figure out What Highsmith’s actually doing here.

Now, it’s true that the ‘Tom-as-(repressed or otherwise)-gay’ reading is incredibly easy to do. There was his arrangement with

Marc (his given name was, of all things, Marcellus) was an ugly mug of a man with a private income and a hobby of helping out young men in temporary financial difficulties by putting them up in his two-storey, three-bedroom house, and playing God by telling them what they could and couldn’t do around the place and by giving them advice as to their lives and their jobs, generally rotten advice.

Indeed, the way he seems to latch on to wealthy, often older men (Marc, Greenleaf Senior, Dickie, Peter at the end) is suggestive to say the least. There’s also his consciousness of Dickie’s gaze on him while he’s wearing his yellow G-string (non-coincidentally the same colour as those those worn by the acrobats on the beach in Cannes), the protesting-too-much about liking girls and not being a queer.

There’s his is relationship with Cleo, which shows the GBF was a thing even in the fifties.

Cleo always asked him up to her apartment, and there was somehow never any thought that he might ask her out to dinner or the theatre or do any of the ordinary things that a young man was expected to do with a girl…they had often slept side by side on the two big bear rugs in front of the fireplace, and it was another of the wonderful things about Cleo that she never wanted or expected him to make a pass at her

Also, you have bits like this

He began to feel a tingling fear at the end of his spine, tingling over his buttocks.

which are just funny, even if they’re not meant to be suggestive, and bits like this

Damn him anyway, Tom thought. Did he have to act so damned aloof and superior all the time? You’d think he’d never seen a pansy! Obvious what was the matter with Dickie, all right! Why didn’t he break down, just for once? What did he have that was so important to lose?

Can you even call it subtext at this point? I mean, what was the point of this little episode:

He bought several minor items to embellish his apartment, though he never asked anyone up-with the exception of one attractive but not very bright young man, an American, whom he had met in the Café Greco when the young man had asked him how to get to the Hotel Excelsior from there. The Excelsior was on the way to Tom’s house, so Tom asked him to come up for a drink. Tom had only wanted to impress him for an hour and then say goodbye to him forever, which he did, after serving him his best brandy and strolling about his apartment discoursing on the pleasure of life in Rome. The young man was leaving for Munich the following day.

Even if Tom didn’t actually bring the hot-but-thick (or hot and thick, if ya know whaddeyemean) young bloke up to his room, for a quick shag, it seems implicit that that’s what he subconsciously wanted to do.

Of course, the thing that tips something from homoeroticism into outright homosexuality is sex. Now, while it’s fun to imagine the Talented Tom Rape-me slutting his way around Europe, collecting sugar daddies along the way and murdering the ones who stop being forthcoming, I don’t think that’s what we’re meant to believe was actually going on. As implausible as it may seem, I think where meant to take the text at face value, because in this case the text is more interesting than the subtext–after all, the “he’s gay but he can’t admit it” trope was tired even in the fifties. Instead, we’re told outright on a couple of occasions that Tom

…may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life…

(I note that while there’s plenty of clucking about the portrayal of homosexuality in the book, nobody seems to be at all bothered
about that rather uncharitable assessment of asexuality)

The idea seems to be that Tom is in some sense both homosexual and asexual–or rather, he’s asexual because he’s precluded from being homosexual either by his deep internalisation of the social stigma against homosexuality

‘Sissy! He’s a sissy from the ground up. Just like his father!’ It was a wonder he had emerged from such treatment as well as he had. And just what, he wondered, made Aunt Dottie think his father had been a sissy? Could she, had she, ever cited a single thing? No.

Or, by his fundamental sociopathic nature (which it almost seems could plausibly be the result of the former, at least to some degree? If so that could be an interesting social commentary, perhaps one rooted in Highsmith’s own experience), which would prevent the formation of any sort of genuine relationship with another person of either sex, and preclude the vulnerability and trust intimacy requires.

But is Talented Tom really that heartless? This is where we come to the tragic almost-love story bit. Because for an unfeeling monster, dear God, Tom made me feel.

Because this Tom wanted Dickie’s dick, and I was so there for it.

Seriously, we really have got all the romance tropes. There’s the love at first sight:

The first step, anyway, was to make Dickie like him. That he wanted more than anything else in the world.

There’s their little honeymoon when they get drunk in Rome:

Dickie shook his shoulder, roughly. Tom tried to roll out from under it and grab his hand, ‘Dickie-e!’

Ok, I don’t care what anyone says, this is heckin cute

And, of course, the Angst.

He stared at Dickie’s blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining and empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with a black dot in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, to see love through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie’s eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him.

Oh Tom bby ;_;

‘I want to die,’ Tom said in a small voice.

You and me both, hun.

And Dickie was being such a jerk to him, too. It really just made you want Tom to succeed out of sheer pity. Like, Dickie, you meanie. Just give your bro the d, bro, what’s the big deal?
FFS. Dickie, give Tommy the dick!
Dickie! Give. Tom. Dick.

I’m sorry, you can’t out this much angst into a relationship and not expect me to root for them as a couple, asexual sociopath and homophobic narcicisst or not. Seriously, all the murdering and subterfuge and drama and shit could have been avoided if Dickie had just done what a good friend do and given Tom the reaming he so obviously craved. (Funnily enough, if you read it that way, it’s not Tom’s homosexuality that leads to tragedy but Dickie’s homophobia).

Now, I am of course joking (mostly). Tom would still be a sociopath, and his obsession with Dickie is almost undoubtedly just that, a pathological obsession, not genuine affection. Between Tom’s–everything– and Dickie’s fickle contempt and own brand of richboy narcicissm, it would hardly be the healthiest of relationships (but toxic, unhealthy, mutually+destructive relationships are the best tbh–at least in fiction). And I’ve no doubt that Tom, if he ever felt Dickie’s interest in him waning, would probably still murder him out of jealousy/desperation. Still–wouldn’t that make an interesting story in itself?

This might just be be more of Highsmith forcing us to feel pity for a basically pitiless person through external circumstances. Few things more naturally attract our sympathy than spurned affection. I even couldn’t help feeling aggrieved on Tom’s behalf when Marge, in her letter to ‘Dickie’, decries Tom for being a bad influence whom Richie is better shot of, although of course recent events have proven her more right than she can possibly imagine!

Still, I’m not so sure, or maybe I just don’t want to believe, that Tom is totally incapable of genuine love. I feel like Tom’s love/obsession for Dickie was the thing that most humanised him. The pre-murder bit was the only part of the book where Tom felt almost normal, because Dickie is the only person other than himself (and possibly Cleo, though he doesn’t pay her a second thought once he’s left America) whom he seems to (possibly) care about.

He was only sorry that Dickie fell into this category as a painter, because he wanted Dickie to be much more.

Does he just want Dickie to live up to the glamorous image he’s imagined? Or might he want Dickie to be more admirable because he actually wants someone other than himself whom he can admire?

If he really just wanted to be Dickie, why does he fantasise about having a life with Dickie, not just Dickie’s life? Why is it that, even after he’s murdered Dickie and adopted his persona, he continues to envision a whole life together with Dickie? Is this just more of his delusions? Was the reason he’s not able to enjoy ‘being’ Dickie, why he remains
dissatisfied even when he finally reaches Greece and everything has seemingly turned out perfectly not just the stress of avoiding detection but in fact because Dickie wasn’t with him? Meaning that it really was Dickie he wanted all along, not just Dickie’s luxurious lifestyle.

If he’d only gotten his sightseeing done all by himself, Tom thought, if he only hadn’t been in such a hurry and so greedy, if he only hadn’t misjudged the relationship between Dickie and Marge so stupidly, or had simply waited for them to separate of their own volition, then none of this would have happened, and he could have lived with Dickie for the rest of his life, travelled and lived and enjoyed living for the rest of his life. If he only hadn’t put on Dickie’s clothes that day-

Could this even be genuine remorse, or is he just sorry for himself?
Dickie seems to be the only thing Tom wants that’s isn’t purely an object for his own superficial gratification. Dickies is an autonomous being, and one that has considerable power over Tom. And of course the essence of love, the ‘leap of love’ one might say, is the surrender of autonomy involved in giving someone else unconditional power over you, which is what happens when you fall in love. In that way, I, incurable romantic that I am, can’t let go of the idea that if Dickie hadn’t rejected Tom, their love could have redeemed him from himself.

All in all, there’s a lot of layers of psychological complexity here that I’m sure I’m missing (this is definitely one to re-read). And honestly, I haven’t felt this invested in deciphering a book since I read The Charioteer, which is saying something.

The setting wasn’t all that interesting because Rome/Paris/the Riviera isn’t all that interesting (to me). It had just the minimum level of exoticism that is necessary to keep a setting from being boring. I’ve never been to Italy but I assume Highsmith had (turns out she lived there) because her description of life as an American tourist there has that level of attention to and accuracy in detail that is the essence of authenticity. It’s one of the things I struggle with most in my own writing–authentically recreating a real-world setting which I am not personally familiar with, especially when it’s a time and place that no longer exist. Of course, you can always read about it (though this is a good way to gobble up time that could be used for actual writing), but reading about somewhere is really no substitute for having actually lived there, since there’s inevitably so many things even the most aware and attentive chronicler will leave out. I’m starting to see why so many writers set books in their own city/state.

5 stars because Oh God, I absolutely loved it. Mainly because of the slashiness+the thrilleryness, and because, despite being an assigned text for an English lit course, it was genuinely an enjoyable, engaging, easy read, and I can’t really think of anything wrong with it (and it’s definitely inspired me to write a Tom/Dickie fix-fic).

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