The Talented Mr. Ripley (YGtCTO Words #7)

Book written by Patricia Highsmith

Few authors inspire such strong reactions as Patricia Highsmith, even from those who have not read her work, but only seen movies made from her writings. She started out writing a classic, Strangers on a Train, and proceeded to create the ultimate serial killer, Tom Ripley, whom she chronicled for thirty years. In the meantime, she wrote brilliant short stories about animals (not children’s stories and not for the faint of heart). Her memoirs revealed much, though the clues always seemed to be there in her tales.

Highsmith is an incredibly seductive writer. By now, you don’t crack one of her books without being vastly aware that bad things are going to happen. Even so, the prose lulls the reader into a state of comfort. No, she is not dull because she always gets to the point quickly, but rather she luxuriates in the emotions and surroundings that make life a commonplace around the world. She is always the observer, taking in the feelings and the choices that we all make and putting them back out there for us to see just off kilter.

Ripley is the perfect avatar for this style, as he is undoubtedly a psychopath, as well as extremely talented at mimicry. As a youth, that involves stealing the lives of others by inhabiting those lives better than the original. Amazingly, he grows beyond such thefts and instead takes on the role of country squire in the French countryside. Here, his skills are turned to emulating the emotions and behaviors of those around him (albeit with a thin skin too often affronted). Throughout his tales, Ripley is always observing and assuming the appropriate part for the moment.

Highsmith’s animal stories demonstrate another fascinating take on her distancing effect. I don’t know where the average elephant might score on the psychopathy index, but it might well surface some tendencies that make Dumbo rather frightening. Either way, I doubt animals view the world in any fashion like people, no matter how much we anthropomorphise. In Highsmith’s hands, the creatures around us do not view humanity in benevolent terms; often they do not view the world in anything resembling kindness. It is life and it must be lived. You observe and you react. Of course, that sounds an awful lot like Tom Ripley.

No one can read a lot of Patricia Highsmith without dabbling in pop psychology. From the very beginning of her writing, the crimes often touch that reptilian brain at the core of our reactions. The characters have blank spots about the warmer feelings upon which most of us base our behaviors. Hope and love often land one in a very bad place. Even simple curiosity can be a remarkably bad idea. I can’t say there is really anyone to root for, although the occasional victim of abuse gets to mete out some justice.

Maybe it speaks more about her dedicated readers, but I don’t find all this depressing. The shenanigans are plotted so well and seem to arise so naturally that every story is like getting into a rowboat with a slightly off oarsman, just hoping for the best.

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