Monday, March 12, 2012

Mr. Ripley and I

According to one contemporary reviewer of Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the novel's early plot about Americans overseas is a nod to Henry James's The Ambassadors, but I think the truer reference is Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," whose homicidal narrator asks readers, "But why do you call me mad?" No, Tom Ripley, the anti-hero protagonist of Highsmith's book, never asks that of us, but the arm's-length perspective on the character, the way the omniscient narrator presents us with the facts of the plot as if, laid end to end, they'll explain themselves away through logic, provides a similar defense of a character for whom a moral defense is impossible.

The book's strengths are its weaknesses. For the first good piece of the novel, it seems to be a Waughian character study of someone stumbling (though less humorously) through interactions with people; that makes the story's turn (and it's a sudden turn, though the author has dropped hints that something is seriously wrong with Tom Ripley) effective, but, as a character study, it's thin, as we never delve deeeper—and, in fairness, there may be nowhere deeper to delve. Ripley, it seems, is a sociopath. The latter part of the book, though it  takes too long to tell its tale, is suspenseful, but the author maintains the suspense by constructing unrealistic occurrences which keep our protagonist safe long after his ruse should have been discovered. So: the character study makes you forget about the "mystery," which doesn't quite work; the mystery and suspense make you forget that, for a character study, it's less literary and thoughtful than it might have been.

I enjoyed the book; now I'm curious about her earlier success, Strangers on a Train.


My story "Unearthed," the next prequel in my "Old Man" sequence, will be published by Asimov's Science Fiction, home to the other Old Man tales. It should appear late this summer.


Unknown said...

congrats on getting "Unearthed" published. I totally look forward to reading it.

William Preston said...

Thanks! It will be in the September issue, which (unaccountably) comes out at the end of July.


Unknown said...

On thing. I don't understand why you made "Mr. Ripley and I" your <-h1> heading and then "Writing" was like a footnote. This should be in reverse.
This blog post should be like:
<-h1> Unearth is Published!!<-/h1>
And then you should have:
<-h6> Also, by the way, I read Mr. Ripley and I<-/h6>

William Preston said...

Humility. (I just hope people like the story. When they enjoy something I've done, that's a pleasure to know.)

And fear of Tom Ripley. I think he's still out there somewhere.

Calvin said...

I look forward to reading it!

I finally got around to reading David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." Beautifully written, with nearly every sentence shimmering with imagery--although, unlike some other writers who also have imagery-laden prose, the pace does not feel maniacal but quiet and introspective, befitting I suppose a novel about Japan.

William Preston said...

Re: Mitchell.

I still have to read Cloud Atlas. Did you read that?

Calvin said...

No, afraid not.

My other most recent read was "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," by Katherine Boo, a nonfiction book about a slum in Mumbai.