My local book club met Monday night to discuss The Talented Mr. Ripley. We were all newcomers to Highsmith, and though not everyone exactly enjoyed reading the novel (I definitely did), I think we were all intrigued and impressed by it — or perhaps I should say by her, and the quietly insidious way she got us on Tom’s side, even to the point that we would catch ourselves rooting for him at the worst possible moments.
How exactly does Highsmith pull this off? It’s certainly important that the novel keeps very closely to Tom’s point of view, but that doesn’t make it inevitable that we will fall into sharing his point of view: even with first-person narration, after all, we can learn to distance ourselves (think of the gap that opens up between us and, say, Stevens in The Remains of the Day, to pick just one of many possible examples). And it’s not that Highsmith plays any tricks on us with Tom. There’s no ambiguity about his actions; even the most horrific ones, which risk alienating us completely, are related with the same cool, remorseless detail as the scenery:
Tom glanced at the land. San Remo was a blur of chalky white and pink. He picked up the oar, as casually as if he were playing with it between his knees, and when Dickie was shoving his trousers down [to go swimming], Tom lifted the oar and came down with it on the top of Dickie’s head.
“Hey!” Dickie yelled, scowling, sliding half off the wooden seat. His pale brows lifted in groggy surprise.
Tom stood up and brought the oar down again, sharply, all his strength released like the snap of a rubber band.
There’s an element of horror, but there’s an equally strong feeling of impatience: Die already, Dickie! And why is it so hard to get you overboard? Much later, when Marge finds Dickie’s rings, don’t we wait with Tom to learn her fate, not so much with dread as with anticipation? To be sure, he’s not looking forward to “beating her senseless with his shoe heel,” but just as “his stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them,” this story is good because somehow we come to believe in Tom as our guy — the guy we’re interested in and thus, however perversely, rooting for.
How can this happen, though? Is he like Becky Sharp or Shakespeare’s Richard III — an anti-hero we appreciate because at least he’s active? It’s true that Tom is more interesting than any of the other characters. It’s partly that he’s busy, and it’s suspenseful wondering what he’ll come up with next and how he’ll get away with it. His constant spinning of new stories, duly adjusted to fit the new facts in evidence, is actually quite the feat; it’s remarkable that he manages to keep all the details straight. I wonder if some of the readerly pleasure the novel offers, as well as our investment in Tom himself, doesn’t come from his creativity, which is itself quite novelistic. There’s also not much about the other characters — especially his victims — to make us really care what happens to them. It’s an old trick of the mystery novelist to offer up an unsympathetic corpse, to minimize the tragedy and maximize the suspects — but we are still supposed to root for the detective, not the murderer, whereas here we have a decentered crime novel, one in which there’s no mystery, no anchoring moral weight from the detective or the police — who here are just risks and obstacles in Tom’s plots.
And Tom himself is not completely despicable. Indeed, for a sociopathic killer, he’s really quite an ordinary guy, even kind of a sad one. Is it because it’s possible to feel sorry for Tom that it’s hard to completely condemn him? He seems a kind of Everyman. He’s a dreamer. He wants such simple things: acceptance, friendship, a place to belong, a better life. Oh, and not to be himself. Is that so strange? Who hasn’t wanted to be someone more successful or interesting? It’s so much better being Dickie than Tom, or so he thinks:
He hated becoming Tom Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them . . . He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.
The path he’s chosen, too, isn’t an easy one: “it was a lonely game he was playing.” Secrets and lies — and Tom has so many, tells so many — isolate us from each other.
If only that were the wholesome lesson of The Talented Mr. Ripley: that it’s better to be ourselves and genuine than to play a part (OK, steal an identity) and be alone (better Tom Ripley dissatisfied than Dickie clobbered and dead?). But there’s no such comforting conclusion to Tom’s adventures. Instead, he walks away with “Dickie’s money and his freedom.” Is that the point, that there’s no harm in doing as he has done — and there might even be profit in it? No again, for even Tom realizes that “he’s going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier.” That’s a relief, anyway.