October 2011 Archives

The Talented Mr. Ripley

book cover

You know what sucks? Reading slumps. All the while I've not been blogging over the past few weeks (with the exception of the sex scene entry, which, THANKS, by the way, for all those amazing comments), I bet that some of you were imagining that was due to writer's block or a busy social life or some such thing but I tell you now it's because I've barely picked up a book in all that time. I just can't seem to settle to anything. Whenever this happens to me, which is luckily not often, it makes me twitchy and irritable and generally unpleasant, but there's no use forcing the issue: it will come to an end eventually.

In any case, I did, finally, in dribs and drabs, finish Patricia Highsmith's classic psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, so I can at least post about that. The Ripley novels, I think, are examples of those books whose basic premises most people either know or think they know, to wit: charismatic psychopath social climber kills a wealthy friend of his and steals friend's identity. Yet I was surprised at the degree to which Tom Ripley (in this first book, at least) is not so much the winning, charismatic charmer he may later become—not yet quite so talented, perhaps—but more of a sullen, insecure kid one step ahead of the law, with the most unnervingly and convincingly unstable personalities I've ever run across in fiction. Ripley does not come across, to my surprise, as constantly on top of things, or particularly premeditating, and although he does have a fairly good ability to win people over, at least temporarily, it takes a gargantuan effort for him to overcome his distaste for "normal" behavior and for most of the people surrounding him, in order to do so. Nor can he rely on his own mental processes or moods being at all predictable. In this early scene, for example, Tom is being wined and dined by his "friend"'s parents in their Manhattan apartment, and has a sudden near-break with his own sense of identity:

When he had said to Mrs. Greenleaf just now, I'll do everything I can ... Well, he meant it. He wasn't trying to fool anybody.
      He felt himself beginning to sweat, and he tried to relax. What was he so worried about? He'd felt so well tonight! When he had said that about Aunt Dottie—
      Tom straightened, glancing at the door, but the door had not opened. That had been the only time tonight when he had felt uncomfortable, unreal, the way he might have felt if he had been lying, yet it had been practically the only thing he had said that was true: My parents died when I was very small. I was raised by my aunt in Boston.

What Highsmith does so well, I think, is to portray the difficulty Tom has in distinguishing between real and imaginary, fact and fiction. Logically, he knows that he ought to associate his true statements ("My parents died when I was very small") with a feeling of groundedness, of the reality of his own person-hood—and logically, he knows that lying ought to make him feel less real, more uncomfortable. He runs into two problems: one, that his sense of reality is tenuous at best, not particularly tethered one way or another to the truthfulness of his statements or the genuineness of his current persona. He is prone to bursts of manic confidence alternating with near-baseless panic attacks, and although the reader can see Tom attempting to correlate these moods with external causes ("He'd felt so well tonight!") and his own motivations ("He wasn't tying to fool anybody"), the truth of Highsmith's portrayal seems to me to reflect the fluctuations of severely unbalanced brain chemistry more than logical cause and effect. Tom's psychopathic blankness of personality lend him his frightening ability to inhabit whatever persona he chooses, but Highsmith also lets us glimpse how that lack of mooring within his own head is profoundly frightening (and exhilarating) for Tom himself.

A state which only worsens, of course, since Tom's second problem is that as the novel progresses he spends so much time crafting convincing lies, truly inhabiting his roles and becoming the characters he pretends to be—"Tom Ripley" just one among many—that there really is no longer much difference in his mind between the factually true and false, or between the imagined and actual. In one vertiginous scene, Tom imagines that he has killed someone who is actually still alive, and reels with the inability to reverse the action, not wanting to have taken that irrevocable step into the state of murderer. The irony being, of course, that while the object of his imaginary crime still lives, the victims of his two real murders do not: and Tom is not hyperventilating over them.

I definitely want to mention in this post the uneasy place this novel must hold in the emerging canon of queer literature. Citing The Talented Mr. Ripley as "LGBT Lit" might be similar to arguing a point about abortion using Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants": it's a masterful piece of work that has the issue as a prominent theme, yet offers no particular conclusions on the subject. Though Highsmith slept with both men and women ("relationships" might be too soft a word), and though Tom is a semi-closeted gay man whose issues around his sexuality play into his eventual crimes, The Talented Mr. Ripley comes across as neither a "pro-gay" or "anti-gay" novel. In fact, it seems perfectly possible to me to argue any of three positions, based on the text:

  1. Tom's homosexuality is another facet of the mental illness or "wrongness" that leads to him becoming a murderer.
  2. The social pressures that force Tom to remain closeted and ashamed gradually destroy his sense of self and lead him into murder.
  3. Tom is a born psychopath who also happens to be gay. The two elements of his personality are unconnected.

Perhaps it goes without saying that I prefer the third analysis. However, I do honestly think one could cite evidence for any of the three, and it's hard to dismiss whispers of any of any of them completely. Highsmith is many things, but she is neither didactic nor reassuring. I can't help but respect her more because of it.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here)

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a great choice for the disgust project, because disgust features in the novel just enough to be interesting, but not so much that it overwhelms the narrative. Most often, Tom's disgust is used to mark out his conflicted sexual feelings, especially where Marge, the friend and would-be girlfriend of Dickie Greenleaf, is concerned. Tom only admits to himself in flashes his desire to kiss, be close to, and later kill and replace Dickie, but his possessiveness and unacknowledged homosexuality make their way into the open via his extreme aversion to anything relating to Marge, from her clothes hanging to dry on the lines to her very presence on outings with Dickie. When Tom sees the two of them kissing, he feels nauseated:

Now Marge's face was tipped straight up to Dickie's, as if she were fairly lost in ecstasy, and what disgusted Tom was that he knew Dickie didn't mean it, that Dickie was only using this cheap obvious, easy way to hold on to her friendship. What disgusted him was the big bulge of her behind in the peasant skirt below Dickie's arm that circled her waist. And Dickie—! Tom really wouldn't have believed it possible of Dickie!
      Tom turned away and ran down the steps, wanting to scream.

He then runs back to the house he's sharing with Dickie, puts on Dickie's clothes, and pretends to break up with Marge in Dickie's voice—all of which foreshadows his eventual crimes toward Dickie, and adds another level of significance to Tom's disgust at seeing Marge's bras on the clothes line. Later on, Tom's disgust becomes ever more closely linked with his murders (he feels disgust on seeing the body of his second victim lying on the floor, and on recalling that person's actions leading up to the crime) and his contemplated murders (while thinking about committing the murder that never quite happens, he is disgusted by incidentals: people at a party, and some algae growing by his doorstep).

In none of these cases is the disgust directed inwards, towards Tom Ripley and the acts he has committed. In none of them does Tom feel moral disgust, only physical or circumstantial repulsion (the closest he gets to righteous disgust is late in the book, when he is being hounded by the Italian press and claims to be "irritated and disgusted" with them). Significantly, though, not only does Tom fail to apply any standards of disgust to himself, but the feeling usually indicates the bubbling up of feelings or memories he is trying to repress. Although Tom himself seems not to make the connection, disgust here seems to be a sign of cognitive dissonance which the rest of Tom's wildly swinging moods don't necessarily acknowledge. It often makes him seem less human—as when he's practically vomiting over a kiss between Marge and Dickie, or when he feels repulsed rather than horrified while gazing at the body of his victim—but in a way, the disgust is one of the most humane aspects of his reactions, one of the lingering remnants of whatever morality he may once have possessed.

Sunday Salon: Let's Talk About Sex (Scenes)

Unmade Bed

More and more often, both in the blogosphere and in real life conversations, I'm running into adult readers who actively avoid sex scenes in novels. "It was better back when writers left something to the imagination," they'll say, or "I stick to older books, before there was so much sex in fiction," or even "I enjoyed Book X. There was one explicit sex scene, but I just skipped over it."1 In the spirit of trying to understand a position far removed from my own, I'm wondering: what's your position on reading about sex? Do you avoid it? And if so, can you shed a little light on why? Personally, I love a good sex scene, and I'll be attempting to explore that in more detail below.

First off, let me just say that I can totally understand including sex scene warnings if one is reading middle reader or young adult novels with an eye toward recommending them to young people. Developmentally, readers are ready for different levels of mature content at different times, and content warnings provide information useful to parents, teachers and librarians. And I can understand including specific warnings if a novel includes a scene of rape or sexual violence, since sexual assault victims can be triggered by these scenes.

But we're talking about adult readers, reading for their own pleasure, and the scenes they seem to be avoiding depict consensual sex between adults. I must admit, this position puzzles me. The way I see it, sex is an integral and enjoyable component of human existence. There is no reason a scene depicting sex can't be just as subtle and revealing of human character as a scene in which characters prepare a meal together, or get ready for a party, or fight in a war. Furthermore, it seems to me that to exclude sexual activity from the literary scene in any kind of systematic way would be to restrict unnecessarily the palette with which we paint our own existence. Most people, at some point in their lives, have sex. Shouldn't it therefore be a valid literary subject? Peoples' sexual lives can sometimes reveal aspects of their psyches difficult to depict in any other way: after all, many people are at their most vulnerable during sex, and some expose aspects of themselves which they hide away at all other times. For many, it's a powerful bonding activity, and taking a reader through the experience with the characters can communicate that bond, as well as revealing or foreshadowing sources of discord between the partners. In other cases the motivation for seeking out, and methods of enjoying, commitment-free sex can be just as revealing of a character's inner life.

Furthermore, it's simply untrue that modern authors write more sex than those of the past. Sexuality has a long and glorious literary history: Chaucer and Boccaccio are full of joyfully raunchy sexual farces, and the ancient epic of Gilgamesh features lines like the one that Stephen Mitchell renders "Let me suck your rod, touch my vagina, caress my jewel." The Song of Solomon in the Judeo-Christian Bible links the sexual love with love of the divine, and plenty of Roman poets, including Ovid, Lucretius and Catullus, treated of explicitly sexual themes. Shakespeare's plays pulse with the many shades of human sexuality, from Iago's deliberate crudeness when goading Brabantio ("Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe") to Juliet's lovely, starry-eyed honeymoon speech ("Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night"...). Much of eighteenth-century British literature is gleefully ribald, with Tristram Shandy's sorrowful retelling of his distracted conception standing out as a particularly humorous example.

Even Victorian literature, notoriously repressed, is hardly without sexuality—and here we come to the "leave it to the imagination" debate. Any thirteen-year-old can perceive the sexual passion between Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester, and the dynamic between these two romantic leads is, I think, one huge reason (among many) for Jane Eyre's status as a perennial classic. Some would argue that Brontë's ability to depict this tension without writing an actual sex scene into the novel, is an argument that all sex scenes are "unnecessary." To do so is to take the default position that the right amount of sex for any given book is the absolute minimum amount possible, and that writers should only leave a sex scene in a novel when they cannot find any other way to provide equivalent character or plot development in a sex-free way.

Yet why should this be? I certainly wouldn't argue that Brontë's technique is ineffective, but that doesn't mean it's the correct treatment in all cases. To take just one counter-example, it's not always the aim of a writer to create a burning sexual tension à la Jane and Rochester. The claim that books and films are sexier when authors and directors "leave something to the imagination," involves the assumption that the goal of depicting sex is always a kind of sexualized romanticism, with the fade-to-black or "Reader, I married him" allowing the reader to fantasize a happily-ever-after. But sometimes the goal is realistic rather than romantic: to depict complicated, ongoing sexual relationships, with all their warts and subtleties. One of my favorite examples is the sex scene between Paul D. and Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved: Morrison evokes a nuanced mix of lust, disappointment, nostalgia, anger, tenderness, roaming thoughts and eventual temporary peace, all in a brief scene of rushed sex and subsequent awkwardness between these two old acquaintances. Is there another way she could have demonstrated the same emotional arcs? I'm not sure there is, but even if there were, why would it necessarily be a better choice? The scene is beautiful and effective just the way it is.

Don't get me wrong: I have read books and watched plenty of films in which the treatment of sex seemed too slick, too packaged, as if the purpose of its presence was solely to titillate the reader/viewer long enough to suck some dollars from his or her pocket. These books and films seem more like products to be consumed than artworks to be engaged with, and seeing sex in this way is understandably disturbing. I think this is what people mean when they say that they don't mind sex scenes "as long as they're not gratuitous." A sex scene should further the plot, character development, atmosphere, or other aspect of the literary project; it should be integrated into the work of art in an organic way.

Yet, if you think about it, this is true for every type of scene, every type of treatment. When I read Junot Díaz's The Brief Glorious Life of Oscar Wao, I felt that I was being sold a too-slick product involving the sanitized presentation of a certain ethnic milieu—and encountering a commodified cultural identity didn't feel any better to me than encountering commodifed sex. Any variety of scene or subject can be done well or poorly, yet few other types of scenes garner the caviats that sex scenes do.

Plenty of books and movies are explicitly conceived and executed as products, rather than artworks. Yet I never hear people claiming that they "don't mind depictions of [babies, food, convertibles, etc.], as long as they're not gratuitous." "Food porn" and "woodworking porn," for example, can get as gratuitous as they want: there is no cultural stigma around watching cooking shows or looking at craft magazines, so we don't feel we need to apologize. Viewers of AMC's show Mad Men, which is both a commodified product and a thought-provoking artwork about commodification, hardly ever opine that they "don't mind lush costume and set design, as long as they're not gratuitous." On the contrary, the fans love the clothing and sets—and well they should, as both are gorgeous. Our culture tells us it's okay to enjoy beautiful clothes and architecture, and so fans of Mad Men openly celebrate the show's look and feel. Why should our attitude toward well-executed sex scenes be any different? Obviously, we need some level of analysis around the commodification of our culture at large—but my answer to the problem of the commodification of sex is not to foreswear all depictions of sexuality, but to seek out those which strike me as nourishing, thought-provoking, and/or plain well-done.

Although I am obviously strongly pro-sex scenes, and do feel sex in fiction is unjustly maligned, I'm genuinely eager to hear conflicting opinions. If you avoid sex in fiction, what is it you dislike about reading these scenes? How do your perceptions of sex in modern fiction differ from mine? If you are positive or neutral toward sex scenes, what makes a really effective one in your mind (if you can even say, as there are so many different uses for scenes involving sex)? Are there any that stand out in your memory, for whatever reason?

In the spirit of further celebrating sex scenes in my personal canon, here's a short list of my personal favorites and the work they do. There are so many, but I'll leave it here for now. Share your own in the comments!

  • The scene between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison's Beloved discussed above. In just a few pages, it reveals a remarkable amount about both characters and the trauma in their shared past, and eventually ends up at a point of mutual peace and generosity.

  • Say what you will about the sexual politics of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (and the corniness of that scene with the rain and the wildflowers), Lawrence does an excellent job at using sex to illustrate the evolving relationship between Connie and Mellors, including all their myriad resentments as well as the few transcendent moments of connection they manage to achieve.

  • Although not solely a sex scene, Molly Bloom's monologue in James Joyce's Ulysses is certainly heavily sexual, and deservedly famous as an orgasmic affirmation.

  • In Possession, AS Byatt uses images of loose hair and unmade beds to explore the oppressiveness of constant sexual emphasis in our post-Freudian culture, and then presents an alternate model of relating to sexuality in the late sex scenes between Maud and Roland.

  • The brief sex scenes between the two leads in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda accentuate to a heartbreaking degree the fragile, glass-like nature of the dynamic depicted, which is about to be shattered. And they're just hot, there's no other way to put it.

  • Simone de Beauvoir's discussions of her sexual awakening in La force de l'âge are powerful in their honesty and insight; I find it especially unusual for a woman to write so openly about the psychological effects of an overwhelming physical passion.

  • The many scenes of sexual duplicity in Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—the ones in which Valmont woos one woman with a letter written on another's naked body, for example—walk the thin line between humor and tragedy, and demonstrate as nothing else could the daring and amorality of the characters.

  • Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu features an ongoing theme of voyeurism and masochism in its sex scenes (beginning with the young Marcel's observation of Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her female lover through the window), which Proust uses as a jumping-off point to meditate on the effects of observation in general, and the intersection of human tenderness and cruelty. As usual with Proust, these scenes tend to be some delectable mixture of funny, sad, and thoughtful.

The Sunday Salon.com


1Yes, that last is an actual real-life quote. How did the person know the scene was explicit before skipping over it? You tell me.

Mysteries of Lisbon + Elliott Bay Books


I've been following Tom's Portuguese Literature Challenge reading lists over at Wuthering Expectations—and as a result my eye, on the lookout for things to do on a holiday weekend in Seattle, was caught by the description of Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon. Adapted from a novel by the extremely prolific but barely translated 19th-century Portuguese novelist Camilio Castelo Branco, this nearly five-hour film seems at first glance a standard costume drama, albeit with rather more stunning cinematography. (Really stunning. Seriously.) As it turned out, though, Mysteries of Lisbon is more interesting than that.

Not in terms of plot. Any of the actual plot points here would be familiar to readers of Dickens, Collins, Brontë, or any other craftsman of Victorian-style melodrama. You've got your orphans, your rakes, your naive maidens, your hushed-up scandals, your duels and battles, your lovers expiring tragically in each others' arms, your picturesque descents into madness, your judiciously-placed revelations of previously-unsuspected parentage...you know the drill. What distinguishes Mysteries of Lisbon is its structure: rather than a narrative in which a multitude of disparate threads eventually come together into a neat conclusion, Lisbon presents a forking, open-ended structure in which each character's narration leads to the narration of another character. And while the details of each narrator's life do relate to and sometimes explain the details of others, each section raises at least as many new questions—and new avenues for potential in-depth exploration—as it resolves.


A concrete example: we begin the story with narration by young João, an orphan and ward of a provincial Catholic school, who is consumed by curiosity about his unknown parents. As he learns more about his origins, we're introduced to his mother, Angela de Lima, and the priest who runs the school, Father Dinis. The film branches away from João as Angela narrates the story of her life with her brutish husband; then branches again as Father Dinis narrates the story of how he met João's father; then branches yet farther as we get narration from João's father's point of view. In the course of all these stories we are introduced to further characters who later become narrators or primary players in another character's narration: Angela's count husband has a narrative section, as do Father Dinis, charismatic semi-pirate Alberto de Magalhães (played superbly by Ricardo Pereira), a Parisian ex-lover of Magalhães's, the elderly priest Father Dinis meets when attending the count's deathbed, and so on. With each branch of the story we encounter more details and secondary characters whom we suspect might become central in a future section; some of them do, while others remain cyphers. I imagine that one reason for the film's five-hour running time is simply to demonstrate the potential infinitude of this method of storytelling: there's no narrative reason it could not continue on, branching here and there, indefinitely.

Despite the film's unusual narrative technique, I don't want to imply that the viewer is left with a huge number of significant questions at the end of five hours. However, there are quite a few tantalizing suggestions that gesture at the open-endedness of the world presented here. Along with that open-endedness, I think, goes a certain faint whiff of the bizarre or grotesque: the film featured the occasional surreal detail (Magalhães's oddly mincing footman, for example, or the pacing background figure in the duel scene) presented without any explanation whatsoever, in a way that reminded me of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. It would take multiple viewings to track properly all the questions answered, let alone all that are asked, but here's what I was left wondering about, or interested in paying attention to on a re-watch:

  • Father Dinis and his relationship with his "sister"; we never get the back-story here, and it's one of the most intriguing teases of the film. Possibly, we could deduce more based on early clues.
  • Who is the kid walking back and forth in the background of the dueling scene, who then shoots himself after everyone leaves? There might actually be evidence of this in the film, but if so I totally missed it. It's a great example of Ruiz's use of the subtly bizarre, though.
  • What's with all the characters falling over and having fits? Is João/Pedro epileptic? Is Father Dinis's father epileptic? Is there some kind of implied heredity there? Or is everyone just prone to swooning?
  • Two back-stories we're explicitly denied concern the relationships of Eugenia—why doesn't she accept the money left to her by her lover, and how does she then end up married to Magalhães? We hear that she wants to tell Father Dinis her story, and we see the priest sitting at her table right after (presumably) having heard the story, but we never hear the story ourselves. This is the kind of trick Mysteries of Lisbon loves to play.
  • Magalhães's semi-abusive relationship with his prance-y, occasionally violent manservant: delightfully weird, and never explained beyond Eugenia's offhand comment that the servant is "ill."
  • There's a hilarious and affecting recurring motif of people (often servants) observing others through doors, windows, and other apertures. In one scene, for example, adulterous lovers who have just been found out by the woman's husband ask each other in consternation, "But how could he know? We were so careful!" Meanwhile, servants are watching them through at least two unbolted and un-sashed windows, creating an effect that's both funny and slightly sinister. In several other scenes, lovers woo while a third person looks on, raising the question of how the observer affects the scene unfolding, whether the lovers know they are being observed or not.

I'm so glad I got the chance to see Mysteries of Lisbon on the big screen, and it's the kind of film I hope to see released in some kind of Criterion Collection or special boxed DVD. Given that Branca's homonymous novel isn't yet translated into English, what I would most hope for from such a set would be clues about how much of the film's technique is taken from the novel—and how many of its lingering questions.


Oh yes, and I picked up a few books in Seattle, as well! I was going to avoid Elliott Bay Books in an effort to save money and space, but when it turned out that David was generously treating for food and lodging on this little trip (thanks, Sweetie!), and when, in addition, Lena pointed out on Twitter that the shop features bargain tables, and when, on top of all that, we ended up enjoying a delicious meal and wine next door at the Tin Table...well, enough of the excuses. Here's the loot. Except the Donoso these were each only five dollars, so I don't feel too decadent.


From the bottom up:

  • The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is the farthest I've diverged from my "comfort zone" in quite some time, as it was marketed as a Young Adult novel and garnered mixed reviews on release. However, the multimedia, non-linear presentation and the low price of $5 were enough to tip the balance.

  • The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso was recommended by David Auerbach as relevant to my disgust project.

  • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker was on my list due to Rebecca's strong recommendation over at Of Books and Bikes; the combination of meditations on poetry and meta writing-about-writing is intriguing.

  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, in an extremely appealing new edition I haven't seen before. This and Nocturnes are the only Ishiguro I haven't read: his first and most recent.

  • The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa comes highly recommended by Richard (maybe I should say recomendado con insistencia par Richard, as the post is Spanish-only), and I very much enjoyed the only other Vargas Llosa I've read.

  • The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, with which I'm already halfway done and which has broken me out of the reading slump in which I spent most of September. Good old Highsmith: why haven't I read more of her?

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography