Highsmith, Patricia Entries

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.

The Price of Salt


Blog-buddy Frances poked fun at me the other day for making such an ambitious and, let's face it, such a GRIM selection for my first beach read in Hawaii. I have to admit she's perfectly right. What was I thinking? Soviet cancer wards? Chill, woman!

My second selection was, on the face of it, a more predictable choice for lounging on the beach: famous for being the one of the first lesbian novels with a "happy ending" (on which more later), Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt is technically a romance novel, after all. It focuses on the relationship between the nineteen-year-old Therese Belivet and the thirty-something, married Carol Aird, whom she meets while working a seasonal counter position in the toy department of Frankenberg's department store one Christmas season in the late 1940s. The two women, one hovering on the brink of fully-fledged adult life and the other in the process of exiting an estranged marriage with her young daughter in tow, engage in an "am I imagining it?" courtship that winter in New York City, then embark on an "I'm not imagining it after all" road trip across the American midwest and far west, until reality catches up with them in the form of a private detective and a manipulative divorce suit.

Highsmith's prose, and the world she creates with it, snuck up on me so gradually I hardly noticed that I was powering through this novel in less than a day. One moment I was ten pages in, thinking "Hm, wonder what the fuss is about?" The next I was noting down passages showcasing Highsmith's eye for detail and ability to make the mundane seem intriguingly menacing, and the next—before I could believe it—I was turning the final page on Carol and Therese's whirlwind winter and spring. The central plot here may feature a romance, and there may be a fairly steamy sex scene or two, but Highsmith made a name for herself primarily as a mystery/suspense writer, and it was the mix of horror and delight (and delighted horror) that really hooked me. I loved the way she located psychological states in concrete, physical details, as in the moment when Therese tries to feel exhilarated about her first real job offer, "but could not recapture even the certainty she remembered when she had looked at the orange washcloth in the basin after Richard's telephone call." The way in which the orange washcloth, in Therese's distracted mind, becomes an ineffectual talisman of her former certainty, strikes me as so true to life. And here, Therese arrives at her stop-gap toy department job:

The little train was always running when she stepped out of the elevator in the morning, and when she finished work in the evening. She felt if cursed the hand that threw its switch each day. In the jerk of its nose around the curves, in its wild dashes down the straight lengths of track, she could see a frenzied and futile pursuit of a tyrannical master. It drew three Pullman cars in which miniscule human figures showed flinty profiles at the windows, behind these an open boxcar of real miniature lumber, a boxcar of coal that was not real, and a caboose that snapped round the curves and clung to the fleeing train like a child to its mother's skirts. It was like something gone mad in imprisonment, something already dead that would never wear out, like the dainty, springy footed foxes in the Central Park Zoo, whose complex footwork repeated and repeated as they circled their cages.

This is a lovely instance of illustrating a character's mental state through her perceptions of details, and several of the descriptive bits are deliciously creepy: the flinty profiles of the miniature train-riders; "something already dead that would never wear out." Therese has reached a pitch of desperation to match the toy train, perceiving her co-workers and customers at Frankenberg's to be almost as mechanical, and perhaps even more menacing, than the flinty-faced miniature rail passengers. The ironic thing is that, while meeting Carol helps convince her otherwise for a while, the dénouement of the book basically goes to prove her right.

Because if Highsmith's reputation as a rather dark and damaged (read: mean and nasty) person makes it surprising that hers should be the first "homosexual romance novel" with a "happy ending," I'd caution readers not to get too surprised before actually reading the book. The ending of The Price of Salt is "happy" only in comparison to the lesbian pulp novels of the same era, in which the heroines usually died or went insane. Instead, Highsmith gives us both Therese and Carol grappling with emotional devastation, remaining (much to their credit) sane, but struggling with Scylla and Charybdis choices to which there is no "happy" outcome. Carol is asked to choose between her little girl and the woman she loves; when she capitulates, the court takes her daughter anyway. And Therese, in a plotline I found almost sadder than Carol's, ends up alienating the man who, at the beginning of the novel, was her best friend. The reader is left wondering about the mechanical cruelty of people to one another; even the main characters are far from immune.

This is tricky territory, but I respect Highsmith for refusing to play either Carol's nor Therese's losses as manipulative tear-jerkers. The two woman are separated during the climactic scenes of their drama, meaning that the reader hears about Carol's situation only through the occasional letter or telephone call with Therese, and is left to fill in much of her story between the lines. As for Therese, by the time she receives the final proof of her former friend's self-interested dismissal, she no longer cares much about him one way or the other, and is certainly not dwelling on their former friendship with the same tenderness I was. This emotional detachment is actually a trademark of many characters in The Price of Salt: Therese may become sexually fixated on Carol, and the two women may eventually come to some kind of agreement that might be termed "love," but for a romance novel it's remarkably un-Romantic. Highsmith seems more concerned with obsession and cruelty and only incidentally, almost casually, gestures at a chance of coexisting passion and kindness. When, for example, after they've finally acknowledged their attraction and slept together, and Therese asks Carol why she's kept her at arm's length so long, Carol eschews the usual disclaimers about wanting to protect Therese, doing it for her own good, or not being sure Therese was attracted to her or knew what she was getting into. Instead, she basically confesses that she got a kick out of toying with Therese, and was afraid of getting bored:

I thought there wouldn't be a second time, that I wouldn't want it...And there was something else—to have you around reminding me, knowing you and knowing it would be so easy.

Terry Castle has hypothesized that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov's Lolita; although Therese is old enough to make her own sexual decisions (unlike Dolores Haze), there is still a hint of the predator about this side of Carol. Likewise, although Highsmith spends a fair amount of time establishing the unusual, if delicate, camaraderie between Therese and Richard, Therese has almost no thought of him at all once she's met Carol. In context, I suppose this can seem sort of sexy—an example of passion sweeping Therese off her feet. But when we see similarly short memories in others—when Carol's daughter starts to forget her in the face of ever-more expensive gifts from the girl's father, for example—they seem more dark reminders of how fleeting human connections can be. The strictures of a homophobic society are one hurdle that Carol and Therese face; another, equally large, is simply the fickle wind of human nature. Highsmith does not downplay the difficulty of living in a homophobic culture, but neither does she pretend that, given cultural acceptance of homosexuality, people would all be lovely and caring to one another.

Despite the capacity of every character in the book to be selfish and emotionally amnesiac, however, the dynamic between Carol and Therese still manages to "work" as a romance, as well as a portrait of the dark side of human nature. Their character arcs are sufficiently long and changeable, and their flaws and strengths are realistically enough portrayed, and the attraction between them is conjured well enough, that I wanted them to have a chance as a couple. I left the novel still undecided about whether, given everything both women lose as the price of togetherness, I still congratulated them on the victory. I do, however, congratulate Highsmith on a taut and fascinating study, and I look forward to reading more of her books in future.

(The Price of Salt was my second book for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name.)

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography