Ripley Begins His Game

The Talented Mr. Ripley might be a tough novel to write about as I’m reading it. It is all plot. A building up of tension that takes almost no time out for hefty metaphors, peerings into characters’ souls, etc.  That’s fine by me. As I wrote before, there is only so much over-writing you can take before you’re saying “Just tell a story and let me enjoy it.”

A moment that has been great near the start: Patricia Highsmith gives Ripley a very clever scheme for defrauding taxpayers. Ripley sends out official-looking letters warning of  overdue  taxes, and he targets men and women who are unlikely to be fastidious bookkeepers. The payments are to be mailed to a made-up person (Ripley) at the IRS’ “Adjustment Department,”  located at Ripley’s address. Unfortunately, his efforts are thus far unsuccessful. Though his marks are dutifully mailing him money, they are all checks written out to the IRS, not cash or checks made out to Ripley’s alter ego. As my old friend Katie Szum commented on a previous post, this action tells us a lot more about Tom Ripley than any analysis of his would. This novel is all about guessing at what is thought, often deeply and darkly, and how those thoughts rise to the surface in malicious actions.

Also very early in the story we are given a lowdown of the driving action: Tom Ripley is recruited to go find a man he barely knows and encourage him to come home from Italy and get on being a good doobie. The romantic notion of casting about in Europe, with an allowance, is too much to turn down. Ripley agrees.

What strikes me about those early pages of The Talented Mr. Ripley, knowing that it is the first in a series of Ripley books, is how very like a sequel it reads. Tom is a character we know from Adam, and he is ordered off to an exotic locale to accomplish some mission. Since Tom himself is the most interesting character in the novel so far, I wonder why Highsmith didn’t write a book more centered on him. In New York, or its environs. Why create this malevolent character with a seedy past and criminal tendencies and send him to a foreign destination where it is the destination itself that steals limelight away from the lead? Think about it. How often do sequels, where the first entry was all about a fascinating character in his or her comfort zone, involve sending them out of that zone? It’s easiest to prove this with movie examples – Sex and the City 2, Home Alone 2, Godfather II, Ocean’s 12. All of them have initial installments where the leads master their home turf and, in the sequel, are thrown into new realms, a classic “fish out of water” treatment. But Highsmith puts Ripley out of water right away, even before we know anything about his natural habitat.

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