Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith

Ripley’s Game is the eighth Patricia Highsmith novel I’ve read, and it really unlocked a lot of the others for me. I love fiction that explores the seedier and darker corners of human behavior. Highsmith is as good as anyone at exploring those corners. Her sociopathic characters are second to none. David Kelsey, Charles Bruno, and, of course, Tom Ripley are indelible in their lack of concern for people around them. It’s easy to see her books as a middle finger to phony moralism of the 20th Century West. Her seeming contempt for the other characters bothers me though. They mostly seem somewhere on the spectrum of oblivious to actively stupid. I understood the criticisms of society, but I often wondered how much she saw stupidity and utter evil as the only options for people. Put another way, how nihilistic was she? She seemed very aware that society contained evil, but what about the individual? Where are readers supposed to situate themselves in the book?

In Ripley’s Game, the third in the series, Tom Ripley, almost on a lark involves an innocent man in his criminal activities. Reeves, a minor character in the previous book, wants to move from fencing stolen goods and smuggling to a higher level of crime. He’s been hired by an off-stage person to create a war between different mafia families. He attempts to enlist Ripley to do the killing that will set that war off, or suggest someone who can. Jonathan Trevanny slighted Tom at a party due to the rumors of murder that surround him. Because Trevanny had a form of leukemia, Ripley suggests him to Reeves. Then he very subtly convinces Trevanny that he is dying sooner than he thought and as a result has nothing to lose. Trevanny is drawn into a world to which he is very ill suited.

What this book does more clearly than the others I’ve read, is to deliberately implicate the reader. Jonathan Trevanny is the first of her main characters that I’ve come across that, at the start of the book at lease, is both innocent and not an idiot. He considers himself a moral person, and, while he was manipulated by Ripley, he realizes it, and makes a choice. Because there’s a character with whom the reader can more readily identify who murders someone, Highsmith more directly says to the reader, “You have this in you.” That choice also places the novel closer to existentialism than nihilism, which I appreciate.

  • And of course all of this is handled with Highsmith’s usual excellent prose, plotting and atmosphere. I think I like the Ripley books and A Suspension of Mercy best among her books I’ve read so far, and this might top the list.

Canon Worthy.

Owned but previously unread 2/75

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