Sunday, March 16, 2008

Highsmiths

Having never read any Highsmith other than her immensely handy and practical manual on how-to-write-thrilling-bestsellers, I was hoping her body of fiction work would justify all the advice I've been taking from her lately. So I read The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder, which had me in tears by page three, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, which kept me up way past my bedtime on a schoolnight and, suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

Apparently Highsmith was a loner and a misanthrope, and it totally comes across in these books -- she may have been the only spinster crankier than myself. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the title character hates the vulgar people he lives with in New York, and isn't particularly enamored of the ones he meets in Europe. What makes him happy there is the lifestyle, the possessions, the ability to live like a king. He's not even particularly wedded to the Tom Ripley he knows, and willingly sloughs him off at the first opportunity. He throws on Dickie Greenleaf's identity like a new suit, with no regard whatsoever to the human being behind the attractive package. Some wonder if Tom is in love with Dickie, but it's so clear he's a total sociopath, with no capability for love or empathy. He identifies not with the humans, this Ripley.

Highsmith's talent lies in taking a chilling, murderous sociopath and making him utterly understandable. Who wouldn't rather relax in their Italian villa reading books till four in the morning rather than go to work at some dull job in dull old New York City? And if you should have to kill one little person (oh, come on, Freddie Miles doesn't count as a person!) to make that happen, so be it. One little silly person who doesn't deserve to be living the life you'd appreciate so much more than he would, who's not even a good painter! Utterly worth it. It's not fair that some dullards are born into wealth while those who truly deserve it actually have to work for it. Somehow, all this because plausible, and we root for Ripley, we want him so badly to get away with it, and when he does, it's the happiest feeling in the world.

That same malice is turned on the human protagonists in Beastly Murder, where you can't wait, you absolutely can't wait, for the animals to get their revenge on the humans who tortured them so brutally. I found myself skimming over all the bits where the poor animals were building up their rage and resentment, and getting straight the parts where their nasty old owners got it right in the gut.

There's something so satisfying about entering Highsmiths' world of pure spite and malice, like stepping on someone's toe in the subway after they've taken your seat. They say this reclusive misanthrope lacked humanity; au contraire, she was the very dark, shriveled, petty soul of humanity itself.

2 comments:

Levi Stahl said...

Well said, Spinster Aunt--particularly the final lines!

One thing I find particularly compelling about the Ripley novels is how smoothly, even comfortably, you're led into the thought patterns of a sociopath, to the extent that----especially in Ripley Under Ground--you often know what Ripley's setting himself up to do before he even admits it to himself.

Highsmith is also particularly good at reminding us what unwieldy objects dead bodies are. They take some muscle and planning to get rid of, and there are lots of chances along the way for people to see the murderer lugging around the corpse.

Spinster Aunt said...

Yes! I love it when books deal with the physicality of murder -- the weight of the corpse, the amount of blood and all that. It brings it all home, the enormity of what taking a human life entails.

Which is what makes "Weekend At Bernie's" such a subversive work ...