Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two truths, a lie, and a cat, because why not

1. A short story I wrote was somewhat recently published in my alma mater's magazine Colloquium, located here.
2. I've been hypnotized myself, with somewhat less dramatic results.
3. I think I'm getting the hang of blogging on the regular.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Well-Dressed Killer Clown (why yes, he is a paradox)

“Let’s Be Optimistic”:
Tom Ripley as Chameleon/Comedian in Text and On-Screen          
Tom Ripley’s sense of humor, in many ways, seems as amorphous as his other chameleon-like aspects.  Tom, from his first appearance, has a keen appreciation of material aesthetics, a flair for improvisation and a frequently uncanny--although evidently not infallible--knack of reading people, but is he funny?  Is Tom a successful comedian?  What does he find humorous, and what does this convey about his ambiguous character?  The film adaptations of the Ripley novels, in their own ways, each define Ripley’s sense of humor in ways which embody and accentuate the overall tone each film strikes.   Through the use of both diagetic humor (such as through dialogue) and extradiagetic humor (such as through ironic cuts or meta-references), the distinct sense of the humorous in each film serves to define the Ripley character in that particular narrative.  Beginning with Plein Soleil, Alain Delon’s Ripley displays an almost whimsical sense of humor in his rapport with Phillipe Greenleaf, a rapport which oscillates from mutual prankishness to viciousness and back literally up until the pivotal moment of the murder.  The next cinematic adaptation, Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, presents a Ripley who is increasingly unstable, whose fits of sadistic humor appear to be coupled with equal alienation and angst.  Like his pointedly alienating self-image as “the cowboy of Hamburg” and his plastic-wrapped furniture, this Ripley seems perpetually teetering on the edge: of rationality and insanity, of maniacal amusement and deep despair. 

 For all his violence, this Ripley is vulnerable in a way that presages the Minghella Ripley, and much of the film’s dark humor circulates around him, rather than from him.  In contrast, the Tom Ripley of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley clearly lacks the vicious streaks in his humor that permeate both the figure in the novel and the two earlier cinematic embodiments.  Matt Damon’s Tom, instead, is figured primarily through his vulnerability, and the sense of the exquisite ridiculous in the film exists primarily in Tom’s eventual victims. Finally, the older Ripley played by John Malkovich in 2002’s Ripley’s Game has a deeply unsettling deadpan wit to his observations, arguably a solidification of the impulses felt by the younger Tom of the novel.  This Tom, perhaps more than any previous film interpretation or even the literary text, lays bare Tom’s coolly amoral worldview in clear, quippy language.
Patricia Highsmith’s own dark sense of humor--the instinct that led her to pen short story collections with titles like The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder and Little Tales of Misogyny--punctuates or haunts the Ripley books, both in Tom’s own idiosyncratic sense of humor and in his occasional--but not insignificant--miscalculations of the humor of others.  In describing a piece of ephemera from one of Highsmith’s journals, a list of “Little Crimes for Little Tots,” enumerating a selection of slyly potentially lethal actions within the capacity of a small child, Highsmith biographer Joan Schenker muses on Highsmith’s sometimes unreadable humor.
Written in the flat, dragging, uninflected style of her middle years, it leaves no particular sense that she meant it as a joke, but she must have. . .mustn’t she? The real beast in Highsmith’s writing has always been the double-headed dragon of ambiguity. And the dragon often appears with its second head tucked under its foreclaw, and its cue cards--the ones that should be flashing at us to help us with our responses--concealed somewhere beneath its scales. Is Pat serious?  Or is she something else?  She is serious and she is also something else (4).

  “Serious and also something else” seems an equally apt descriptor for Tom Ripley.  In the beginning of the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, Tom’s sense of humor appears like other parts of his personality: uncertain and in flux.  This becomes obvious in his pose as IRS agent George McAlpin.  In the “sordid” apartment he shares with an acquaintance, Tom has been amusing himself by extorting money from people using stationery he pilfered during a short stint as a stockroom clerk at the Internal Revenue office.  He gets a distinct thrill when he receives a check, even though he cannot cash them.  “So it amounted to no more than a practical joke, really.  Good clean sport. He wasn’t stealing money from anyone” (12).  This early incident, conceived and carried before Tom encounters Dickie and eventually comes to see himself as alone and betrayed, exemplifies Tom’s strange sense of amusement.  It also serves as a sort of preview to the central narrative of Ripley’s Game, the act which Tom deems “nothing more than a practical joke” (8).  It is, fundamentally, an activity in which Ripley’s pleasure comes not from any kind of material advantage he stands to gain, but simply from his own cleverness and the discomfort he causes his victims. Further, this is not a scam which clearly plays off of Tom’s class aspirations or anxieties.  His targets are carefully selected, based on Tom’s calculations about what kinds of people would earn enough money to have plausibly made an income tax error, but not enough to hire an accountant.  This is not a game of Robin Hood stealing from the rich; Tom targets musicians, photographers, and comic-book artists, people who are arguably, like him, on the cultural fringes of New York City.  In this initial incident, then, we begin to see some of the troubled or inconsistent aspects of Tom’s personality, filtered through his sense of humor.  He is not, as some critics would suggest, eminently practical; he is, indeed, capable of a certain kind of sadistic pleasure entirely divorced from the necessity of maintaining his own status and identity.  Indeed, in Ripley’s Game, his need to avenge a particularly minor and petty insult leads him to engineer a situation in which he not only entraps his prey, but endangers himself as well, drawing both Mafia and police attention to his sanctuary of Belle Ombre.  (Significantly, in both the film versions, the weight of the insult is made greater; in Wenders’s The American Friend, Jonathan’s insult suggests an awareness of the Derwatt forgeries, and hence, a more overt threat; in the 2002 film, the insult is clearly based on distaste for Ripley, while in the book, Jonathan’s remark pointedly ambiguous.)  Yet even in the earliest stages of the idea, Tom’s instant pleasure and gratification is striking.  “Tom was amused by his thoughts, and eased himself away from Heloise, so that if he shook with repressed laughter for an instant, he wouldn’t awaken her.  Suppose Trevanny was vulnerable, and carried out Reeves’ plan like a soldier, like a dream?  Was it worth a try?  Yes, because Tom had nothing to lose” (8).  The similarity to the IRS scheme--financially profitless, a satisfaction entirely private--is striking in this ostensibly more mature and secure Tom.  It is also noteworthy how, by giving Ripley this idea while he lies in bed with his wife, Highsmith reiterates the ambiguous sexuality of the first book.  Tom’s pleasure in his scheme literally outweighs the pleasures--sexual or financial--represented by his alliance by Heloise, and he moves away in order to revel in his own private scheming. 
 It is also perhaps significant that Tom deems his four years in New York to have been a failure and a waste, in part because of his unsuccessful attempts at an acting career.  Thus, while so much of the novel’s trajectory depends on Tom’s ability to entertain, joke, and improvise, these developments are prefigured by his inability to transform these skills into a living on his own power.  “He had wanted to be an actor, though at twenty he had not the faintest idea of the difficulties, the necessary training, or even the necessary talent. He had thought he had the necessary talent and that all he would have to do was show a producer a few of his original one-man skits--Mrs. Roosevelt writing ‘My Day’ after a visit to a clinic for unmarried mothers for instance--but his first three rebuffs had killed all his courage and his hope” (38).  This little anecdote is suggestive in several ways.  First, it suggests a vulnerability or limitation to Tom’s skills, which can seem almost preternaturally developed as the Ripley novels progress.  The specific example of his skit is also striking, both in the way it zeroes in on Ripley’s own ambiguous and amorphous sexual identity, but also in his misplaced confidence in its success.  (Tom performs a seemingly similar skit for Dickie, who finds it hilarious, and Marge, who finds it baffling.)  Schenkar collects a number of anecdotes in her biography which suggest a similarly idiosyncratic sense of humor on Highsmith’s part. “Friends and acquaintances have to search their vocabularies to find terms extreme enough to describe the sound of Pat’s laughter: it was a “hoot,” a “chortle,” a “guffaw,” “thigh-slapping,” “a scream,” “loud and uncontrolled,” “reckless”--and, as in the novels of Dostoyesky (and as in Pat’s own fiction), it often came in situations in which other people would have recoiled in horror or collapsed in tears” (401).  Thus, it seems significant to any attempt to analyze Tom Ripley’s sense of humor, particularly as it relates to his other notorious tendencies--his amorality, his ambiguous sexual identity, his ultimate invincibility--to bear in mind his own missteps as a comedian, and consider what these incidents reveal about his much-lauded, and frequently evident, skills at improvisation and mimicry.
Another crucial moment for analyzing Tom’s sense of humor, and how it affects or mirrors his other traits, is the pivotal scene in which Tom dresses in Dickie’s clothes and playacts a scene of Dickie arguing with Marge and defending his relationship with Tom.  This event becomes crucial to the breakdown of the relationship between Tom and Dickie, and sharply prefigures the latter’s death and absorption or appropriation by Ripley.  Thus, it is played out in extended detail in both film treatments of the novel, each text taking a distinctive tone. 
Plein Soleil

In the novel, Dickie is almost too appalled to speak with Tom, and upon gathering his thoughts, bluntly confronts Tom about Marge’s (and implicitly Dickie’s) suspicions about Tom’s sexuality, and the nature of his interest in Dickie.  Here, almost more than any other moment, Tom is confronted with a challenge to his habitual mask of comic performance.  Tom’s shock at Dickie’s comments, crucially, are not simply the content, but the directness with which Dickie delivers them.  “He felt faint. Nobody had ever said it outright to him, not in this way” (80, emphasis added). 


As Shannon points out, the ambiguity relating to sexuality in the book is arguably more subversive than the absolute binaries pushed upon in Minghella’s film (and mostly submerged in Clément’s).  Tom has the capacity to cope with and even embrace, a certain kind of witty ambiguity about sexuality (his own and other people’s, as evidenced in his resolutely platonic rapport with Cleo), but he cannot face such a conversation stripped bare of the protections of his own comedic performance.  Significantly, Tom links the humiliation of this moment to a previous one, in which his comedic, performing self and his sexual identity were simultaneously condemned.

And he remembered, too, the humiliating moment when Vic Simmons had said, Oh, for Christ sake, Tommie, shut up!  when he said to a group of people, for perhaps the third or fourth time in Vic’s presence, ‘I can’t make up my mind whether I like men or women, so I’m thinking of giving them both up.‘ Tom used to pretend he was going to an analyst, because everybody else was going to an analyst, and he had used to spin wildly funny stories about his sessions with his analyst to amuse people at parties, and the line about giving up men and women both had always been good for a laugh, the way he delivered it, until Vic had told him for Christ sake to shut up, and after that Tom had never said it again and never mentioned his analyst again, either. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of truth in it, Tom thought. As people went, he was one of the most innocent and clean-minded he had ever known. That was the irony of this situation with Dickie (81).  

 This revealing anecdote suggests, first and foremost, that Tom is willing to play off his ambiguous sexual identity--but only when it is firmly under his control.  It is difficult to tell, and perhaps impossible for Tom to distinguish, whether the source of the humiliation comes from Vic calling attention to the contents of the quip, or to Tom’s perceived gaucheness in repeating the remark so many times.  But it is striking how completely Tom is influenced by this seemingly minor insult--again, another hint that even more socially and financially secure Ripley of the latter novels will retain a hair-trigger sensitivity to personal insults, no matter how insignficiant they might be.  Thus, it seems particularly damning in the Minghella film that when Tom confesses his feelings, Dickie repeatedly spits out the insult “Boring.  Boring!”  It is the combined attack on Tom, the consummate performer/entertainer and the “queer” Tom (explicitly so in the Minghella) that triggers the fatal assault.
 Despite the closeness to which Highsmith’s narrative voice clings to Tom’s perspective (thus, making few obvious distinctions between Tom’s sense of humor and her own) she also makes a clearly extradiagetic joke in the first novel when Herbert Greenleaf recommends to Tom that he read The Ambassadors, by Henry James, in which an American protagonist, like Tom, is sent to Europe to retrieve a prodigal son.  The joke continues when Tom, attempting to follow Mr. Greenleaf’s advice, searches for the book while making the trans-Atlantic voyage, only to find that there is no copy available in the first-class library, and that as a first-class passenger, he is not permitted to check out books from the cabin-class library.  Tom returns the book “docilely,” although not without musing on how easy it would be to steal.  Here we see a glimpse of Highsmith’s own “serious[ness] and something else” filtering through the text.  Critic Bob Wake (colorfully) argues that this seemingly throwaway line in fact permeates the entire novel, creating a more overtly dark comedy mirror version of the cited text. 

The complex point-of-view techniques employed in The Talented Mr. Ripley are a literary style pioneered by Henry James, to whom Highsmith pays overt homage by modeling her novel on James’s 1903 masterpiece, The Ambassadors.  Perhaps the boldest postmodern joke in Highsmith’s novel is Mr. Greenleaf recommending that Tom read James’s book, a copy of which Tom later contemplates stealing. Both novels are filtered through the sensibility of a "central intelligence," an American protagonist who has an "awakening" when he visits Europe on a mission to retrieve the prodigal son of a wealthy businessman. Highsmith doesn’t just "steal" the outline of James’s plot, she turns James upside down, shakes the pennies from his pockets, and gives him a wedgie for good measure.[1]

The joke is not only on her own reinterpretation of the James text--a rather Ripley-esque move of transmuting the serious literary pedigree of James into the trappings of the suspense genre--but that having made her reference obvious, she creates an extended joke about its absence in the text.  The inevitable implication is that Herbert Greenleaf’s recommendation of the novel is another manifestation of the kinds of hypocrisy and shallowness Tom is so particularly attuned for; should Herbert truly want Tom to read this particular book, or is his grasp of the superficial similarities an eerie foreshadowing of the way Tom will superficially replace his son?  This dark humor from Highsmith is only reinforced in Tom’s attempts--and failures--to acquire the book, thwarted by the class-segregated shipboard libraries.  The always liminally situated Tom--neither truly first-class nor cabin-class--must create his own “awakening” without literary antecedent.
  In Anthony Minghella’s treatment of The Talented Mr. Ripley, much of Ripley’s capacity for detached amusement appears to have been displaced onto Dickie, and to a lesser extent, on Freddie Miles.  Whereas Dickie in the book appears to be bored and slightly annoyed by Ripley’s appearance on the beach, Dickie immediately sees hilarity in his own failure to recognize his supposed classmate.  “I don’t remember him.  That’s so funny!” he says to Marge immediately after first meeting Tom.  Strikingly, in the novel, the comedic performance which initially charms Dickie eventually shifts from a calculated performance to an almost out-of-body experience.  Tom confides Herbert Greenleaf’s role in sending him to Europe in hopes of establishing a prankish, playful rapport with Dickie, lest his adventure end before it has begun.  “It was his one last chance to amuse Dickie or to repel him, to make Dickie burst out laughing or go out and slam the door in disgust. But the smile was coming, the long corners of his mouth going up, the way Tom remembered Dickie’s smile” (56).  At Dickie’s urging, he repeats the story for Marge, increasingly conscious of himself as a performer, and indeed, a subservient one, a jester entirely dependent on the reception of his antics.  “His tongue rattled on almost independently of his brain.  His brain was estimating how high his stock was shooting up with Dickie and Marge. He could see it in their faces” (58).  Here, Tom’s comic skills literally become a commodity, an aspect which perhaps illuminates his somewhat uneasy relationship to his sense of humor.  Tom, as he has just described to Dickie while in his self-conscious, performing mode, views his talents of impersonation and forgery as more or less a skill-set.  It is in his private, acerbic observations and unwitnessed pranks that he takes genuine pleasure and satisfaction; his public performances of comedy more obviously means to an end.
 In the Minghella film, Dickie is more obviously volatile and expressive than in the novel, a less opaque target for the more-timid Tom of the movie to play off of.  Tom’s first “performance” for Dickie in the movie carries a double-edge; when Tom begins to imitate Herbert Greenleaf, the minor pitch of the music keys up the intensity of Dickie’s reaction, which appears to flicker for several seconds between violent antipathy and pleasure until he whole-heartedly embraces both Tom’s mimicry skills and his eventual admission of being sent to Italy to bring Dickie home.  (Marge, uncomfortably, confesses that she does not get the joke.)  Indeed, in the novel, Marge is clearly presented as an outsider to the jokes and fun Tom so carefully develops with Dickie. 
  Although neither Plein Soleil nor The Talented Mr. Ripley embrace Tom’s persistent disgust and disdain for Marge, both films do suggest she is an outsider to the particularities, and peculiarities, of the amusements of Tom and Dickie/Phillipe’s rapport. However, in both movies, Marge’s resistance to the humor Tom elicits from Dickie--whether mildly mocking or overtly cruel--is presented as a virtue.  To the extent that Tom and Dickie/Phillipe are dark mirrors of each other, Marge’s exclusion from their type of humor further underlines how that humor pushes against conventional ethics or norms.  In Plein Soleil, Marge’s character is literally introduced via pages of notes for her book--apparently a serious work about Fra Angelico, in contrast to the dilettante-ish effort of Marge in Highsmith’s novel--and the plaintive, minor-key ballad she plays on the guitar.  Before she even appears on screen, she is set as a sombering presence in sharp contrast to the rakish highjinks of Phillipe and Tom.  At the same time, Phillipe clearly shifts gears and indicates his preference for Marge in violently pushing Tom away, the incident which immediately precedes the film’s version of the pivotal dress scene.  Here, Phillipe is more bewildered than disgusted, but it suggests a clear break in the Tom and Phillipe alliance of gameplay, which is established at great length in the film’s opening scenes.  The film begins with Tom and Phillipe’s rapport well-established, with Tom forging Phillipe’s signature while Phillipe looks on, laughing.  In these first scenes, their relationship establishes an almost manic humor, beginning with Tom’s merry suggestion that if Phillipe buys Marge a book on Fra Angelico, “She can just copy it!”  This proceeds to their impulsive acquisition of a blind man’s cane, at which point Phillipe orders Tom to “Make [him] laugh,” by pretending to be blind.  Soon enough, Phillipe takes over the game, which becomes so hysterical that even the woman they pick up under false pretenses wants her chance to play at blindness.  The two adult men come off as adolescents playing hooky (with both Marge and Mr. Greenleaf in the roles of the authority they share pleasure in thwarting). 
 In both Plein Soleil and the Minghella The Talented Mr. Ripley, the breakdown of the rapport between Tom and Dickie/Phillipe can be seen in Greenleaf’s increasing tendency to turn his humor against Tom.  When Marge tells Phillipe that he treats Tom terribly, he replies “I just want to see how far he’ll go,” a comment highly reminiscent of Ripley’s “game”-playing tendencies with other people.  Similarly, Phillipe’s defense that “All [Tom] thinks about is money,” is a comparable echo of Tom’s ability to classify and compartmentalize people in order to protect his own interests.  Marge, however, will not accept this, despite her clear discomfort with Tom’s continued presence (at least in part, the film suggests, because she--quite plausibly--believes that he elicits and encourages Phillipe’s worst qualities and behaviors.)  “It was only a joke, but it went too far,” she tells Phillipe, referring to Tom having been set adrift in the dinghy. Interestingly, the music picks up a jazzy undertone here,  creating an almost slapstick ambiance to the conversation which follows, in which Tom literally plays cards while discussing his hypothetical plan to kill Phillipe and take his money, followed shortly by Phillipe’s destruction of Marge’s work, another impulsively cruel prank which surpasses Phillipe’s intentions.  In this film, the veneer of play between the two men lasts literally until Tom stabs Phillipe; over cards, the two continue to banter--although with clearer discomfort on Phillipe’s part--about whether or not Tom could successfully accomplish his goals of murder and identity theft.  Tom even playfully scolds Phillipe when the latter threatens to throw his typewriter overboard so as to impede Tom’s ability to forge letters. “That wouldn’t be nice,” Tom says, wagging his finger, and again both men laugh, immediately before Tom draws his knife.  The dramatic pulse of the music suggests an internal shock, but clearly, this is an utterly calculated moment, and arguably a far more suggestively psychopathic scene than the murder depicted in the Minghella film.  Ultimately, in this scene, Delon’s Ripley is far more obviously, even literally, the game-playing Ripley who emerges in the later novels and films, even as Plein Soleil ends with Ripley’s imminent arrest.
Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game sets its darkly humorous tone early on, with Ripley’s interest in and affection for trompe l’oeil art work.  Ripley’s sense of humor, like so much of his personality, is reinforced by these visual themes of misdirection.  Throughout much of the film, the comic aspects are generated by Malkovich’s mannered, deadpan inflections--the uncomfortably funny aspects are, as even Trevanny sees, from the constant conflict between appearance and reality that Ripley commands.  This is underlined early in the film when Ripley brushes off questions from his wife about his theoretical capacity to carry out a hit, while meticulously mending a shirt.  These kinds of ironic juxtapositions constantly swirl around Ripley in the film, occasionally making him seem literally inhuman, a demonic or Puckish character taking cool notice of the world and finding it generally wanting. “I’m a creation.  I’m a gifted improviser.  I lack your conscience, and when I was young that troubled me.  It no longer does,” he tells Trevanny.  I don’t worry about being caught, because I don’t believe anyone is watching.”  Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film that Malkovich’s Ripley, appropriately and aptly, lacks humor.  “Malkovich is skilled at depicting the private amusement of sordid characters, but there is no amusement in his Ripley, nor should there be; Ripley has a psychopath's detachment from ordinary human values.[2]  But arguably, both Ripley-the-character here and the film Ripley’s Game celebrate a kind of bloodless satisfaction in the absurdities and ironies of the world, all the better if those absurdities can be manipulated by Ripley himself.  Thus, when Nathan Lee of The New York Sun describes the second murder as a “gruesomely funny set piece[3]” we have a sense of the humor functioning both diagetically and extradiagetically, almost as if Ripley himself is manipulating the ironic cuts of the camera.  In this sequence, more than almost any other, Ripley and the voice of the filmmaker almost seem to merge--we see Ripley light a cigarette while leaning beside a prominent “No Smoking” sign only moments before Ripley castigates himself for his rudeness.  A few minutes later, dead bodies at his feet, he muses, “It never used to be so crowded in first class,” in the same unperturbed tone to which he addresses the niceties of murder.  It is nearly affectless, both chilly and perversely funny, and the depth of Ripley’s detachment is only highlighted when Trevanny attempts to mimic his breezy tone shortly thereafter.  “Oh, please, it’s no rush.  I realize I’ve had over twenty minutes to adjust to becoming one of Europe’s most wanted, and I’m extremely aware of how ludicrous I must seem to you, with my heaving and my shaking and positively shockingly awful normalness. . .I do hope that you will forgive me!” before collapsing into sobs.  Shortly thereafter, Ripley smiles at himself in the mirror.  “I don’t know, but it doesn’t surprise me.  The one thing I know is that we’re constantly being born.”  In the bleak world of the fully-mature Ripley, he is consistently his own best source of amusement.  When he tells Trevanny that he was selected because “that’s the game,” the empty amorality of his humor is laid bare.  He isn’t necessarily or even primarily a sadist; his pleasure is not dependent on watching others suffer--although that is no deterrent--but a pseudoscientific curiosity about what they will do, and how it compares with what he might do (and has done.) 
            It is striking that Tom laughs as he reflects on the murder of Freddie Miles in the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and the successful murder of the Mafioso on the train in Ripley’s Game.  However, the younger Tom’s laughter is tinged with a greater degree of discomfort. 
. . .thinking how stupid, sad, clumsy, dangerous and unnecessary his death had been, and how brutally unfair to Freddie. Of course, one could loathe Freddie, too.  A stupid, selfish bastard who had sneered at one of his best friends--Dickie certainly was one of his best friends--just because he suspected him of sexual deviation.  Tom laughed at that phrase ‘sexual deviation.’ Where was the sex? Where was the deviation? He looked at Freddie and said low and bitterly: “Freddie Miles, you’re a victim of your own dirty mind” (147).

This passage, in which Tom zeroes in on a quirk of language which amuses him, even in his frustration at having been “forced,” in his opinion, to commit a second murder, is suggestive of Tom’s sense of humor evolving as his actions become more distinctly criminal.  With his murder of Dickie, his impulses are immediately practical and self-preserving, but with subsequent murders, he increasingly develops a detached amusement, quietly thrilling in his ability to reframe the narrative.  His reflections in Ripley’s Game indicate a clear extension of this kind of thought, where the people murdered are far more clearly, in Tom’s moral lexicon, “victims” of their own dirty behavior.  “The Mafiosi made Tom feel almost virtuous in comparison. At this thought, Tom laughed out loud, a laugh which rang out in the tiny metal-and-tile room in which he stood . . . Yes, there were people more dishonest, more corrupt, decidedly more ruthless than himself, and these were the Mafiosi. . .” (121).  Again, Tom’s amusement is centered on himself and rooted in his recognition of his place in the world, superior not only to Mafiosi but to career criminals like Reeves Minot.  It is this perspective, evolving in The Talented Mr. Ripley  and clearly firmly established in Ripley’s Game, that finally attaches Tom Ripley’s offbeat sense of humor--and the unsettling but distinctly amusement his exploits inspire--to his role as the consummate victor.  The mature Tom is no longer as dependent on his abilities of improvisation and mimicry to attain the social and financial status he so craves, so as he relaxes into his status as wealthy, married, (almost) respectable aesthete, his fine eye is turned not only to his beloved fine possessions, but to the absurdities of the world that has given them to him.  Wes D. Gehrig, in his analysis of dark comedy, suggests that “a central theme of film noir is quite at home in dark comedy--exposing the botched American success story. That is, both genres suggest that the American dream cannot be obtained by earnest and honest efforts. Those figures who do find themselves in positions of authority and societal esteem did not get there fairly” (135).  Thus, Tom, the homme fatale, the aspirational expatriate, the occasionally murderous lover of fine art and antique harpsichords, himself becomes both a diagetic appreciator of his own darkly comic success story, but an embodiment of his creator’s refusal to believe in any kind of tidy, cosmic justice.  As Malkovich’s Ripley states, “I don’t worry about being caught, because I don’t believe anyone is watching.”  This assessment, simultaneously pragmatic and existentially bleak, makes Tom both the teller and the subject of a long, wry joke.  Ripley’s maturity is not signified in a reduction of his ambiguities, but in a gleeful, laughing celebration thereof.  When no one is watching, Tom can indeed deem himself virtuous, but he can never forget how very funny that is.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. “Ripley’s Game (2002).” Chicago Sun-Times, 9 April 2006.

Gehrig, Wes D. American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Highsmith, Patricia. Ripley’s Game. 1974. New York: Random House, 1993.

---. The Talented Mr. Ripley. 1955. New York: Random House, 1992.

Lee, Nathan. “The Game Even Ripley Couldn’t Win.”  Rev. of Ripley’s Game.  The New York Times, 4 April 2004.

Plein Soleil.  Dir. Rene Clément. Perf. Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet, Marie LaForet. Titanus, 1960.

Ripley’s Game. Dir. Liliana Cavani. Perf. John Malkovich, Dougray Scott, Ray Winstone.   Fine Line Features, 2002.

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith. New York: Picador, 2009.

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dir. Anthony Minghella.  Perf. Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gywneth          Paltrow, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Miramax, 1999.

Wake, Bob. “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fair Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Magicians and The Magician King.  The third installment, as well as a movie and (sigh) a possible television show are likely to appear in 2014.

Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was published in 2009 to much fanfare, followed
by the sequel The Magician King, which hit shelves this August. The Magicians traced thejourney, if not quite the coming of age, of Quentin Coldwater, a bright, bookish
Brooklyn teenager who, like many readers, had spent hours fantasizing about traveling
to Fillory, the magic realm of his favorite fantasy series. While attending a college
interview, Quentin finds himself magically swept away and given a mysterious
examination before being offered admission to Brakebills, a secret college of magic.
“Hogwarts, A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin proclaimed, “was never like this.”

One of the major drawbacks of The Magicians, however, is its main character. After all,
disaffected, clever, bored young men aren’t exactly a scare commodity in fiction (or real
life.) “Something about his parents’ house was unbearable to him now. After his little
curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy old bedroom in Brooklyn
with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny
walled-in dirt patch? He had nothing to say to his well-meaning, politely curious
parents. Both their attention and their neglect were equally intolerable. His world had
become complicated and interesting and magical. Theirs was mundane and domestic.
They didn’t understand that the world they couldn’t see wasn’t the one that mattered,
and they never would.” One hates (or perhaps longs) to point out to Quentin that this
is hardly an unusual feeling for college students returning home, even those studying
English or engineering rather than magical theory. Instead, Grossman seems to expect
us to take this rather facile, immature snobbishness at face value.

When fantasy interacts with the real world, the author can either use that magic to
illuminate or to isolate. The Magicians is a profoundly isolating book. Professor Fogg
(neither as twinkly-eyed nor as Machiavellian as a certain Albus Dumbledore) tells his
students, “A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between
what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in
your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is
his strength.” As a world-building theme, this comes off as not so much as darkness as
adolescent self-absorption, Holden Caulfield raging against phonies with a
supernatural justification of superiority. Doesn’t everyone want to believe, at least once
in awhile, that their pain is more meaningful than everyone else’s? Isn’t part of
growing up learning that it isn’t the case? The magic of Brakebills seems to offer a
perpetual adolescent self-centeredness, without much hope or need to move past that.
It’s interesting that among the fantasy worlds Grossman consciously evokes, Neverland
isn’t there. Maybe that’s because even Wendy and the Lost Boys eventually decided it
was time to grow up.

If The Magicians was unsettling, it wasn’t because it exposed a dark underside of fantasy
literature that was heretofore unknown (it wasn’t); rather, it was the grim ordinariness of it all. Magicians, in Grossman’s work, have vast amounts of power, but they don’t do much with it. For the most part, they loaf around New York with no real ambitions or dreams, rather like Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things or Bret Easton Ellis’s vapid, sociopathic yuppies, until they stumble upon a way to travel to Fillory, where, for the first time in 300 pages, the stakes become serious. The villain of the piece is revealed to
be far more like Quentin than he ever could have imagined--immature, cravent, avoidant, and alientated-- but it is Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend, who pays the ultimate price. Quentin returns to the real world--conveniently placed by Professor Fogg in a cushy consulting job--and does a face-heel-turn on magic
that demonstrates not wisdom, but the continuing lack of it. “To be honest, Quentin felt
superior to anybody who still messed around with magic. They could delude
themselves if they wanted, those self-indulgent magical mandarins, but he’d outgrown
that stuff.” At least for another five pages, before he decides to go back.

The Magician King begins with Quentin and his friends on the thrones of Fillory where--
surprise!--Quentin is still vaguely dissatisfied and unfulfilled. So he creates a makework
quest, which unexpectedly drops him back into the real world. Readers familiar
with Joseph Campbell might perk up here; per Campbell, an essential part of the hero’s
journey is that travels in the realm of the fantastic are coupled with a return home,
where the hero’s newfound wisdom or power become boons to his own society. Not for
Quentin, though. He remains profoundly uninterested in anything or anyone outside
himself until the very end of the novel, and his brief expulsion from Fillory seems to be
primarily filler for Grossman to mete out the backstory.

The best moments of The Magician King retrace the steps of Quentin’s New York
schoolmate Julia, the untold shadow story of the first novel. (Why, oh why, then, isn’t it
called The Magician Queen? Marketers--the same ones who urged J.K. Rowling to
publish under her initials lest little boys shun books written by a “Joanne” could
probably tell you.) Julia was also brought to Brakebills for the entrance exam, but
failed, and her life thereafter is striking for its knife-sharp descriptions of depression
and despair. Furthermore, it is through Julia that Grossman actually does begin to grapple with a few elements of fantasy narratives that are often breezed over. Magic--at least, the
acceptable, Brakebills brand of magic--is capricious and alienating, and Julia exists in an
unusual Purgatory, aware of the secret world of magic but banned from entry for no
apparent reason. After Julia fails her exam and is returned to New York, supposedly
with her memory wiped and replaced with an ordinary afternoon at the library, her
stubbornness and steely intelligence set her on a journey far darker—and frankly more interesting--than Quentin’s.

“The problem was that Julia was smart, and Julia was interested in the truth. She didn’t
like inconsistencies, and she didn’t let go until things were resolved, either. When she
was five she’d wanted to know why Goofy could talk and Pluto couldn’t. How could
one dog have another dog for a pet, and one be sentient and the other not? Likewise
she wanted to know who the lazy fucker was who wrote her paper on intentional
communities for her and used Wikipedia as a source. Granted that the answer “the
nefarious agents of a secret school for wizards in upstate New York,” was not a league-leadingly plausible answer to her question. But it was the answer that fit her memories,
and those memories were getting sharper all the time.”

Julia spends the next several years on a desperate, wrenching quest, hunting through
back channels and internet chat rooms for some answers, painfully teaching herself
spells. It’s a process that destroys her health, her peace of mind, and her relationships.
It’s only when she finally gives up, transferring her energies to an obscure internet
message community for depressed geniuses, that the arbitrary forces of magic deign to
notice her. “She had tried to walk away from the disaster, to run away from it, she
really, truly had. She’d broken her staff and drowned her book and sworn off magic
forever. She’d moved on and left no forwarding address. But it hadn’t been enough.
Magic had come looking for her. She hadn’t run far enough or fast enough, or hid
herself well enough, and the disaster had tracked her down and found her. It wasn’t
going to let her go.”

Nor will the author.  Julia’s backroads search for magic eventually leads her and her motley crew of associates to invoke a god, and when the deity appears, she is violently raped.  To Grossman’s credit, the rape itself is conveyed seriously and without the subtext of titillation so often found in “gritty” fantasies, but it’s a cliché of the genre nonetheless.  Furthermore, Grossman uses the rape primarily not as a narrative device for Julia, but for Quentin.  It is, disturbingly, the rape that gives Julia her non-human source of magic power, and Quentin, in what is apparently meant as chivalry, blames himself for not having properly taught Julia magic in the first place. 

Julia’s journey is thoughtfully depicted, so much so that Grossman’s final deus ex
machina climax is grossly disappointing and retrograde. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so
troubling if it were not so similar to Alice’s fate in the first book (sexual and emotional betrayal by Quentin followed by a self-immolating death), but it’s hard not to look
askance at the darkness of Grossman’s magical world when the most brutal and
devastating price has, in both books, been paid by the two strongest female characters. 
In particular, it makes Quentin’s angst and self-pity all the less sympathetic. Besides,
someone as obviously well-read in fantasy as Grossman should be able to do better than
simply reproduce the tired fantasy trope laying the burdens of darkness on his female
characters as means to enlighten the self-absorbed male lead. Is it any wonder some of us prefer princesses to endless scenes of supposedly gritty sexual assault? (Remarkably, high fantasy authors rarely devote such “realism” to the less eroticized medieval states of illiteracy or dental hygiene.) It’s one thing to assume that Grossman has been quietly poking fun at his own lackluster hero, but the totally unironic use of such a tired excuse for “adult” fantasy makes Quentin’s ultimate fate pale in comparison. The Magician King is clearly the bridge book in a trilogy, but it’s a long time to wait for this Lost Boy to get a clue.

Note: “The Victim Dilemma” at Ferretbrain comments further on the artistic use of abuse—that is, the abuse of female characters—in creating “empowerment.” 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris
by David King
Crown Publishers, Sept. 2011

Too often, true crime books are merely lascivious, wallowing in each grisly detail. Death in the City of Light, David Kingʼs riveting account of French serial killer Dr. Marcel Petiot, transcends this in a powerful account of evil writ small and large. As he tracks Petiot through a seven month investigation and often farcical trial, King lingers less on the macabre details and more on a portrait of a city dogged by terror and mired in corruption, ultimately depicting Petiot as a “self-appointed executioner for Hitler,
gassing, butchering, and burning his victims in his own private death camp.”

This is Kingʼs first stab at true crime, and he rises admirably to the challenge. The Petiot case is full of stranger-than-fiction elements that could easily succumb to cheap melodrama, but King steers the reader through the investigation with precise, spare language. He was given access to the entire Petiot dossier, classified since 1946, and he uses the new detail to great advantage, especially the vivid accounts of several of the participants, including Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, the real life inspiration for Georges Simenonʼs Inspector Maigret.

The book opens with a legitimately gruesome description of the “murder house” in the fashionable 16th-arrondissement. Neighbors reported a foul smoke pouring forth from the chimney, and when police entered, they found piles of bones, rotting body parts, and a bizarre thick-walled, triangular room festooned with bizarre hooks, chains, and a concealed peephole. The propertyʼs owner, Dr. Petiot, had a history of crimes (both proven and alleged) and mental instability that would make a modern day profiler (or even a casual viewer of Criminal Minds) blanch. Yet he was also charming enough to win a mayoral election at age thirty, and to spend his trial joking and signing autographs.

Petiotʼs first victims may have been patients who could have implicated the doctor in drug-related investigations, but his murderous métier evolved into a false “escape” service for Jews and others desperate to flee the city. Police eventually found 49 suitcases at an accomplice’s house, filled with almost 2000 personal items collected from his victims. The story is full of almost unbelievable (but irresistibly Gallic) details: the murdererʼs penchant for art auctions, flashily-dressed gangsters, a red-haired
femme fatale, and a pivotal moment in court resting on the fabric used by a certain haberdasher.

Kingʼs greatest strength is his ability to show how occupied Paris so perfectly served
Petiotʼs dark deeds. People were vanishing from the city in droves, by flight or arrest.
The police were subordinate to the French Gestapo, and gangsters thriving in
the chaos ran wild. In short, it was the perfect environment for a psychopathic killer to
work undetected. From the very beginning, inspectors were cautious, unsure whether
this killer was an agent of the Gestapo, a member of the Resistance (Petiotʼs own
claim), or simple a sadist and opportunist. Throughout the trial, Petiot continued to take
advantage of the cynicism and anxiety as Paris struggled to come to terms with itself
post-Liberation.  Paris was full of people of people who claimed to have served in the Resistance, and the frustration and rage people felt towards the state police helped Petiot position himself as a dapper and bold assassin for the cause.

King ably describes the trial, an affair that would have made a cable news network swoon with delight: the piles of mysterious luggage brought into the courtroom, weighing more than one ton; the accused leaving the prisoner’s box to sign autographs, an attorney and acknowledged Resistance fighter nearly coming to blows with Petiot during a cross-examination.  Likewise, the dogged work by military security Lieutenants Jacques Yonnet and Albert Brouard to untangle and discredit Petiot’s claims of Resistance work is described with meticulous detail, like a sort of historian’s CSI.  When the lieutenants issue their scathing denunciation of Petiot’s claims, it is both triumphant and a relief.

There are a few moments early in the narrative where Kingʼs focus falters a bit; in
particular, he spends a bit of time tracking Sartre and Camus in a juxtaposition that
never quite pays off. But his detailed, lucid account of the manhunt and the trial is
gripping, and his historical snapshots powerfully evoke both the atmosphere and the
stakes.  By the bookʼs end, Petiot’s story is repulsive but almost feels inevitable. As Jack the Ripper is iconic of the seamy underside of proper Victorian England, Petiotʼs shadowy and opportunistic sadism feels like an intrinsic part of the City of Lightʼs darkest days.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Oh, look, a blog

I know, I know.  There's such a shortage of blogs, especially from snarky, glasses-wearing cat owners who are trying to be Real Writers.

But here I am!  In this space, I hope to write seriously about the none-essential, and vice versa.   I like to argue out loud with television, overanalyze children's books, reminisce about books I read no one ever seems to have heard of, and mention regularly that Slings and Arrows is the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Possibly greater, since I can actually slice my own bread.  I am dangerously amused by meta-jokes, am rapidly running out of bookshelf space, and will keep watching tv shows long after they've jumped not only the shark but the entire sea park. 

I also occasionally write snarky, lolcat-filled commentaries about Ann M. Martin and the Baby-Sitters Club series.  Because I can, and I didn't read all those Chapter 2s for nothing.  (If that didn't make sense to you, neither will the jokes.)  Those can be found here.