Tom Ripley saved my life

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, in response to the YA lit being “too dark” scandal, and Gayle’s book posts from last year.

I was a bookish child from about… six onwards. Basically, once I realised I was allowed read without being tested (I’m dyspraxic and short sighted, and really, really hate reading levels in schools). I read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy aged 8, liked reading Shakespeare with a dictionary when I was about ten and read Catch 22 at the same age. My Dad always made clear that books weren’t “too old” or “too difficult” for me, but sometimes that it mightn’t be a good idea to read them now as they’d upset me too much.

The film “The Talented Mr Ripley” came out in 1999, I believe. I read the reviews of it, and was told that I’d really enjoy the books by my dad. I got to my secondary school in 2000, and found the omnibus in the library, read it sometime after the bullying had got pretty bad.

I’m pretty sure there were several points at which those books saved my life.

Tom Ripley is intelligent, able to “pass” very well in social situations to an extent, and working minimum wage jobs. He’s the guy who makes the same joke one time too many, who’s trying to fit an idea of a twenty something camp wit, but can’t. He’s offered an unexpected out- go to Europe, bring back an acquaintance (the acquaintance’s family think that he’s a friend). He get’s to Italy, meets Dicky Greenleaf and is smitten- this is someone who is incredibly fortunate, and incredibly confident. Incredibly arrogant in fact, with limitless resources, and tendency to use other people. He’s amused by Tom for a while, and then starts distancing himself and ridiculing Tom. Particularly, taunting him with homophobic insults, and his hanger on status. The climax to this happens while they’re out on a rowing boat- Dicky keeps on goading Ripley, and Ripley has a psychotic/rage filled break, and kills him. The rest of the book is what he does to cover this (including assuming Dicky’s identity), and his paranoia about being found out- the thing that has always been nebulously there, but is now turned up to 11.

And I should say now, to any cute wealthy boys who are bad at painting and live in Italy, I am only a bit like that. I avoid boats while being humiliatingly teased for a reason. And even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t do that. (The thing I love about Ripley, which is what makes him as a character, is that large parts of him are convinced that he would not do that).

But just… when I started reading those books, back in 2000 or 2001, there was such a moment of “ohthankthegodsotherpeoplefeelthistoo”. My school was posh, and I am basically an autodidact. (God, at 24, a full lifetime from when I first met him in the new library, I am worryingly like Ripley. Down to the lack of degree, and the fact that I love borrowing university blazers). And here is a thing, which I will, occasionally admit: I actually know how intelligent and awesome I am. It doesn’t really come out on paper, really, but I am an intellectual Adonis in interviews. (and also, at lunch). But yes, shy, quite bookish 12 year old surrounded by all these girls who just… got things.  I mean, they knew how to write an exam which would get 99% without caring so much it hurt. They understood the arcane mysteries of the hairbrush and blowdryer. And it made me furious that this got you much further in life, aged twelve, than my amazing abilities to have lunch and talk about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

So, for much of the next decade (from that point of view) and the last one (from mine), I spent a lot of time telling people, at length, how The Talented Mr Ripley explained something vital about the human condition and also, more importantly, me. And getting slightly odd looks, or patted on the head, or teased.

And sometimes I’ll get really worried that from a social justice perspective the books are abhorrent, and really fucked up, and then go, yes, they are. Sort of. Ripley’s actions are awful. The nearly destroy him. They are the reaction to decades of the kyriarchy being a really, really annoying thing, to the point that it’s twisted and broken your still whole bones and sinews, til a mispoken, slightly patronising word will suddenly unleash the burning power of a thousand suns from your eyes, and how terrifying it is.

So, Tom Ripley and Pat Highsmith, I would like to thank you both today. Because, I’m 24 and nearly 2 months now, and I never really thought I’d get past sixteen, and I really never thought I’d be this confident with it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: