It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The Inaugural Post of the 2008 Reading Challenge

Bah. It seemed like a good idea. There are plenty of highly-regarded writers I’ve yet to read, so why not pick a dozen of them to try during 2008? Not contemporary authors, but a mix of classic and early Twentieth Century.

This is not as much of a break from my usual reading habits as previous entries on this blog might suggest. I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell (as should be obvious from this) and Anthony Burgess (and this). I also like a great deal the works of Nicholas Monsarrat, Helen Simpson and David Lodge. When I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I was a member of the Daly Community Library – in fact, I joined it during my first week there. Since the Library had only a small selection of sf novels, I was forced to widen my reading. Abu Dhabi was not well-served by book shops, either. All Prints seemed to buy in new stock only once a year. Isam Bookshop sold just remaindered books – as a result, while there were quite a few sf titles, they weren’t very good ones. And Al Mutanabbi Bookshop sold chiefly text books. Paperbacks were expensive too, typically costing amost double their Pound Sterling RRP.

Since returning to the UK, science fiction has continued to be my first choice of reading material. But I also read a lot of mainstream fiction. Unfortunately, as I now read mostly books that I purchase, I tend to stick to authors I have already read, and only really try new authors within sf. Hence this year’s challenge…

Anyway, I’ve so far picked up books by Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Katherine Mansfield, DH Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf… And the first book I chose to read for my 2008 challenge was… The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

I suppose it was a bit of a cheat, given that I’ve seen the film. My previous experiences of reading novels from which films were adapted hadn’t been entirely successful. Marnie by Winston Graham and The Commitments by Roddy Doyle spring to mind: I liked the films a great deal but didn’t enjoy the novels.

And so it was with The Talented Mr Ripley.

In fact, other than the unconventionality of having a sociopath as the protagonist, there’s little that strikes me as especially noteworthy about The Talented Mr Ripley. Highsmith seemed to want to suggest there’s an inevitability to Ripley’s murders, as if the story is a tragedy. But there was nothing I saw that’s unavoidable about them. Even Ripley’s self-justifications fail to convince on that note – he spends very little time on the reasons for the killings, and a great deal more on how he plans to profit from them.

That’s perhaps the chief weakness of The Talented Mr Ripley. The story is Ripley. It stands or falls as Ripley as a character stands or falls. Of course, he’s an unsympathetic protagonist – a sociopath and an opportunistic killer. But is it his character, or Highsmith’s skill in depicting it, which keeps you reading? I suspect it’s merely a desire to see how it all comes out in the end. You expect Ripley to be caught and to pay for his crimes… but you also have a feeling he’ll get away with it. It’s that seesawing expectation which pulls you along to the story’s climax. And as plot-engines go, it’s not a very powerful one.

In some respects, The Talented Mr Ripley is not unlike an episode of Star Trek – no matter what happens, you have to end with the principals safe and sound for next week’s installment. Ignoring the fact that Highsmith did write more Ripley books, you still get that same feeling throughout The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s as if she decided early on that he’s too good a character to throw over a waterfall.

Ah well. Perhaps I started The Talented Mr Ripley with too high an expectation. The film promised more than the book delivered. I should know better, of course. We’ll have to see what happens with February’s choice…