Wednesday, July 3, 2013

544. The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

History: This book is a 1955 psychological thriller novel which first introduced the character of Tom Ripley who returns in the five novels collectively known as the Ripliad.
Plot: Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to make a living in New York City by whatever means necessary, including a series of small-time confidence scams. One day, he is approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to travel to Mongibello, Italy, to persuade Greenleaf's errant son, Dickie, to return to the United States and join the family business. Ripley agrees, exaggerating his friendship with Dickie, a half-remembered acquaintance, in order to gain the elder Greenleaf's trust.
Shortly after his arrival in Italy, Ripley meets Dickie and his friend Marge Sherwood; although Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie, Marge does not seem to like him very much. As Ripley and Dickie spend more time together, Marge feels left out and begins insinuating to Dickie that Ripley is gay. Dickie then unexpectedly finds Ripley in his bedroom dressed up in his clothes and imitating his mannerisms. Dickie is upset, and from this moment on Ripley senses that his wealthy friend has begun to tire of him, resenting his constant presence and growing personal dependence. Ripley has indeed become obsessed with Dickie, which is further reinforced by his desire to imitate and maintain the wealthy lifestyle Dickie has afforded him.
As a gesture to Ripley, Dickie agrees to travel with him on a short holiday to Sanremo. Sensing that Dickie is about to cut him loose, Ripley finally decides to murder him and assume his identity. When the two set sail in a small rented boat, Ripley beats him to death with an oar, dumps his anchor-weighted body into the water and scuttles the boat.
Ripley assumes Dickie's identity, living off the latter's trust fund and carefully providing communications to Marge to assure her that Dickie has dumped her. Freddie Miles, an old friend of Dickie's from the same social set, encounters Ripley at what he supposes to be Dickie's apartment in Rome. He soon suspects something is wrong. When Miles finally confronts him, Ripley kills him with an ashtray. He later disposes of the body on the outskirts of Rome, attempting to make police believe that Miles has been murdered by robbers.
Ripley enters a cat-and-mouse game with the Italian police, but manages to keep himself safe by restoring his own identity and moving to Venice. In succession Marge, Dickie's father, and an American private detective confront Ripley, who suggests to them that Dickie was depressed and may have committed suicide. Marge stays for a while at Ripley's rented house in Venice. When she discovers Dickie's rings in Ripley's possession, she seems to be on the verge of realising the truth. Panicked, Ripley contemplates murdering Marge, but she is saved when she says that if Dickie gave his rings to Ripley, then he probably meant to kill himself.
The story concludes with Ripley's traveling to Greece and resigning himself to eventually getting caught. On arrival in Greece, however, he discovers that the Greenleaf family has accepted that Dickie is dead and that Ripley shall inherit his fortune according to a will forged by Ripley on Dickie's Hermes typewriter. While the book ends with Ripley happily rich, it also suggests that he may forever be dogged by paranoia. In one of the final paragraphs, he nervously envisions a group of police officers waiting to arrest him, and Highsmith leaves her protagonist wondering, ".....was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?"
Review: Tom Ripley is not above any means of gaining a foothold to his vision of betterment. He extorts random people by impersonating an agent of the IRS and although his endeavor does not bring in any great sum of money, it is more of a glimpse into what Ripley is capable of doing. By targeting unassuming, run-of-the-mill, hard working people most likely to quickly pay a small fee to the IRS, Highsmith brilliantly portrays Ripley as clever, calculating and completely amoral. He knows the difference between right and wrong but he is utterly indifferent to either. This makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Highsmith takes the reader on a dark roller-coaster ride of deception, jealousy, deceit and murder, followed by evasion, more deceit, and more murder. Rather than chilling, senseless violence, Highsmith carefully crafts a mesmerizing tale of pursuit and near-miss as Ripley manages to stay just ahead of capture. He is crafty and calm even when in a panic. For the reader, the result is riveting.
In getting into the eerily empty room that is Tom Ripley’s conscience, I never thought I could sympathize with such a cold and calculating character, yet I was captivated. The story spirals horrifically and the building tension was incredible. There is not one fiber of my being that sympathizes with someone who harms others yet I could not bear the thought of Ripley’s failure. Wow!
Written in the 1950′s, Highsmith exquisitely captures the sense of time and place in New York City and of the enviable life of a wealthy American abroad. She describes in lovely detail the nuances that made life so wonderful for those Ripley admired that it made me want to go back and live there too. Her writing is elegant and clear, simple yet with the depth of distinction to deprive the reader from a restful night’s sleep.
It is not stated in the story whether Dickie or Tom is gay, yet Dickie’s relationship with Marge appears to be platonic due to Dickie’s lack of romantic interest. At one point in the story, Dickie becomes overly sensitive to a comment from Marge that Tom is in love with him. He angrily confronts Tom about this, reminding
us of the Shakespearian adage about protesting too much.
Whether or not the characters are meant to be gay, the attitudes portrayed in the book reflect the 1950s historical setting.
Because the story is set in the ’50s there are elements that will seem dated to the modern reader. For example, Tom takes a boat from New York to Naples, and Mr. Greenleaf sends Tom a telegram. It might be argued that advances in forensic technology and police detection methods mean that Tom would unlikely be able to get away with his crimes today. Nevertheless, the novel remains an exciting suspense thriller with fast-paced action, well-drawn characters and a gripping psychological dimension.
Opening Line: “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of The Green Cage, heading his way.”
Closing Line: “Amelio. Amelio”
Quotes: “Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.”
Rating: Engaging.

543. Moon Palace – Paul Auster

History: This book was first published in 1989.
Plot: Marco Stanley Fogg, aka M.S., is the son of Emily Fogg. He doesn't know his father. His mother dies because of a car accident when he is eleven years old. He moves to his Uncle Victor, who raises him until Marco goes to a boarding school in Chicago. When he reaches college age, he goes to Columbia University in New York City. After spending his freshman year in a college dormitory, he rents an apartment in New York.
Uncle Victor dies, which makes Marco lose track. After paying the funeral costs, Marco realizes that very little of the money that Uncle Victor gave him is left. He decides to let himself decay, to get out of touch with the world. He makes no effort to earn money. His electricity is cut off, he loses weight, and finally he is told that he must leave his apartment. The day before he is thrown out, Marco decides to ask Zimmer, an old college friend with whom he has lost contact, for help. Zimmer has moved to another apartment, so when Marco arrives at Zimmer's old apartment, he is invited by some strangers to join their breakfast. At that breakfast he meets Kitty Wu for the first time. She seems to fall in love with him. The next day, Marco has to leave his flat, and finds himself on the streets of Manhattan.
Central Park becomes Marco's new home. Here he seeks shelter from the pressure of the Manhattan streets. He finds food in the garbage cans. Marco even manages to stay in touch with what is going on in the world by reading newspapers left by visitors. Although life in Central Park is not very comfortable, he feels at ease because he's enjoying his solitude and he restores the balance between his inner and outer self.
At first, the weather is very good, so where to stay is not a big problem. But after a few weeks the weather changes. In a strong rain shower, Marco becomes ill and retires to a cave in Central Park. After some days of delirium, he crawls out of the cave and has wild hallucinations while lying outside. There, he is finally found by Zimmer and Kitty Wu, who have been looking for him for the whole time. Due to the fever he mistakes Kitty for an Indian and calls her Pocahontas.
Zimmer (the German word for room) is a good friend, hosts Marco in his apartment, bears all his expenses, and helps him to recover. But when Marco has to go to the army physical, he is still rated unfit because of his poor physical and mental state. Marco feels very bad about living at Zimmer's costs, so he finally persuades him to let him do a French translation for him to earn some money. Then he meets Kitty again, and decides to leave Zimmer. They lose touch, and when, after thirteen years, they happen to run into each other in a busy street, Marco learns that Zimmer has married and become a typical middle-class citizen.
After he has finished his work on the translation, Marco searches for another job offer. He finds a job at Effing's, where he is hired for reading books to Effing and driving the old, blind and disabled man through the city of New York in his wheelchair. Effing is a strange man who tries to teach Marco in his own way, taking nothing for granted. Marco has to describe to Effing all the things he can see while driving around. This way, Marco learns to look at the things around him very precisely. After, Effing tells Marco to do the main work he was hired for: Write his obituary. Effing tells him the main facts of his life as the famous painter Julian Barber and his conversion to Thomas Effing. He went to Utah with Byrne, a topographer, and Scoresby, a guide, to paint the vast country. Byrne fell from a high place and the guide flees from the place, leaving Barber alone in the middle of the desert. Barber finds a cave where a hermit used to live and begins to live there. He kills the Gresham brothers, 3 bandits, and takes the money to San Francisco, where he officially takes the name "Thomas Effing". He becomes rich, but one day someone tells him he's very similar to Julian Barber, a famous painter who disappeared. He sinks in depression and fear and begins frequenting China Town, taking drugs, etc. But one day someone attacks him, rushes and hits a street lamp, becoming paraplegic. He stops having such an unhealthy life, and decides to go to France. He comes back to the USA in 1939 fleeing from the Nazis.
Solomon Barber is Marco's father and Effing's son. He is extremely fat (which contrasts to Marco's period of starvation) and didn't know his father nor that he has a son. He inherits most of the fortune of Effing. He meets Marco after the death of Effing to learn about his father and finds a son. Marco, in the family cyclic pattern, doesn't know that Barber is his father. Barber had a relationship with one of his students, Emily, and never knew she was pregnant. Marco learns the truth when he sees Barber crying in front of Emily's grave.
Review:  Both Marco and Solomon are raised without having a father. This has a major impact on them:
Marco completely loses orientation when Uncle Victor dies. He is very upset about not knowing his father. Throughout the novel, Marco tries to find his roots. Shortly after finding his father, he loses him again.
Solomon writes a book that deals with the topic of a fatherless life, showing his own internal quest for identity.
Paul Auster looks at the meanings of the moon in Moon Palace: “The moon is many things all at once, a touchstone. It’s the moon as myth, as ‘radiant Diana, image of all that is dark within us’; the imagination, love, madness. At the same time, it’s the moon as object, as celestial body, as lifeless stone hovering in the sky. But it’s also the longing for what is not, the unattainable, the human desire for transcendence. And yet it’s history as well, particularly American history. First, there’s Columbus, then there was the discovery of the west, then finally there is outer space: the moon as the last frontier. But Columbus had no idea that he’d discovered America. He thought he had sailed to India, to China. In some sense Moon Palace is the embodiment of that misconception, an attempt to think of America as China. But the moon is also repetition, the cyclical nature of human experience. There are three stories in the book, and each one is finally the same. Each generation repeats the mistakes of the previous generation. So it’s also a critique of the notion of progress.”
A more prosaic explanation of the title is that the Moon Palace was a Chinese restaurant (now defunct) in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was a popular student hangout when Auster was studying at Columbia University.
Some aspects of the main character's life in Moon Palace mirror the life of the author. He was a descendant of an Austrian Jewish family, born on the Third of February 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, which is about 15 miles west of New York City. He also attended high school there. In his childhood, Auster's father Samuel Auster was often absent. Samuel Auster was a businessman who left the house in the morning before his son was awake and returned home when he was already in bed. Auster always searched for someone to replace his father. Unlike his father his mother gave Auster very much attention. In fact this may also put a different light on the title as the moon is symbolic of the female or the mother. Paul Auster and Marco Fogg were both born in 1947. Marco's, Solomon's and Paul's father were all absent during their sons' childhoods. When Paul's uncle travelled to Europe he stored several boxes of books at the Austers' home. Paul Auster read one book after the other. The same goes for Marco, who read his Uncle Victor's books.
Opening Line: “It was the summer that men first walked on the moon.”
Closing Line: “I kept my eyes on it as it rose in the night sky, not turning away until it had found it’s place in the darkness.”
Quotes: “It often happens that things are other than what they seem, and you can get yourself into trouble by jumping to conclusions.”
Rating: Very very good.