Friday, August 20, 2010

Book 22 - The Little Friend

By Donna Tartt

Finally! Here is what I think of the 600+ page tome I’ve been laboring thru for bloody weeks. The one where I had to take two breaks for some needed levity and brevity, even if to endure subpar werewolf fantasy. Despite the fact that Tartt is a wonderfully gifted writer, her long-awaited second novel has some huge flaws – it's much too wordy and hubristically long-winded for its own good. If only she had a Nazi editor to mercilessly trim down 200 pages, The Little Friend would’ve been a less torturous read. I much admired her debut novel The Secret History and considered it a bit of a masterpiece, as did legions of fans and critics. It must have been a Herculean task for Tartt to equal or surpass TSH (and a decade later too), and unsurprisintly her sophomore effort received a deal of buzz and fanfare. Ironically, what I enjoyed most about TLF was reading the divided yet entertaining reviews it generated at the time. One Guardian reviewer summed up quite well how I felt:

No [worthy fan] is going to let the author of The Secret History's second book pass by unread, though what they will find is frankly frustrating. For most of its length, The Little Friend lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written, even if it offers the considerable pleasures of being the work of someone who knows how to write.

On the surface, TLF takes a familiar premise—the plucky child sleuth—to a new literary level—kind of like a twisted Southern Gothic fairy tale meets Harriet the Spy. In a backyard somewhere in Alexandria, Mississippi, a little boy named Robin is found dead hanging from a black tupelo tree. Ten years later, the mystery of Robin’s death remains unsolved and the various members of the Dufresnes and Cleve clan are still struggling to move on from that tragic event. The story centres on Harriet, who was only a baby when her brother died. She grows up to be a highly precocious yet troubled 12-year-old who becomes obsessed with finding Robin’s purported killer. She enlists Hely, her best (and only) friend, to exact clumsy, misguided vengeance.

The first half of the book moves along languidly yet interestingly. Tartt does a meticulous job recreating Southern society in the 1970s with its decaying colonial houses overtaken by bland suburbia. Tartt grew up in Mississippi, so she’s obviously writing what she knows. Her treatment of societal subsets -- the tottering spinsters clinging to what’s left of their Southern ways and aging black maids, or the poor white trashy folk who live on the edge of town -- verges on caricature at times. But she take a lot of care in her depiction of Harriet’s dysfunctional, female-dominated family: comatose pill-popping mother, Charlotte, dreamy older sister, Allison, indomitable grandmother-matriarch, Edie and the cluster of doting great-aunts.

Tartt also mines the vast body of juvenile literature to make her own unsentimental, anti-coming-of-age novel and she does a great job portraying Harriet as an anti-heroine who is more hedgehog than Nancy Drew. According to her friend Hely, who is also her secret admirer:

There were plenty of girls at school prettier than Harriet, and nicer. But none of them are as smart, or as brave. Sadly, he thought of her many gifts. She could forge handwriting—teacher handwriting—and compose adult-sounding excuse notes like a pro; she could make bombs from vinegar and baking soda, mimic voices over the telephone. She loved to shoot fireworks—unlike a lot of girls, who wouldn’t go near a string of firecrackers. She had got sent home in second grade for tricking a boy into eating a spoonful of cayenne pepper; and two years ago she had started a panic by saying that the spooky old lunchroom in the school basement was a portal to Hell.

A NYT reviewer described TLF as a young-adult novel for grown-ups and how Tartt bestows Harriet with a

fierce, adolescent sense of right and wrong and [a] dangerous habit of sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. If these aspects of her personality make her recognizable, they also make her memorable and unique: she is part of a literary sisterhood of smart, prickly loners, and as such she is likely to attract generations of loyal followers.

But somewhere around the halfway point, I didn’t feel like reading TLF anymore. I became impatient and frustrated at how slowly events were unfolding. I started skimming through the densely descriptive passages because I had enough of the precious atmosphere and just wanted to find out what happens next. Looking back, I pinned down the key events or turning points:

p. 150 - Harriet pins Robin’s old classmate Danny Ratliff as the murderer.

p. 234 - Harriet and Hely stalk out Danny for the first time.

p. 370 - Harriet and Hely make their first clumsy and failed attempt to kill Danny.

There are 220 pages between 150 and 370, and I started losing interest around p. 300.

Now I understand that TLF isn’t meant to be a plot-driven novel, but there was definitely an overwhelming amount of exposition to muddle through, and worse, it was bogged down by overindulgent prose, which did not go unnoticed by reviewers, one of whom was rather unforgiving by describing TLF as a pretentious, incoherent melodrama as well as “an extended prose catastrophe”, where Tartt has strained too hard to create an air of unreality at the expense of plot and character:

Characters say things ''soberly,'' ''belligerently,'' ''faintly,'' and ''impassively,'' while exhaling ''audibly'' and stuffing bills into pockets ''laboriously.'' That's just page 204. Laughingly, I turned to discover Danny twisting ''rather spasmodically.'' Dumbfoundedly, I wondered how a mosquito might sting someone ''luxuriously.'' Such prose events disqualify ''The Little Friend'' as literature and also rule it out as decent trash. It's hard to dive into an action scene when people running for their lives turn to notice ''the path they'd beaten through the yellow-flowered scraggle of bitterweed, and the melancholy pastels of the dropped lunchbox....''

Even those who liked the book couldn’t help but notice “her tendency to describe things in threes, in arching adjectival triplets”:

Someone’s heart "vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment".
A china dinner service that is "heavenly, glorious, a complete set”
A photograph in which the light is "fractured, sentimental, incandescent with disaster".

But despite Tartt’s overwrought writing style, the same reviewer also thought she ultimately succeeded in creating a richly detailed universe.

Even if she stumbles over details, the pace of this novel remains impressive. Tartt is able to make "reading time" slow down, so that you feel you are experiencing the events she describes in real time, or even more slowly than real time. This groggy, dreamlike pace is particularly effective at moments of high drama. One action scene, in which Harriet and her best friend are caught for a few hours between a set of poisonous snakes and two violent criminals high on drugs, takes up 24 pages of unflagging description, which will speed your pulse as if you were trapped along with the children.

And here is someone actually defending Tartt’s overwrought writing style:

Critical puritans (or merely Yankees) will point to its Dixie weakness for verbosity, caricature and melodrama. Yet the verbosity yields passages of mesmerising beauty; the caricature, stretches of delirious comedy; and the melodrama, moments of nerve-shredding excitement. At its close, few readers will wish The Little Friend a page shorter, or a shade paler.

TLF also made me think of the disappointing The Lovely Bones (TLB!), which was also published the same year in 2002. Both novels received mucho hype, both are set in 1970’s suburbia and present realistic portrayals of a family dealing with the tragic aftermath of a murdered son or daughter. More significantly, both are burdened with glaring flaws that pretty much ruined the entire reading experience for me. Also interesting to note that the killer in both novels never gets caught. But where Sebold resorts to a consolatory ending: the killer gets his comeuppance and the victim finds heavenly harmony, Tartt offers no such reassurance nor does she feels a need to assuage her readers in such romantically saccharine notions.

So let’s close with this fair assessment from the NYT :

What this all adds up to is a tragic, fever-dream realism. Though the world Harriet discovers is unquestionably haunted, there is nothing magical about it, or about the furious, lyrical rationality of Tartt's voice. Her book is a ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is -- drab, ugly, scary, inconclusive -- filtered through the bright colors and impossible demands of childhood perception. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe.

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