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The New Republic Online
Thursday, January 2nd, 2003


 

The Little Friend

by Donna Tartt

Morbid Longings

A review by Ruth Franklin

"Ladies and gentlemen," announces Harry Houdini in an epigraph to Donna Tartt's new novel, "I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you that I am going to do my best." Houdini's ghost hovers faintly over The Little Friend, but the handcuff to which Tartt is referring seems to have more to do with her last novel than her current one. For with The Secret History, her enormously popular debut in 1992, Tartt set herself a trap as elaborately and painstakingly worked as Houdini's handcuff, and one from which escape has proved exceedingly difficult.

All first novels are traps of a sort, but if Tartt's cage was unusually gilded — The Secret History sold more than a million copies and established the writer, still in her twenties, as a publishing legend — it was also unusually constricting. Though critics celebrated Tartt's technical brilliance, they generally treated the book as a thriller, if an unusually well-written one, with all the condescension thus implied. The plot makes it easy to see why: a tightly knit group of eccentric college students, inspired by the Greeks, conduct a bacchanal during which (true to their source) they accidentally kill a local farmer. When their friend Bunny finds out about the murder, he blackmails them, and they decide the only way out is to kill him as well.

Yet The Secret History is not a murder mystery, not least because the murders are over before the book is halfway through. All the melodrama makes it easy to overlook how smart a book it is, from Tartt's inspired choice of a narrator (the book is told in a flashback by Richard, a latecomer to the classics group who is somewhat of an outsider to the events) to her sophistication about her own methods. The novel begins with an epigraph from Plato — "Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes" — and Richard picks up on the storytelling motif in the novel's prologue. "This was a tale that told itself simply and well," he says of Bunny's death: "the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck ... a hiking accident, no more, no less." But this "tale," of course, is false, since Bunny's death was no accident. And The Secret History, despite its deceptively straightforward beginning — "This is the only story I will ever be able to tell," Richard somberly concludes — is not told simply at all. It is a multiplicity of stories: Richard's journey as a scholarship student to the elite Hampden College, the complex dynamics of the group of friends, and the characters' psychic disintegration in the aftermath of the murder, which unrolls over the course of the entire second half of the 500-plus-page novel.

Stylistically, The Secret History is nearly perfect, from its deliberately edgy pacing to its beautifully realized dialogue. But what is most seductive about the book is its extraordinary sense of atmosphere. Richard begins the novel with a little speech about the "fatal flaw," and notes that his own is "a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs." This is a fine description of the aura of decadence that suffuses the novel's world. Tartt's style can bring to mind the early Ian McEwan, but her affinity for the grotesque has deeper roots. Richard comments at one point that the "breath of the ancient world" can be sensed around the group of friends, and one also gets a dank whiff of the gothic. Like her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors, Tartt delights in the sheer artificiality of fiction, mixing the real and the unreal, the recognizable and the unfamiliar, into a waking-dream collage. And, like her forebears, she darkens the mood now and then with touches of the supernatural, some left tantalizingly unexplained.

The characters who thrive in this hothouse could be refugees from Dickens or Bront. Henry is the group's leader, an independent-minded if unfocused genius who published a translation of Anacreon ("with commentary") when he was eighteen, and at one point is described translating Paradise Lost into Latin as a way to kill time, "like some people do crossword puzzles." Francis, his sidekick, is a flamboyant, petulant trust-fund baby whose family owns a crumbling country house to which the group often retreats. Charles and Camilla, orphaned twins, have faces like a pair of "Flemish angels." All are deliberately anachronistic, in their clothing (Henry always wears a "dark English suit" and carries an umbrella, and it is one of Tartt's most fantastic touches that not one of these college students seems to own a pair of jeans) and in their affectations, which include using straight pens and bottled ink to write their Greek homework.

Reading the book as an adult, it is easy to see Henry for the cold pedant that he is, and Francis as a spoiled hypochondriac, and Camilla as manipulative, and Richard, in the end, as a cipher. But to read it in college is to be swept away by the childish fantasy of it all — the beautiful clothes and the rich friends and the dreamy indulgence. Hampden College is awash in pharmaceuticals, but the novel's real drug is the opiate of nostalgia. Richard, narrating the events at a distance of ten years, is still too in love with the friends to look at them with an even faintly critical eye.

And as irresistible as The Secret History is, it too finally asks to be adored rather than examined. Some critics have located the book's own fatal flaw in a lack of a moral center, and it is true that the characters admit of no emotion regarding the murders other than the fear of being caught. But by the end their mental unraveling is complete. Whether it was Bunny's murder itself or the effort to cover it up that undoes them, the friends descend into a psychological chaos reminiscent of Dostoyevsky. And it is here that Tartt's gothic sensibility finally runs wild. The fraternal closeness of Charles and Camilla explodes in alcoholic violence. Richard is plagued by nightmares in which Bunny's murdered corpse appears in his dorm room. And Henry's shadowy malevolence starts to make one wonder whether he might be the devil himself.

Though these sinister elements contribute a great deal to the book's power, eventually they undermine its moral gravity. It is hard to shake the sense that Tartt does not take her own book entirely seriously. And this, I think, is because the gothic, no matter how carefully it is handled, always runs the risk of crossing over into camp. Tartt for the most part gets it right: the supernatural elements are not events in themselves, but symbols of the real psychological terrors beneath. Still, the "morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs" is in the end a fundamentally unserious notion. The students are fond of evoking the maxim that "beauty is terror." But terror itself has an unnerving tendency to dissolve into laughter.

The romance of death has deep roots for Tartt. In a brief memoir that appeared in Harper's just before the publication of The Secret History, she described her "Southern gothic childhood" in vivid detail. Born to parents who were "neither able nor inclined" to deal with an infant, she was raised by her great-aunts and grandparents, and a great-grandfather who treated her frequent ailments with glasses of whiskey and "massive doses" of codeine cough syrup. "Between the fever and the whiskey and the codeine," she writes, "I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness." Her great-grandfather believed that her sickliness was a sign that she would soon be "gathered swiftly to the Lord"; on one bad night, she overheard him say to her mother, "I'm afraid that poor child won't live to see the morning."

It is no surprise that Tartt, too, was possessed by the idea that she would meet an early grave. Delirious with fever and drugs, she suffered terrible nightmares:

The very worst dream of all still frightens me to think of, even though it is years since I last dreamed it. In it, a set of country-club types — smartly dressed, around what would have then been my parents' age — are gathered, cocktails in hand, around a barbecue grill. They are snickering with jaded amusement as one of their number — a handsome, caddish-looking fellow — holds a howling Persian cat over the barbecue, pushing its feet into the flames.... Though it was never quite clear exactly who these people were, it was obvious to me that what they were doing was Devil worship ... and that what I had glimpsed were only the more innocent, preliminary stages of the ritual. Unimaginable horrors lay beyond. Which set me thinking, as I lay back trembling in bed after Mother had come and gone, about Devils, and Hell, and all the bad things there were in the world, and what was really going to happen to me after I died, and I would start to scream again....

The demon of this nightmare — all the bad things there are in the world, and what really happens after we die — has pursued Tartt well into adulthood, and it forms the link between The Secret History and The Little Friend. Though both novels are centered around the murder of a young person, they truly find their focus in the multiplying acts of violence that shoot out like angry tendrils from the original crime. The Little Friend finds Tartt more enmeshed in the macabre than ever, though it has now taken on the more realistic (if no less gruesome) characteristics of the style familiar as Southern gothic. Rather than enhancing the novel's psychological impact, though, this fixation — there is a corpse, human or animal, in every chapter — threatens to choke it.

The prologue of The Little Friend describes the murder of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes; or rather, it describes the circumstances surrounding Robin's murder, because the crime itself is witnessed only by his two sisters, the infant Harriet and the four-year-old Allison, who has repressed whatever she saw to such an extent that it appears in her dreams only as a white sheet. When the novel proper begins, twelve years later, that terrible day has hardly faded; as in The Secret History, the impact of a person on those close to him is far greater in death than it was in life. And again Tartt is obsessed with crimes that go unpunished: Robin's killing reverberates in the various acts of depravity that ripple throughout the book, from emotional betrayal to, finally, another murder.

Harriet and her sister have been raised largely by their grandmother Edie, a bevy of adoring great-aunts, and the family's longtime housekeeper, Ida Rhew. (Robin's death sent the girls' mother into a dreamy depression from which she has never awakened, and their father lives with a mistress in Nashville, returning home only at Christmas.) Harriet, who looks like a "small badger," is the sort of child who likes to read about Genghis Khan and Captain Scott and to stir up fights among her great-aunts by telling them what they really think of each other's Christmas gifts. But she, too, has grown up obsessed with her brother's death, which she blames for the disintegration of her family. Left to her own devices for the summer, she resolves to track down and punish Robin's killer, whom she decides, based on the most circumstantial indications, must be Danny Ratliff, a former classmate of Robin's who has sunk into a life of petty crime. As Harriet trails Danny around town (there are shades of Harriet the Spy here), waiting for the right moment to strike, he becomes equally obsessed with her, convinced that she is out to get him for an entirely different reason.

The plot machinations that lead Harriet into her detective work are creaky, and in general the thriller's backbone fits The Little Friend even more poorly than it did The Secret History. At its best moments, this novel is something like an epic of two families in the South, with overtones of forebears from Margaret Mitchell to Anne Rice. The Cleves are descended from the town's elites, and once lived in a plantation ponderously named Tribulation. Like the great-aunts who remember it, the house is now crumbling, but they have carefully preserved its chandeliers and china, which appear to Harriet like "dinosaur bones" that, if examined carefully enough, will reveal the shape of the family's past.

Like Harriet and her sister, the Ratliff brothers have been reared by their grandmother, but that is where the resemblance ends. Danny's older brother Farish is simultaneously terrifying and comical: he will wear only brown UPS coveralls, which he buys by the dozen, perhaps because this outfit reminds him of his old days as a letter carrier — a job that fit well with his sideline in burglary, as it kept him apprised of the neighbors' vacation schedules. "The bushy black beard and the brown jumpsuit made him look like some kind of crazy South American dictator," Harriet's friend Hely remarks. Now, recently out of prison, he runs a dual taxidermy and methamphetamine business from a shed behind the family's trailer. (The stink of the taxidermy chemicals conveniently masks the "distinctive cat-piss smell" of the meth cooking.) Another brother, Eugene, has become a roadside preacher after an injury suffered in prison left him born again, but his new devotion to God doesn't prevent him from turning a blind eye to his brothers' business. Danny, despite his hoodlum exterior, turns out to be the most three-dimensional of the brothers: he longs to get a job as a truck driver and escape Farish's cycle of addiction and crime.

Tartt has lost none of the considerable gifts she displayed in her first novel; she is one of the most mesmerizing writers of her generation. Some of the book's most enjoyable sections show off her wicked eye for social satire, most evident here in her skewering of all representatives of organized religion. Roy Dial is a deacon-cum-automobile salesman who soaks little old ladies but turns over his proceeds to the Baptist Church; he slithers around town repossessing the cars of those down on their luck. There is also an exquisite sequence involving Harriet's brief stay at Bible camp, with a director given to bellowing "Praise the Lard!" and his sugary wife whose goal is to get all the campers to sign an "Abstinence Covenant."

The most important subtext in The Little Friend is the relations between blacks and whites in this small Mississippi town. The material here is strong enough to fill an entire novel, especially the implicit contrast between the unapologetic racism of the Ratliffs (in an early scene Danny and Farish entertain themselves by randomly shooting at blacks fishing in the creek) and the more complicated but no less vicious racism of the Cleves. Edie is fond of saying that it makes no difference whether people's skin is "black or white or purple," but when one of the great-aunts dies it occurs to no one in the family to inform the black maid who worked for her for thirty years, who lives without a telephone in an area known as "Niggertown." Harriet loves Ida, her own family's housekeeper, like a mother, but the family makes her drink out of a separate glass. Such details do much to contribute to the novel's faintly anachronistic feel; it is a shock to learn (from a casual mention of the Panama Canal transfer) that it must take place in the late 1970s, not, as one would think from the way the blacks are treated, in the 1950s or the 1960s.

But while The Little Friend contains the framework for many different novels, all of them potentially very good, the book that it actually turns out to be is not entirely satisfactory. A part of the trouble is Tartt's focus on Harriet, who is only vaguely likable at the beginning and grows less and less appealing as the book goes on. This is not entirely Harriet's fault; it is the novel that fails her, not the other way around. Though The Little Friend resembles a thriller even less than The Secret History, it keeps insisting that it is one, with a number of gory escapades that seem to function solely to keep the pages turning. In one scene, Harriet and Hely break into Eugene's Mission to steal a cobra that belongs to a visiting evangelical. (They are nearly caught, of course.) The novel's climax is an even more preposterous confrontation between Harriet and Danny at the town's water tower, which hinges upon a ladder breaking at just the right moment. These scenes, loaded with action as they are, prevent Tartt from looking long enough at Harriet to give her the kind of character development that is necessary for a satisfying coming-of-age story. When, at the very end of the novel, Harriet is finally allowed to realize what has been apparent to the reader for some time, the abrupt conclusion cuts the book off before she can come to grips with the truly serious thing that she has done.

It's a shame that Tartt has been unable to harness the real psychological terror of her material. The murder of children, after all, has been a gothic staple since the days of the Brothers Grimm. The fact that this theme is lately most often on display in film — most recently in The Blair Witch Project and the stalker-movie parodies of the Scream series — may only be a sign of its deeper relevance in contemporary American culture. But Tartt has a good deal of company: in a summer that was interrupted weekly by reports of new child abductions, Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones was hardly a surprise success. Like The Little Friend, The Lovely Bones opens with the murder of a child, in this case fourteen-year-old Susie, who narrates the book from heaven, observing the responses of her family to her death. Parts of Sebold's book are overly cute — each person gets their own heaven tailored to their personal preferences, which in Susie's case includes a duplex with a view of a dog run — and there are moments of outright sentimentality, but she appeals purely and plainly to the emotions in a way that Tartt's considerably more enigmatic book does not. Sebold's message is deeply, if falsely, consoling: despite her rape and murder, Susie winds up safe in her heaven, with her duplex and her dogs. And her book focuses firmly on the living; the corpse quickly vanishes from sight, both literally and figuratively.

Tartt's books are neither simple nor sentimental, and her dark visions, whether of privileged New England undergraduates or decaying figures of the Old South, leave a very powerful imprint. But she has not yet figured out how to channel her interest in mortality — which is, after all, a subject of the most primary significance — into the force that it needs to be for her literature. At the moments when her books would force her to take death seriously, she retreats into the haven of genre, of fast action and fast talking. Ten years ago, this could be taken as a sign of an inexperienced writer; now it is hard to be as generous. Many good novels are not great literature. That is Donna Tartt's real trap, which she has yet to escape.


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