Monday, December 11, 2006

The Little Friend

I'm reading Donna Tartt's novel right now. I checked it out of the library and started the first pages before I realized/remembered that I'd already listened to most, if not all, of the novel on tape. In the car. Last year sometime.

But reading it on the page is a new experience. I remember vague outlines; it's the texture of the novel that's been lost.

Harriet, one of the central characters, fascinates me. I wonder if she's the character Tartt identifies with most. Harriet is a brooding, "pedantic," bull-faced 12 year old. She meets the world with a scowl, hands in fists.

The novel takes place in Mississippi, and drips with Southern hopelessness, humidity. As I read, I am thrust back into that year we spent in LA, New Orleans, Metarie, the vicious ankle biting insects, the crab grass, the putrid sewage canal in the back yard. Tartt's prose is muscular, detailed, without being precious or ornate. Though a few of the characters have become, with age, the maiden aunts that haunt Southern fiction, the fiction itself doesn't have the fragile, mothballed flavor of them. Thank God.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the novel is the fact that it's a kind of mystery. Harriet is trying to solve her brother's murder--her brother, Robin, was hanged in the back yard when Harriet was less than a year old. Twelve years have passed since the event and it remains unsolved; no one in Harriet's dysfunctional family wants to talk about the subject (they will remember Robin in technicolor, even embellish, embroider, his memory, but they bristle and keen when provoked with the actual murder). Harriet decides to take matters into her own hands.

I want to write such a story. I'm about a quarter of the way into the novel--Harriet has decided that she knows who murdered her brother and that she will enact a severe penalty: death--and delighted that I have three-quarters more to go before the end of the journey.

I'm enjoying this novel, on the second time around, more than I did Tartt's first work, The Secret History. I have to confess that Tartt is a genius, of sorts, at getting me to invest myself in her narratives. I had such a vivid reaction (negative) to one of the characters in her first novel that I can't get him out of my head. I've conflated him with a bad boyfriend, as well as with the (in)famous Ezra Pound. That novel took place in Vermont. The Little Friend is set in MS.

How does Tartt do it? Has she lived in both places? It would seem so, since her intimacy with setting (a setting that doesn't serve simply as a backdrop to plot, or character, but as instigator for them) is rich, layered, convincing. (A brief Google reveals that she grew up in MS and then went to Bennington for college, where the writer in residence declared her a genius. Oh my.)

Another thing that pleases me: Tartt must have a large incubation period. At least ten years lie between The Secret History and The Little Friend. I'm pleased by that because it gives me hope for my own languishing projects/stories.

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