It is a curious blend of pleasure and pain to re-read a novel that one didn't much care for the first time around, and to find it not only good but very good. Not only very good but objectively good: good in a way that can't be attributed to whim or mood. Meaning, by the same token, that one's first impression wasn't the result of caprice, either, probably, but — and this is the painful, the humiliating part — rather of inattentiveness.
And to read two such novels back to back! It would kill one if the novels didn't turn out to be so good.
I'm not sure just why I chose to re-read The Flame Throwers. The brightness of Rachel Kushner's literary star has only waxed since the appearance of her third novel, The Mars Room, which I've been thinking of reading despite its unprepossessing setting (a woman's prison, I understand). All I remembered of the second novel was that it didn't hold together in my mind; there were bits about the New York art scene in the 1970s, and other bits about radical unrest in the Italy of that period, and also a stretch of motorcycling on the Bonneville flats. And that it wasn't anything like Kushner's first novel, Telex From Cuba, which had bewitched me. In this, Telex From Cuba was like Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which was even more bewitching. (I've read it four times, thrilled each time.) I do know why I picked The Little Friend for a re-reading: Kathleen suggested it. Somehow that triggered the thought that, this time, maybe, I would at least understand a little better what Tartt was trying to do.
Something unpleasant emerged quickly in the early pages of The Flame Throwers. Like a monster slowly taking shape in some science-fiction teleporter, the narrator was shown to be someone whom I had dismissed as unworthy of my attention. A young woman from out west with a rude taste for speed and no name of her own (the man of her dreams calls her 'Reno,' and it sticks), a self-avowed hanger-on, openly dependent on the wealth and influence of the men who are attracted to her. I don't know what has come over me since The Flame Throwers came out less than ten years ago, but this time I did not respond to Reno in such odious snobulismus. Instead I opened myself to the humanist grief that suffuses the novels of Robert Stone, only now expressed from a woman's view.
About my first encounter with The Little Friend I recalled being sorely dsappointed that the murderer responsible for the death so brilliantly etched in the book's prologue was not apprehended, and that the principal characters were children, while the supporting roles went mostly to Harriet's great-aunts and to the nasty Ratliff clan. I remember not being interested in reading about a mid-sized Mississippi town.
What I wanted, of course, was another Secret History. That's what a lot of Little Friend's readers wanted, and we were all disappointed, because Secret History isn't really a novel at all, but a romance. It tells a story that might once have been called "scary"; now we would say "cautionary." At heart, however, the story is essentially flattering. Anyone capable of enjoying the book would very likely have had at least vaguely similar experiences at college, if not of homicide then of belonging to a clever band of the happy few perhaps half as glamorous as the one that Tartt creates out of an assortment of odd young men and a pair of mysteriously attractive fraternal twins. The Secret History is very well written, but the reader who notices this is likely to take it as a recognition of his intelligence rather than as a means to the expression of an account of reality — reality somewhere, sometime, as every great and even very good novel is.
The Little Friend does not tell a story. With a daring that amounts to effrontery, Tartt declines to proceed from her prologue's promising point of departure. Instead, she jumps ahead twelve years, to a time in which Who killed Robin Dufresnes? is no longer a compelling question. The people of Alexandria, Mississippi have concluded that a psychotic drifter murdered the boy. Only his little sister, Harriet, a baby in a playpen when her brother died, finds any mystery in the matter, and it is fairly obvious that her motivation is the jumble of secrets and confusion that her mother and her great-aunts and her family's housekeeper have raised her in. Harriet needs to make sense of something, and so long as she keeps what she's up to to herself, she can make what she wishes of her brother's death.
Nor does Harriet properly investigate the matter. She decides almost at once who the killer must have been, and proceeds to the question of how best to exact revenge. (The mystery of Robin's death is thus twice overlooked.) What follows, for more than four hundred pages, is the long approach to a collision. Because we know that Harriet thinks that Danny Ratliff "did it," we begin to follow Danny Ratliff around his almost completely alternative universe. He lives with his grandmother and several brothers in a couple of trailers on a highway outside of town. Here, his oldest brother, Farish, operate a methamphetamine laboratory alongside his taxidermy studio. The counterpoint between gentry and trash is alarming: the Ratliffs are dangerous and Harriet should have nothing to do with them. Instead, she comes together with them and then pulls away in a mad square dance.
What is frightening is not the story, which Tartt seems to set aside from time to time as if it were a distracting bit of knitting, but the tension between Dufresne and Ratliff, a tension that the town itself can barely contain. Harriet's world appears to be tidy and genteel, but it is actually rather shabby and, in the case of Harriet's own home, almost squalid. The domestic habits of the two families do not differ nearly as much as their superficial manners. The manners are just about all that is left of Alexandria's prosperity. Aside from a sprinkling of cooks and housekeepers, and the odd old man walking along the highway, there are no blacks in this Alexandria; it is as though, having ceased to provide command labor, the descendants of slaves have ceased to exist, leaving whites to subsist as best they can. The only palpable instance of prosperity is Roy Dial, the oleaginous Chevrolet dealer. (Harriet's father, a banker, has relocated to Nashville.) Not a word of The Little Friend fails to convey the sinking fortunes of a once-flourishing depot.
About every five years, someone tried to open up the Alexandria Hotel again and use if for a dry goods shop, or a meeting hall, or something or other, but such efforts never lasted long. Simply walking pas the place made people uncomfortable. A few years ago, some people from out of town ahad tried to open a tearooom in the lobby, but now it was closed.
Harriet stopped on the sidewalk. Down at the end of the empty street loomed the hotel — a white, staring-eyed wreck, indistinct in the twilight. Then, all of a sudden, she thought sher saw something move in an upstairs window — something fluttery, like a piece of cloth — and she turned and fled, heart pounding down the long darkening street, as if a flotilla of ghosts were skimming after her. (232)
Such ghosts are the effluvia of the very bricks of the town, visible to anyone with roots there. As well as to the attentive reader of Donna Tartt's gripping, thorough report. The Little Friend is a dossier, not on a crime but on a way of life — a way of life long centered on memory. Moments from the past, possessed in however distorted recollection, are more valuable than money. The pages compose a vast contrapuntal tone poem wherein the past captures the present.
Although the dénouement is polished and gradual, the novel does simply break off with none of its threads tied up. Nevertheless, there is a powerful sense of resolution, because Harriet is at the end of her childhood. Certainly this is partly a matter of understanding; she has learned a few things about the world in her long adventure. Much more than that, though, it is simply the fact of being twelve. There is a suggestion that of rapprochement between her parents, which might require her to leave Alexandria for Nashville. There is her grandmother's shocked realization that the messiness in which Harriet and her sister live, quite as if there were no adults in charge, can not be allowed to continue. Harriet's relationship with her little friend, Hely Hull (not the Little Friend of the title) has reached an inflection point: their experiences have been too intense either to continue or to forget. There is every indication that Harriet is on the verge of the outcome that she so detests in children's books: the prospect of boring normal adult life. Then again, Harriet way discover a way to follow her heroes, Scott of the Antarctic and Harry Houdini without imitating their examples.
A great novel is a confection of words in which many people find the illusion of a real world. In fact it is the creation of a real world parallel to the one that we sense constructed out of the only tools that we have for dealing with what is not present: words. Fiction allows the writer to give this parallel world the fullest possible realization, a model from which we can learn to talk better about our own. Every word in The Little World harmonized with Donna Tartt's vision of a moment in place. The story that she tells is oblique and some will find it disappointing, but it teaches us that story is a habit of mind that only actual words can penetrate and refine. A story is a lazy thing; the words in a great novel keep the story from settling down too comfortably.
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