menu Language Is A Virus

Review of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Adventure of the Vanishing Lady Writer - Book - November 1, 2002
The adventure of the vanishing lady writer: in which Donna Tartt, ten years after the phenomenal success of The Secret History, makes a welcome return with one of the biggest books of the year.

IF A PHRENOLOGIST MADE A MAP OF THE HEAD OF DONNA Tartt--and she is both complicated and Victorian enough that a skull-measuring pseudoscientist might have an interest in analyzing her--here's what it would show: a good-sized segment marked "Dogs" (the author behind the 1992 blockbuster The Secret History has three, and they go almost everywhere with her); another one marked "Travel" (she has a particular fondness for France); a tiny one marked "Fame" (this is something she tolerates); and a slightly larger one marked "Fortune" (the publishing rights for her latest book, in the United Kingdom alone, went for approximately $1.5 million). The rest of the chart--at least one entire hemisphere--would be stamped simply "Words," because they--written and read--are what take up the biggest part of Donna Tartt's brain.

"Donna is awfully smart," says Gary Fisketjon, who has been working with her since 1991, when he began editing The Secret History, Tartt's debut; he also edited her long-awaited follow-up, The Little Friend, which is scheduled to arrive on bookshelves November 1. "She has that kind of ambient intelligence and good memory that is always picking up something," he says. Tartt's new book--a dense, satisfying thriller about a twelve-year-old girl investigating her brother's murder that took place when she was a baby--is in many ways a paean to bibliophilia: Not only does it feature a winning and fiercely bookish protagonist, but it echoes the work of authors ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Robert Louis Stevenson to Harper Lee to William Faulkner to Flannery O'Connor. "She's such a dedicated reader and has been reading so long it's almost in her marrow," says Fisketjon. "More than even most writers, her reading informs her writing."

"I'd probably write more if I didn't read so much," Tartt, thirty-eight, admits on a late-summer Sunday afternoon at a New York City cafe, where she is eating dessert in precise, tiny forkfuls. She speaks constantly in allusion, tending to use the words of other writers (Vladimir Nabokov, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville, Rudyard Kipling) to illustrate her points.

But for the past ten years, there's been an audience waiting impatiently for her to get back to writing herself. After all, The Secret History--a campus-set murder mystery that reveals whodunit on the first page--rode the bestseller list for thirteen weeks, spawning fan dubs, movie rumors and book group discussions. The book's huge success, Tartt says, was a great surprise: "I was just not used to other people being at all interested in what I was doing and what I was thinking."

As it turned out, she wasn't that fond of the attention, and almost as suddenly as she had arrived, she deliberately faded away, politely but determinedly disappearing back into the deep cover of words. Flatly rejecting the conventional wisdom that demands a first-time author with a huge bestseller quickly crank out a follow-up, Tartt spent ten years with books not her own, walking her dogs, writing a few lower-profile pieces here and there, moving to France, where she lived for a while and, yes, returning to a novel that she had begun before The Secret History was published. That book would be finished when it was ready to be. "Kipling said, `Watch, wait and obey,'" Tartt says, referring to the writer's muse. "The voice comes and you just listen and just do what it said."

DRESSED WITH THE KIND OF ELEGANT simplicity that requires both confidence and money, the tiny, green-eyed Tartt seems not to be someone who spends much time worrying whether fans have waited around since the days when she was the It Girl of authors. Ten years ago, her elfin stature--Tartt pointed out to Vanity Fair that she was, at sixty inches and ninety pounds, exactly the size of Lolita's Dolores Haze--her severely tailored clothes, her capacity for drink, her impatience with questions she didn't want to answer, her college friendships with novelists Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt--all were dissected at length. Today, talking and listening with the patient politeness of someone who is used to being the smartest person in the room, she chooses words as though they were melons, thumping each one to make sure it's good and checking in periodically with her audience--"You know what I'm saying?"--to make sure, absolutely sure, that she is understood. Her opinions are sharp and unhesitating. She loves the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and hates nearly all others. She loves Charles Dickens and H. Rider Haggard but can't be bothered with contemporary novels in which "nothing happens," she says. "It just doesn't seem as though people try anymore. Why can't you have really well-crafted prose with adventure stories? What are novels for if not entertainment? If they're not entertaining, they're no good."

The book to which Tartt returned became The Little Friend, and it is, in fact, both extremely entertaining and remarkably well crafted (see the review on page 80). Although it is set in Mississippi in the 1970s, everything about it, from the baroque plot to the sentences dense with commas and parentheses, is colored by the late-Victorian reading that filled Tartt's own Mississippi childhood.
"The things I liked to read as a child were giving me a refined hothouse taste for prose that's combined with a kind of slamming story," she says. "That's the kick, that's the speedball. I want beautiful prose style and I want Sherlock Holmes getting Irene Adler out of that house. I want Jim Hawkins taking over that pirate ship [in Treasure Island]. That's what I've been looking for my whole adult life."

THAT SPEEDBALL IS SOMETHING SHE had as a child. Bookish, precocious and with a susceptibility to tonsillitis, Tartt spent long days home from school, in her bed reading, engaged in an activity that, if liberating, was also isolating. ("I didn't know many kids who read," she says. "I learned very early not to talk about it.") Her favorites were the classics: Peter Pan, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Master of Ballantrae, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, Kim. "When you read, it's very much about wanting to go somewhere else," she says. "And when you're a child, particularly when you're a child trapped in a small town, reading is a drug."

Tartt's early years seem to have been made of the very stuff of Southern literature. "I was the product of a skittish, immature mother," she wrote in a 1992. memoir ("Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, With Codeine") that appeared in Harper's Magazine, "and a dashing but feckless father; my parents were neither able nor inclined to take much of an interest in my early upbringing." Her great-grandfather's frequent remedy for her illness, she wrote, was an antique prescription of codeine, blackstrap molasses and whiskey.
"When I remember those years," she wrote in Harper's, "the long, drugged afternoons lying in bed, or the black winter mornings swaying dreamily at my desk (for the codeine bottle, along with the licorice medicine, accompanied me to school), I realize that I knew, even then, that the languorous undersea existence through which I drifted was peculiar to myself and understood by no one around me."

Tartt eventually discovered that she could induce the dream state without the aid of the codeine bottle. This hallucinatory self-hypnosis turned out to be a useful exercise in imagination for a nascent writer. She began keeping a notebook when she was four; she published her first poem, a sonnet, in a Mississippi literary journal when she was thirteen. And all the time she was reading. "She liked to read anything," remembers Hardy McElwain, director of the public library in the town of Grenada--the library's reading room is named for Tartt's great-aunt--where Tartt worked all through high school.
The best thing about The Little Friend is its protagonist, twelve-year-old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, who shares both Tartt's taste in reading and her uncompromising nature; like Tartt, she can send herself into hallucinatory fugue states. Like Tartt, she is small and intense. (Tartt disavows that she is, in fact, Harriet; however, when the character--who has bobbed black hair, a sharp nose, pale eyes and speaks with brisk determination--is described to Tartt's former boss, McElwain exclaims, "That's Donna!") Harriet's Mississippi, says Tartt, "is a sort of heightened version of the Mississippi I grew up in." Small-town life there in the 1970s was, Tartt feels, very much like the rest of America in the 1950s. "You could still just go out and have your own little child's world," she says. "I was a late bloomer. I can remember being in the eighth grade and still running around the neighborhood, being barefoot, going up to sit on people's porches, cutting through yards. It was a magical sort of time."

As Harriet and a host of other characters (Tartt considers the new book a symphonic work as opposed to a soloist's performance) move through 555 pages of pool halls, poisonous snakes, methamphetamine dealers, Sunday school teachers and country-club afternoons, Tartt takes the conventions of her beloved classic adventure tales and turns them on their heads, pitting traditional literary pluckiness against a real world of truly dangerous and violent people. Harriet has a particular fascination--shared by Tartt--with Harry Houdini, and one of her summer goals is to learn to hold her breath for three minutes like the illusionist could. Throughout the book Houdini and Captain Robert Scott, leader of the doomed 1912 expedition to Antarctica and another of Tartt's own childhood heroes, alternate in Harriet's mind: the escape artist and the hero who couldn't escape, both wrestling with time and mortality.

WHEN TARTT WAS FOURTEEN, THE FAMILY moved to a fancier neighborhood and she entered high school; in dull classes, she amused herself by summoning up the trance states. She joined the cheerleading squad as the smallest member, hoisted to the top of the half-time pyramid, yelling herself hoarse at basketball games but privately noting the Orwellian aspects of high school sports. ("Hell's own pep rally," she wrote in her diary after one game.) When the time came to go to college, she chose the University of Mississippi--Ole Miss--in Oxford, the traditional finishing school for upper-middle-class Mississippians. To please her mother she joined a sorority--and wound up spending a miserable year dodging Greek events.

When she was considering joining the campus newspaper, she submitted several short stories as writing samples, one of which made its way into the hands of writer-in-residence Willie Morris. He introduced himself to Tartt one night at a Holiday Inn bar. "My name is Willie Morris," he is famously reported to have said, "and I think you're a genius." Morris, a shambling, hard-drinking and expansive man, had returned to Mississippi after a wild ride as editor at Harper's in the late '60s. The forty-eight-year-old Morris and the seventeen-year-old freshman became friends. "Never will I forget my naive astonishment at discovering that there existed another person who loved words in much the same sputtering and agonized way I did," Tartt wrote in a tribute after Morris' death in 1999, "who fought them and cursed them and cried over them and stood back dazzled and agog in admiration of them. After all those years isolated in my hometown, shut up in my bedroom reading books, I had thought I was the only person in the world so afflicted."

Morris recommended Tartt to novelist Barry Hannah, who in turn--and again, famously--admitted her to his graduate-level short story workshop. At the end of the year, it was Morris who counseled her to leave Ole Miss for Bennington." `You've learned what you need to know here,' he said to me, and he was right."
AT BENNINGTON, TARTT FELL IN WITH A precocious group of writers loosely collected around a legendary professor of classics. Tartt stood out even in that rarefied company for her crisp, almost androgynous style of dress, her sharp, uncompromising intellect, her ability to outdrink nearly everyone and still go to the library the next morning to read Aristophanes or Nietzsche. By her second year at Bennington she had begun what would become The Secret History, the story of a group of students loosely collected around a legendary professor of classics. She and her friend Brett Easton Ellis, at work on his novel Less Than Zero, would exchange manuscript pages and even mined some of the same material (a group of students and their legendary classics professor earn a mention in Ellis' 1987 novel, The Rules of Attraction). The prevailing literary fashion at Bennington, as it was in most writing workshops of the early 1980s, was for Raymond Carver-esque minimalism, but Tartt steadfastly layered on rich, adjectival sentences and dense plot developments.

After graduation Tartt moved back and forth between Boston and New York, settling for a while at an art school in New York. "After a very short time, I realized that writing is easier than painting," she says. She returned intermittently to her novel, staying here and there with friends and putting in long stretches at home in Mississippi; she finally finished The Secret History in the spring of 1991. Two years earlier, Ellis had introduced Tartt to his agent, the powerhouse Amanda "Binky" Urban at International Creative Management. Urban took Tartt on then and there, and when the manuscript was finished Urban began shopping it around. Knopf won with a remarkable $450,000 bid, and the book went on to became one of the great publishing successes of the early '90s. There was the publicity tour, the movie option, the fans, the rumor mill speculation. And then the waiting began--the clock-watching of fans and detractors-feeling they were entitled to another book. The years rolled by; it was a decade later and Donna Tartt was hardly Donna Tartt anymore, And as far as Donna Tartt was concerned, that was just fine.

OF COURSE, SHE DID, EVENTUALLY, RE-appear, and her publisher has taken great pains to make sure everyone who's anyone knows that Tartt is back. Everywhere the question will be: Why the big delay?

"Oh, I don't know," she muses, looking out at the trees of Central Park across Fifth Avenue. "Ten years doesn't seem like such a long time to me." In fact, Tartt--in New York, where she lives part-time, to finish up some corrections on The Little Friend and to record an audio-book version--makes it understood, absolutely understood, that hitting anyone else's goals or timetable couldn't matter less to her.

"I never set out to write a bestselling novel with my first book," she says. "I just wanted to write the kind of book that I wanted to write. After the success of the first book there was an expectation of, well, `When is the second one coming out?' All of the sudden people are stepping in and trying to put you on a schedule as though you've got to start turning them out every three years. I mean, who says? Really! It seems to me, actually, that two novels before you're forty isn't bad." Another question sure to be among the frequently asked--"Are we going to have to wait another ten years?"--may have an answer that will please fans: Tartt is already at work on a new project, a retelling of the myth of Daedalus.

The waiter has cleared the table. Outside the window the shadows are beginning to lengthen on the sidewalk, a different magic afternoon than the ones Tartt remembers from 1970s Mississippi, those that she conjures in The Little Friend, but magic nonetheless. Tartt's dogs await, and somewhere out beyond the Hudson a printing company is gearing up for the first run of The Little Friend. In a few weeks Tartt will fly to England to begin another round of book promotions--and then the reviews will start to come in. She slides free of the banquette, smooths her summer straw hat over her well-cut hair and returns to the anonymous bustle of New York and to her East Side apartment. And then she's gone, she's Houdini, she has disappeared--at least until she appears on the Today show.

Book - November 1, 2002

©2002 West Egg Communications LLC

+ + + Comments + + +