So the search for great reads continues, against all the odds (I live without the benefit of either a library or real bookstore) and in spite of numerous disappointments (see entry dated October 8th below).
Did I get lucky? Well, yes and no. That is, I didn't read anything that made me want to throw it across the room. (Not idle talk: I actually did throw a book across the room once, and it was The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, which shall probably cement my Philistine status in the eyes of many, but that is a review for another time, if ever). I was entertained and didn't feel that I'd utterly wasted my time. Those things alone are starting to feel like luxuries these days. Vive la entertaining reads with actual plots.
Updike doesn't disappoint: his prose, melded here into ornate, archaic shapes, is as gorgeous as ever. He takes advantage of the medieval milieu to make use of the fantastic imagery of fairy tales--a striking contrast to the bleak imagery of his contemporary work--while at the same time weaving a tale of contemporary sophistication. Very little actually happens, as the novel is meant as a prelude to the play. And perhaps the greatest weakness of the novel lies in its being entirely dependent upon a different (and world-famous) work of literature.
But Updike is no fool: he doesn't attempt to escape the monolithic shadow cast by Shakespeare, which is ultimately inescapable. Rather he uses the shadow to his advantage in a variety of ways. The most obvious way is in a subversion of the readers' expectations: as it turns out, the weak-willed Gertrude portrayed by Shakespeare has a strong, passionate heart and a core of utter decency in her depiction by Updike; Claudius is a tortured man who commits murder chiefly to protect the woman he loves (or so he tells himself, at least). More outrageously, Hamlet is a whiny, pretentious prig and his father would drive anyone mad if he hung about as a ghost. Polonius and Ophelia are the only characters who are essentially the same in both depictions, the strongest thread of commonality to bind the two works aside from the obvious initial connection.
But if that were the only way in which Updike played off of Shakespeare, any mediocre writer could achieve the same thing: the shock effect. It is the subtleties that make this work impressive, the way Updike uses our familiarity with the story of Hamlet to challenge the readers' perspectives. We see the same court, the same castle in Gertrude and Claudius as we see in Hamlet, but this time it is through the calm eyes of the imprisoned, thoughtful queen. Her ruminations on a woman's role in the medieval world lend an edge of poignancy to this tale and show the play in a new light. The relationship between Gertrude and Claudius, rather than being a tawdry fling, is a touchingly developed love story that veers away from Updike's usual embrace of the flesh; it takes many, many meetings and searching conversations before they will consummate the act. And lastly but perhaps most significant of all, Gertrude's grief at the death of her husband is real.
All of this conspires to raise the idea that perhaps the secrets that Hamlet so determinedly unearths in the course of the play are not really his affair at all; that perhaps they, like Yorick's skull, should have been allowed to remain peacefully buried. In short, Updike takes a medieval tale--with all the misogyny and crudity inherent in such a tale--and turns upon it the light of his insight to reveal subtle shades and aching moral dilemmas.
In the end, while Updike cannot and does not even try to surpass Hamlet, the sense of tragedy at the end of Gertrude and Claudius does surpass that of play--because two middle-aged people who are deeply in love are far more sympathetic than a self-involved young intellectual, when all is said and done. And because Updike has evoked so beautifully the musical sounds of the rain, the scent of spring awakening, that accompanies this love in its beginning and fades so tragically by the end in castle intrigues and the scent of death.
It may seem unfair to write about Donna Tartt and John Updike in the same post, but the truth is that I would never do Tartt the disservice of comparing them. My expectations from The Little Friend were entirely different from my expectations of an Updike novel: I hoped to be intelligently but thoroughly entertained.
Beginning with a child's brutal murder and plunging the reader into a world of childhood trauma and dysfunction, this wasn't quite what I was expecting. The setting has a noir-ish quality, particularly in the way that so many of the characters are hard-nosed and indifferent to the plight of a little girl. The novel flashes back and forth between Harriet's world--with her negligent mother, traumatized sister, and insensitive grandmother and aunts--to the underworld of the little Mississippi town in which she lives; ironically, the naked immorality of the criminal world is subtly mirrored in the milieu of the upper crust, in which a child can seem cared for but is really for all intents and purposes abandoned.
Harriet, being aware that her home was different before her older brother was murdered, decides to find the murderer--and kill him. In an early twist, it becomes clear that this is not a mystery--Harriet is not really committed to proving the identity of the killer, only to fastening guilt on someone who comes to embody all the horrors of her own life. Consequently, we never get any clues to the murder, only a chronology of Harriet's attempts at vigilante "justice." Along the way, we see Harriet flailing for love, love of any kind; and the reader knows that love would defuse Harriet's obsession in an instant.
The novel is compelling at first, but it begins to wear thin near the middle and never picks up after that. The problem is that while the premise and its execution are both absorbing, there is too much of the same repeated over and over again. At the beginning, we can intuit that Harriet is depressed and feels unloved; near the middle, the author seems worried that we may not have picked this up and begins to articulate it, thereby losing the atmospheric power of that which is left unsaid. And while Harriet's world, in all its grim and grey dimensions, is fascinating, the criminal underworld is surprisingly banal. Those sections, given their banality, go on way too long.
Perhaps the most notable thing about The Little Friend is that both hunter and "killer"--one an upper-class child, one a "white trash" criminal--are shown to be moving in parallel paths despite the surface differences. They have both been deprived of any nurturing, so that criminal enterprises became an escape from the world. Harriet, in attempting to kill Danny Ratliff (the alleged murderer) is in fact stalking her own shadow.
It's a clever idea--and at about 200 pages shorter, would have been well-executed on top of that. As it is, I can't really recommend this book, but I will be checking out Tartt's other work.