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Donna Tartt’s worst novel

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt (Vintage Book, 2002)

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A creepy cover but, like the novel itself, I have no idea what it is meant to signify,

“The only thing keeping this book together is the binding” quipped one reviewer on Good Reads. It’s an exaggeration but I understand where this reader is coming from.

Donna Tartt’s second novel begins,like her first and third, with a violent death. The sister of a dead boy, Harriet,  vows to find out what happened. She’s a gutsy, unconventional young woman and the strength of this character raises hopes that this might be a tight and nail-biting murder mystery or at least a gothic melodrama of sorts.

It is neither.

The main failing is that the tightness and control displayed so brilliantly in The Secret History is absent. Instead, the looseness that made the conclusion of The Goldfinch such a disappointment is all too present.

When Donna Tartt is writing about domestic dramas she is good at exposing “the tiny flaws and snags in the thread of reality” and creates tension in the most mundane of family situations. When she tries to write about characters from the wrong side of the tracks the credibility factor begins to falter. Drug dealers and violent delinquents are not her forte. Long passages here try desperately to create a Dickensian sweep involving good vs evil; right vs wrong but end up being merely sprawling and unfocused.

It picks up briefly towards the end with a couple of good action sequences but by then I’d ceased caring.

THE REVENANT directed by Alejandro G.Iñárritu (US, 2015)

revenant-leoIn which an A-list vegetarian actor is forced to eat buffalo liver, raw fish and to pick meat off the bones of long dead animal carcasses.

These are only part of what Leonardo Di Caprio, as Hugh Glass,  has to endure after being left for dead in an unforgiving snowy wilderness with a constant threat from roving tribes of Native Indians. Though set at the end of the 19th Century, this is a modern day western in the raw, gritty spirit of Cormac McCarthy.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s landscape photography is astonishing and it come as no surprise to discover that he has also worked with Terrence Malick. It justifies the director’s decision to use natural lighting and to reject the easy option of computer-generated imagery.

The special effects are equally breathtaking. A fight with a grizzly bear is amazingly realistic. Never has the ‘no animal has been harmed during the making of this film’ message been so necessary.

Stripped to the rawest elements, this is a tale of survival and revenge against all odds. The tagline ‘Blood lost – life found’ can also serve as a plot summary. Complaints in some quarters about the movie being merely a celebration of machismo are akin to complaining of lack of affirmative female roles in a war movie.

Tom Hardy plays the ruthless Fitzgerald, Glass’s uncompromising adversary. Hardy is an actor who seems to inhabit his characters while I generally find it harder to separate DiCaprio from his offscreen persona. I will concede, however, that DiCaprio gives an impressive no holds barred performance here, one which should finally earn him the long-awaited Academy Award.

In a state of exhaustion and barely alive, his stony stare into the camera at the end of the movie should come with the caption: NOW can I have an Oscar, pleeeeeeaaaase!

jobs

Micahel Fassbender ponders how he got talked into playing the role of Steve Jobs.

STEVE JOBS directed by Danny Boyle (USA, 2015)

The remarkable life of Steve Jobs cannot possibly be condensed into 122 minutes without making significant compromises. You have to distort events to create a cinematic reality. The problem of Danny Boyle’s movie, however, is that the bounds of credibility are pushed too far.

Scripted by Aaron Sorkin from William Isaacson’s biography, it takes such monumental liberties with the facts that what we are left with is a crude approximation of a complex man rather than a detailed insight into what elevated him to greatness.

His relationship with daughter Lisa may have been significant in real life but it’s hard to believe that she had such a major influence on his working philosophy.

In one key scene, Lisa works alone to ‘paint’ a picture on the early Mac causing Jobs’s hard heart to melt. It’s a touching moment but it never actually happened. It only serves to make you wonder how many other details in the movie are made up. The prominence given to the father-daughter relationship is all the more bizarre since Jobs’s wife and three children don’t figure in the story at all. View full article »

IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O’Brien (First published 1995)

itlw3Twenty years on from his debut non-fiction work – If I Die In A Combat Zone – this novel by Tim O’Brien shows that the author is still burdened by the memories of his year spent in Vietnam.

The tale begins as a study of a marriage in which whatever glow there once was has long since faded.

We meet democratic politician John Wade and his wife who are holed up in a remote cabin, escaping the public humiliation of a heavy electoral defeat.

His previously high standing with the voters has nosedived after his involvement in the atrocities at Mai Lai is exposed. Kathy never seems entirely sympathetic to his plight.

Prior to his downfall she had had a brief fling with her dentist and her sudden disappearance doesn’t initially cause him great concern.

Eventually he wakes up to the idea that something bad may have happened to her. In a series of hypotheses, possible scenarios are laid out but early on O’Brien warns the reader that we will never be told what really became of her.

The ‘evidence’ chapters mix real quotes with fictional ones but these increasingly strike you as a contrived series of red herrings. It’s as if O’Brien started out with the notion of writing a mystery story then got bored with the idea.

This is a shaggy dog story, albeit one with adult themes. As such,  the author effectively removes most reasons to keep on reading.

On top of this, we quickly get to realize that the man Kathy left behind was a jerk before his wartime traumas and is an even bigger jerk after.

A story like this demands that you should feel a degree of sympathy for one or other of this ill-fated couple but redeeming factors in both are in short supply. There are half-baked hints that she may have been murdered but knowing that you will never know doesn’t exactly make this into much of a page turner.

The would-be drama is offset by prolonged flashbacks to the horrors of war that don’t properly belong here.

Tim O’Brien writes succinctly but the plot goes off at too many tangents and leaves all the interesting questions dangling.

IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE by Tim O’Brien (First published 1973)

Nowadays, few are prepared to defend America’s invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s but, at the time, anyone who opposed the draft were seen at best as naive beatniks, at worst as traitors.

In times of conflict, propaganda machines of the state and media go into overdrive. Dissenting voices are ridiculed or silenced. Lip service is paid to alternative perspectives but killing continues to be routinely sanctioned in the bogus name of patriotism and justice.

Tim O’Brien’s first book was written, or begun, while serving in the combat zone of Vietnam then completed at graduate school when the war was over. The short sentences and plain language are reminiscent of Hemingway but this is no celebration of machismo.

On the contrary, O’Brien’s first instinct was to escape to Canada or Sweden. He ended up signing up; not because he believed in the cause but out of “a fear of society’s censure…..fear of weakness, afraid that to avoid war is to avoid manhood”. View full article »

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