Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)

Back on June 11, 2014, I was working a document review project in the Willis Tower.  I sat next to a guy named Frederick who went by Eric.  He liked to read, too, and I mentioned how I had posted this article on my Facebook page.  I said I hadn't read The Goldfinch, but no book had a bigger buzz attached to it at that moment.  The next day he picked it up and started reading it and told me it was good.

It took me another two years to get up the nerve to tackle it, and I can say that, while I didn't get into it immediately, after about 150-200 pages, I got into it, and I thought it was very good.  Having said that, I am curious to revisit the article.

Basically, the article posits Tartt as a stellar storyteller, but a weak wordsmith--at least, in the opinions of Francine Prose and James Wood.  And to a certain extent that is true.  This does have a pretty good story and it is not surprising that it is being made into a movie.  As for the poetry of the words, I desist.  All I want to say, for starters, is that The Goldfinch bears striking similarities to my second novel S/M (as well as DST), but couched in a much more compelling story.  If you don't already know, this is a pretty big book--about 770 pages--but it goes down pretty fast.  I mean, I did not really get into this book at first, but once I did, I finished it in just a few weeks.  One night I must have read 50-70 pages before falling asleep, and that is rare for me.  That may have happened with City on Fire, but I would recommend this over that, whether it makes me a philistine or not.

Quick plot summary: Theodore Decker, 13, has gotten in trouble at school, and his mother has taken a day off work to go with him to a conference.  For some reason the conference doesn't start right at the beginning of the day, or the end, and they decide to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out the new Dutch exhibit.  Then, a massive bomb goes off inside the museum, and there is a great deal of confusion, and an injured old man convinces Theo to take the famous painting of The Goldfinch to protect it, or something.  I think I need to consult the text for this:

"'No! They mustn't see it.' He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up.  'They've stolen the rugs, they'll take it to the customs shed--'" (37)

The man seems half-delusional, but perhaps there is a threat of it being damaged or stolen.  So Theo takes it, and gets out and goes home and waits for his mother to return.  When she doesn't, he starts to worry, and makes a number of phone calls.  The events during these tense hours seem realistic.  Ultimately Theo ends up going to his friend Andy's house and lives with him and his family, the Barbours.  His mother's life was lost in the bombing, and his father had walked out on them a year earlier.

Then, his father comes to New York with his new girlfriend, and they take Theo back with them to Las Vegas, where he meets his best friend, Boris.  I would say that this was the turning point in the novel for me.  Even though the bombing seems like it makes for an exciting opening, I didn't get into this book until Theo's father shows up.  I also think I will stop there with the specifics and try to avoid spoilers.  Let's just say Theo ends up going back to New York to live with Hobie, who was the old man's business partner in an antique shop in the west village.  There was also a younger girl with the old man at the museum, Pippa, and she also visits Hobie from time-to-time.  Pippa is the object of Theo's affection throughout the novel.  Then, the novel skips ahead a few years to when Theo is in his early 20's, and has become Hobie's partner in the business.

Many people die in this novel and sometimes it feels like a plot device, but it is really one of the major themes of the novel.  Antiques are another.  The meaning of art is another.  Drugs are another.  When I say that it reminds me of my second novel, I am talking primarily about the Las Vegas section (Part 2, starting at Chapter 5, which is at page 211) and the friendship between Theo and Boris.  There is even a passage that comes straight out of it:

"And yet (this was the murky part, this was what bothered me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses: hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked-over beers foaming on the carpet--fun and not that big of a deal when it was actually happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes rolled back  and I forgot about everything; but when we woke the next morning stomach-down and groaning on opposite sides of the bed it receded into an incoherence of backlit flickers, choppy and poorly lit like some experimental film, the unfamiliar twist of Boris's features fading from memory already and none of it with any more bearing on our actual lives than a dream.  We never spoke of it; it wasn't quite real; getting ready for school we threw shoes, splashed water at each other, chewed aspirin for our hangovers, laughed and joked around all the way to the bus stop.  I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn't want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn't either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take seriously or get worked up about.  And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn't have the wrong idea.  But the moment had never come.  Now there was no point in speaking up and being awkward about the whole thing, though I scarcely took comfort in that fact." (300-301)

And then there is also the ending, where Theo languishes in a hotel room in Amsterdam, contemplating that no move is a right move, and that the only thing left to do is leave this world.  There are great moments of suicidal depression, sexual confusion and substance abuse/addiction, so of course I liked this book.  But yes, even though it won the Pulitzer Prize for 2014, I can't quite put it on the Best Books list because a lot of it just seems random and crazy.  Most especially, I found the whole "action sequence" in Amsterdam more confusing and tedious than not.  There is a lot of dialogue in this book, and much of the explanation in this situation comes from Boris, and I didn't fully understand what kind of scheme they were carrying out--but perhaps that thin layer of confusion was intentional on Tartt's part.

So I just read the original James Wood review in the New Yorker, and it's not the worst review in the world.  It does make the book sound like "children's literature for adults," but he also says a few nice things.  We actually agree that the writing in the Las Vegas section of the book is probably the strongest.  He also imagines whether the book would have been much better if the whole trope and theme of the "The Goldfinch" was excised, and focused instead on the emotional development of the main character.  And I think this is why it touched me, because that is essentially what I was trying to do with S/M.  But nothing really happens to that character that he doesn't bring on himself--nothing that traumatic, at least, compared to what Theo goes through.  There are a lot of similarities though, and it made me feel like, if we were writing about similar things, I was at least on the right track with a book as popular as this.  However, if there wasn't the trope of "The Goldfinch," then this book would be noticeably slimmer, and a completely different genre.  It would only be published because Donna Tartt seems like a total badass.  Put it this way: it made me want to read her other two novels.  I can't help but feel a huge soft spot for any book that has passages such as this:

"But depression wasn't the word.  This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.  The writhing loathesomeness of the biological order.  Old age, sickness, death.  No escape for anyone.  Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil.  And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.  Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms.  Oh, isn't he cute?  Awww.  Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital.  Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent.  People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were.  But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it.  It was rotten top to bottom.  Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.  It was better never to have been born--never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything." (476-477)

Occasionally, The Goldfinch is great.  There is a kind of Catcher in the Rye feel to it, only on a much bigger scale, with a kind of noir edge.  It's a pretty original story, ridiculous and absurd though it may be.  I've never been very interested in antiques, nor did I want to read about antiques, which is maybe why I thought the book started slow.  But eventually, Tartt made it compelling enough to me that I could tolerate it.  Perhaps the writing seems clunky at times, and it could probably be a lot shorter if there was more of an economy of language, but one cannot deny the way it pulses forward, pushing the reader with it.

The general consensus seems to be that the ending is "overwrought."  That is, not the action that closes the story, but what comes after--and the endless philosophizing of Theo about the nature of art.  I think it's a section that's designed to be quoted on mediums like Flying Houses.  So I'll try to pick something out, and maybe it'll be a nice way to end the review.

Is there anything else that needs to be said?  I think most of the controversial debate about this book took place two years ago, but maybe a brief conversation I had with a friend puts it into perspective.  I hadn't spoken or seen this friend in almost five years, but he told me about how he read Moby Dick and was completely blown away by it and how I had to read it--so it will go on "the list."  But I also mentioned this book to him and he said, "What, is that by Donna Tartt?" It's not fair to say that this book could be mentioned in the same breath as Moby Dick, but a person appreciative of that classic tome is at least aware of the author of this one.  I'm sure this is a much easier book to get through than Melville's.  So maybe so-called millenials and other similarly-situated future individuals with warped attention spans will consider The Goldfinch their Moby Dick.  I can't say if this book will last down through the ages or not, but I would venture a guess that the movie (if it manages to come to fruition) will have a huge influence on that result.  It will make for a difficult adaptation, to be sure, but I would humbly volunteer myself to be part of the "crack team of writers" (if Tartt was not interested herself) to do it.  One cannot doubt that it will at least make for a "fun" movie, despite the extremely depressing subject matter.

And here is a representative sample of the last 20 pages:

"And as terrible as this is, I get it.  We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth.  Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us.  We can't escape who we are.  (One thing I'll have to say for my dad: at least he tried to want the sensible thing--my mother, the briefcase, me--before he completely went berserk and ran away from it.)
And as much as I'd like to believe there's a truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic." (770)

I don't want to analyze this passage too deeply; suffice to say, it speaks to me as a writer.  After this, I trust that Donna Tartt's other two books are worth reading, and I look forward to checking them out one day.

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