Saturday, April 19, 2014

Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Well, I suppose I should finally get around to reviewing this novel, now that Donna Tartt has gone and let Pulitzer get all over the thing. It's taking up a lot of room in the pile anyway.  I'm embarrassed to find myself riding the critical bandwagon for those these sweet, sweet Google hits (dozens of them!), but I want you all to know that I read it and formed opinions of my own a good month or so before it was Literary.

The goldfinch in the novel isn't a bird, but rather The Goldfinch, the famous painting by Carel Fabritius, reproduced way down below.  In the alternate timeline* of the novel, it goes missing in a terrorist attack on the New York gallery that it's touring. (The attack is an undisguised parallel--and really, all the big metaphors in the novel are out there in the open and enjoyably discussed--to the artist's life, which reached an early end when the gunpowder factory next door to his studio blew up, taking the poor man out, and most of his work too. Tragically so: Fabritius was the most respected pupil of Rembrandt, and to read Tartt describe him, he was innovative almost to the point of anachronism, a rockstar back in his day.) In the mayhem around the museum explosion, the small painting falls into the hands of 13-year-old Theo Decker, and even the actions that lead the boy to keep it are innocent enough at the beginning--he couldn't be more traumatized--but as the novel unfolds, the piece persists through his young life, hidden under beds and in secret lockers, a token of undeniable significance that he feels lends similar significance to his own life struggles.

The Goldfinch is a long one, but it flies right by, even while including its share of heavy thoughts. I find a lot to admire in Tartt's writing style. It's as though every scene washes in and washes out in a heady wave of intelligent free-associative goodness, but it never lingers too long, never bogs down in the details. And if the plot, at times, appears to be tacking back and forth a bit, it doesn't stop moving, and doesn't lose its momentum. It's as if the author has found some interesting new middle area between tightly-mapped literary convention and what the sloppy course of a life is actually like. The dialogue reads like this, too. It's full of the inhibiting awkward pauses and stutter-starts that infuse real conversations, but it doesn't lack the usual storytelling impact that dialogue gives. It just makes it feels a little more natural.

[And since it came up at one point, does Tartt have any tells as a female author? Well, about 40% of the novel discusses Theo's relationship to his mother, and for a bildungsroman, it doesn't focus much on the usual checklist of boys' "firsts."  And as in the last novel, the role of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl is now occupied by a full, complicated female character who could have had a story of her own.]

Or maybe what's telling is more an old-school sort of character development. The book reminded me a great deal of Great Expectations (and if there's a character named Pip in there, then probably this can be taken as intentional), which I admit I haven't read since high school. I find that to be a bizarre connection in some ways, because Tartt really doesn't share anything I could spot of Dickens' voice, and certainly isn't infected very deeply with his morality. Nor is there anything in any of the settings that I would remotely describe as "Dickensian." But on the other hand, our protagonist does, like the original Pip, skirt among the gray spaces between upper-crust society and underworld criminality though he doesn't really belong in either sphere.  It's a schism struck by a random event, and the book takes us readers on a tour through both worlds. He's given a benefactor, given a love interest by dint of authorial placement (damaged, magnetic Pippa), of similar non-chemistry as Pip and Estelle ever had, but with a conscious statement to make about all of that. And if our new cast members fit perfectly modern molds, the characters have that same kind of fullness and extravagance as Dickens', here pulled up short of caricature (at least most of the time**).

As he develops, Theo comes to incorporate both poles, class and corruption, into his character.  After the startling loss of his free-spirited nurturer of a mother, we turn to sad, grand outskirts of Las Vegas and his alcoholic gambler of a father, possessed of a kind of blowsy self-centered charm and lurking viciousness.  (He probably doesn't deserve his fate either.)  Theo develops into a bright underachiever with a self-destructive streak (ha--unlike Pip), and gravitates into the world of antiques and fine art, which is the commercial side of that same morally vague intersection. I don't actually think I like Theo all that much Nicholas Hoult as Theo[and I need to mention this somewhere: my mental images of characters are almost never cast as real-world actors, but in this case, he's clearly played in the movie version by this kid], but I do like how he looks at the world. He has a good eye for the flaws in beauty--like the natures mortes style that his mother describes--the chain on the golden bird--but he values the beauty for its own sake too, which is richer and somehow sturdier for the vulnerability it can't escape. 

Life, of course, is infected by death, treachery, decay. And we, artists and observers, look to uncover the universals that make it beautiful. Does the painting make Theo's life significant? I think we, as per the novel's themes, have to concede that in his life, this is a conceit, but we also are left to recognize that if Theo's life can turn over one of those artistic truths, then that is a worthy thing to have done. Theo's infatuation with Pippa is unfounded, and even he knows that it's not real love, but then, blobs of paint (that, as composed, draw attention to themselves as paint) aren't a living bird either.  Nor, of course, is a gigantic stack of words a real life--Theo and Pippa don't exist any more than the bird does.  But on one very important level, it doesn't matter. There is power, truth, (and irony), and permanence in what these fleeting things can make us feel.

Regarding the painting: several prints of it can be found online, but the lighting was apparently different when some of them were photographed.  There is a set that is a weak sea of browns--the print that's supplied on the page of the book is like this too--while others quite nearly glow. I tried to catch one of the latter, which is more how the book describes it.

* It doesn't fit into the flow of the review, but there is something just a little hinky about that timeline, and though it's a small complaint in what I found to be a great read, I can't quite let it go. I read the first 50 pages of the book thinking the whole thing took place 60 years ago, and it wasn't until  people whipped out cell phones and laptops around the museum that it became clear to me that it's a relatively modern setting, though the precise when is even then not quite pinned down.  (I was looking for reference points by then--I believe Theo says he was alive on 9/11, so we have a range.)  Late on, when Theo's 27, the date is revealed as 2012, which puts the bombing in 1998--would people have had ubiquitous cell phone video cameras then?  (She evidently wrote the book over approximately this span.  Did she write it out linearly?)  Tartt lets the characters watch well-loved old campy movies, but she is mostly vague about current ones.  And for some reason, the kids devote time to video games that I am pretty sure don't exist.  I got the feeling that some art doesn't make her radar.

** Okay the other faint damn amid the praise.  I loved Theo's puckish bad seed of a friend, Boris, but that accent did cross the line.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

In order for me to get to what I found interesting about Marilynne Robinson's short novel Gilead, I think I need to first describe the basic shape of it, the turns it took, and as such, this review is chock full of spoilers. So you know.

The book is framed as a long, open letter from Congregationalist minister John Ames to his son. Ames is in his seventies, a man who has married (for a second time) late in life to a much younger woman after many years alone. Now he has been diagnosed with heart disease, and he writes in part to fill his time as the living winds down, and more overtly to offer an account, as well as what wisdom he possesses, to the boy whom he realizes will grow up without him. It's a lovely tone in these beginning parts--sweet, slow-paced, and contentedly lonely. Ames is a thoughtful and humble man, and a deeply loving one, who sees fatherhood and family as an expression of Christian grace, and his philosophies feel like wise ones, informed by his theology.* He's an inquisitive soul--well read--but he's also an accepting one, declining the excursions from the obsolete old abolitionist settlement that others in his life had taken. He's at peace in Gilead.

And so it's going to be that kind of book then, just like the cover blurbs would have you believe. Except that it's not.

Returning to town in these days is one Jack Boughton, that is to say John Ames Boughton, the son of his best friend, who was named after the old pastor. Jack's a charming man and an uneasy soul--your better sort of scoundrel--and one who, despite the name connection (or more likely because of it), old John has never felt comfortable around. There is a dynamic between them as if the younger man had always insouciantly challenged the older to solve and save him, but the older one never figured out an access point. Ames' narrative starts concentrating unduly on his godson, who grows from a snag in his thoughts to a full-on obsession. (And it's not even just Jack: Ames' old firebrand grandfather is clearly not as put to rest as he'd hoped either.) The pastor understands and respects reasoned debate, but it comes out that he has an insurmountable difficulty with people who don't accept existence at face value, who are restless and uneasy in it.

It's flat-out unpleasant to read the old man's narrative veering off from his peaceful adages, but it's also fascinating, and I truly didn't anticipate the story going that way. Though he still keeps his unbreakable decency and his calm religious persepectives, the reader can see that these tools are now failing him. Jack is a man of many sins, but his mortal one was to father a child (when he was college age) with a broken-homed, criminally young girl, and then more or less ignore her. His revealed secret at the time of Ames' writing, which comes late in the novel, is that he's returned less to care for his elderly father and more in hopes of finding a home for his new and already troubled mixed-race family, which in the early 1950s might not be an easy fit, even in a town founded for the cause of abolition.

It took the featured biblical story of Hagar, about halfway through this novel, to clue me in that there's some subtext going on as well, that doesn't quite penetrate the consciousness of the kindly old man. He pictures himself in the sermon as dutiful old Abraham, trusting the godly advice that his difficult actions are indeed for the best. But let's not forget that this is also one of the more perverse Old Testament stories (and sure, hello The Handmaid's Tale), which in novelistic terms, must present some kind of meaning. Old man, young slave, creepy inappropriate sex, reluctant but obligatory shunning. The map isn't perfect, but I still jumped from here to the conclusion that Jack and Mrs. Ames surely had some kind of history with one another, and this is in fact confirmed before long. And although it is not made explicit, it didn't take me much longer to suspect that this young woman (thirty years younger than John and ten younger than Jack), this quietly-spoken woman of mean upbringing who chose to walk into a more socially well-adjusted world, is the very same feral girl that Jack knocked up years before and thereby nailed shut the coffin of his own ruin. Is there a better reason that she would be drawn to curiousity about the first John Ames? If it's not the same person, then it's her deliberate analog.

There is some weird goings-on too, I want to add, about names. The young wife is named only once (for all her presence, she's usually "your mother"), and not by the reverend. She's an interesting character, and I wish we could have had her presented her more as herself. The boy (also deeply present as "you") is not named at all, nor is Jack's Folly (if she is someone different from Mrs. Ames), and her tragic child with Jack, it's noted, is further impoverished by never receiving one in the first place, despite living to three years old or so. Meanwhile, John and Jack are connected by name. "John Ames" is the source of their bond, and of their difficulties as such radically different people.

And okay, I guess I'll make a nod after all to the German-style dialectic as I see it here. John breaks out of his unsettling focus on Jack by opening up about the passion he felt for his wife, in a way he had elided before. It's an innocent sort of passion to be sure, but he was still an old man who fell improbably in love with someone, and he had all the usual symptoms. He truly and genuinely doesn't give a calm fuck about his wife's past, whatever it is, and he loves her for precisely who she is. Which is really a pretty awesome thing. And it's over this understanding where he at long last finds a bond with his living antithesis. Old Ames is as decent a man he believes himself to be, but the wisdom of his days delivered him a late-burning fire in his belly that his rootin' tootin' forebears would have understood. His accepting worldview doesn't leave him, but he's now leaving the world as a whole person. It's brilliantly done, the whole thing.

* If there's conflict evident in this stage, it's a philosophical discussion with the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, the pet philosopher that his late brother had once taken home. And even that ends up as a gentle chide, respecting the atheist's joy of life, but finding it incomplete without the axiomatic divinity that informs his own spiritual views. (Feuerbach evidently took spirituality as a kind of anthropological epiphenomenon. On those grounds, I'd probably like him quite a bit.) Unfortunately, I'm not a good one to tell you how deeply this philosophical argument underpins the novel, but based on Ames' limited name-dropping, there very might well be a sort of dialectical structure to sniff out here.