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.


Neha Sharma said...

Superb development of characters and the language is both delicate and intense. I would rate this book in the category of literary fiction. I salute Donna Tartt for her outstanding creativity. Perhaps, one of the best fictions of 2013.

Keifus said...

I liked it too. Thanks for the comment.

David Marlow said...

You'll have to forgive my impertinence, impropriety, etc., in that my comment doesn't have much to do with this review. But I stumbled across your review of Jayber Crow when I was looking for a quote. (My copy is at my brother's.) I typed "jayber crow fish camp" into google and your review came up. What a great review. Really wanted you to know that. High praise indeed, and whatnot, I know. But looking at the date of your review, at that time I was in a dark dark dark place. And it made me feel good I found it now in a slightly less dim place. Things happen for a reason, timing -- as much as I'll deny it, my reticent Lutheranism often rears its stoic head to remind me maybe I'm not completely totally alone all the time.

Also, off to Alabama in a couple weeks for a "scout".

Keifus said...

Hey man, sorry I didn't catch this the other day. Have a good trip, up here in the crepuscular world.

I'm glad you liked the review, and thanks for the recommendation, back then. (2010? Time flies.)

I know I've been neglecting my silly page here. I've been busy with work (goof-off time has been limited, to my great annoyance), among other things. One of them is that I've joined music class with a group of geezers (it's really overdue--every week, here's some fundamental thing I never quite found on my own--good to be discovering these missing links, but I am not at all used to feeling like the dumbest kid in the class), playing Beatles tunes on mandolins, because why not. The instructor was going on about the almost childlike simplicity of Blackbird, among other songs, how it doesn't need to be overwrought to communicate those emotions. I'm thinking of forwarding him Brad Mehldau's version, just to be a wiseass...

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