The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

In Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

I was in the San Jose airport about to board a three-hour flight with nothing to read and picked up the Goldfinch, which was kind of in the back in my mind as something I had wanted to check out at some point.

When I was around halfway thru the book, I went to Wikipedia to look up something, (think I wanted to know whether the painting and/or Fabritius were real), (they are), and the first thing that popped up in Google was “Why Are Literary Critics Dismayed by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?” (which I frankly hadn’t recalled). There was also “Why the backlash against Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ was so extreme.” Which gave me some comfort. As I thought I might have been missing something.

Of course, these observations are merely derivative, at least ostensibly. (about the critics, and probably to some extent the business of writing and publishing, as opposed to the work itself) Getting to the heart of the matter, from my perspective, were theme and tone.

Not theme in the sense that you would talk about “isolation” as a “theme” in your ninth grade English class. But in a broader sense of scope, and purpose, from the author’s point of view: What do you think you are doing that is novel, or profound?

Sure, there is the basic desire to write a “good book” and maybe that goal was achieved. I mean, after all, the Goldfinch was, according to Wikipedia, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, named Amazon’s 2013 Best Book of the Year, shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction for 2014, and selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review.

But what was it, specifically, that she thought she was doing that was somehow groundbreaking?
While I am not sure I would really call it a “page-turner”, I did turn the pages. I wanted to see what would happen. I felt like I was getting to know at least some of the characters, who seemed to be actually walking around inside my head. (Although part of it might have attributable to the fact that my son is thirteen years old, very smart, wears glasses, and is on the small side; so I was constantly trying to imagine (and not imagine) him in Theo’s situations.)

And what I really liked was the revelation that older Boris gives to older Theo about who teenage Theo was from his exterior perspective.

But it just didn’t somehow feel “real” enough to be real, nor “magical” enough to be magical.
Each of the characters seemed a little bit too something, or perhaps not quite enough. Hobie was a bit too generous and forgiving. Boris was a little too successful in the life that he led. Pippa, and the Barbours, and the painting itself, didn’t seem to be quite enough.

One hindrance is that I personally just have a general aversion to drugs. And, perhaps due to my lack of experience, I probably have a hard time judging what is realistic conduct and perception. Part of it is just something visceral. But it seemed to me, for whatever it’s worth, that these people were a bit too functional given the amount (and types) of drugs they were supposedly doing. The gangster in Vegas seemed both too soft (vis-a-vis the father) and too threatening (vis-a-vis the son). It seemed a little too easy for Boris and Theo to track down the painting in Europe. Theo’s response (or lack thereof) to Kitsey’s betrayal seemed quite simply unnatural.

And why didn’t he ever go thru at least a phase where he was obsessed with, or at least interested in, the terrorism? Whether generally or specifically with respect to the terrorists who killed him mom. Who were they? What were they trying to accomplish? Why that day? Or time? Or place? Why a musuem? Was there something about trying to destroy works of art? (like the Goldfinch?) (or maybe the Goldfinch in particular?) As opposed to the Statue of Liberty? Or the Stock Exchange? Or the AOL/Time Warner building? Or Sacks? Did they ever catch any of the planners or perpetrators? Or put anyone on trial? (Presumably not, or Theo would have been a star witness.) Would the FBI have kept in touch with him, not as a Goldfinch suspect, but as a potential witness in a potentially significant anti-terrorism murder trial? (And maybe leave some ambiguity about why and why the agents were really after(?)) Which then brings you to the issue of the stolen painting: Wouldn’t someone, whether governmental or private, with the supposed value and interest and rewards at stake, have at least developed the theory, and at least suspected / investigated him? And why did he always assume when people said “I know what you did” that they were talking about the furniture, and not the Goldfinch? That was his Big Secret. Wouldn’t that be the biggest pre-occupation / fear?

I think a big part of the disconnect stems from the way that the story was told, (not shown), which I will get to in a minute. But I just have to wonder – assuming that all of the characters and plot points had worked out perfectly – what would you have had? Simply a good contemporary Dickensian retelling? Or is there supposed to be some other “there” there?

Accepting that we are all birds caged to our feeders?

The painting was a connection to his mom. I get it. But what was so special about it? Metaphorically? Either to Theo? To the reader? To the events? Or to the world of literature?

And was he even really so obsessed with it? He told us he was. But was he? (After all, he failed to even notice, for years, that it was missing.)

Which really becomes apparent at the end. And goes back to my fundamental issue: Not the plot, or the characters. But the way that the story is told.

It’s way too over-told, and over-explained, and under-dramatized and –shown.

Plus, and perhaps even more critically, in a language that is completely unnatural, viz-a-vis the supposed narrator.

Interestingly, Tartt acknowledges and attempts to explain at some point why the narrator is using words that he never really would have used, within the book itself. But this hardly seems credible. She (or Theo) says at the end that he has been writing the book the whole time, like a journal. Which, in my mind, makes the narrative voice even more improbable.

It’s one thing for a 30-year-old to sit down and write his memoirs, starting with what he or she remembers about age 12 or 13. In that case, it would make sense to see a consistent (30-year-old) vocabulary, style, and tone. But if the events were supposedly recorded contemporaneously by 13-year-old Theo, you would see a completely different vocabulary, style and tone from 17-year-old Theo, from 21-year-old Theo, from 25-year-old Theo, and so on.

The end also, I think, exposes the absence of a thematic center. (For those who haven’t read the book, the narrator breaks the “third wall” so-to-speak, not only explaining how the book was ostensibly written, but also expounding on the philosophical significance of the events, life itself, and the painting.) [I think “fourth wall” is generally used for drama, which occurs in three dimensions; seems like “third wall” would be the correct term for a book(?)] Even assuming that this effective “epilogue” is, in itself, good. And that the preceding 875-or-so-page narrative is also, in itself, good. How do they complement, and inform, and enhance, each other? What, specifically, in the book gives life or meaning to the epilogue, that couldn’t have been gleaned independently? And what, specifically, does the epilogue do to make the story you have just read more meaningful? (I personally couldn’t see it.)

Not that the book isn’t “good”.

It has generally good, interesting characters. And a fairly good, interesting plot. And generally good, familiar “themes”.

But what I can’t wrap my head around is the fact that Donna Tartt seems to be writing, not just for commercial success, but with an eye towards the historical body of Literature. And so what was she trying to do, or thought that she did, or perhaps actually did, in the Goldfinch, that hadn’t been done by a lot of somebody elses before?

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