If only Donna Tartt had wrapped up The Goldfinch in, say, a snappy 450 pages instead of almost 800, I might have been finished with it before I noticed how annoying it is. Well, I still would have been annoyed by the upper-class New York solipsism, something to which I have a persistent sensitivity. It sets in early, as our hero, Theo Decker, tells us how hard he and his mom had it after Dad ran off, “doing our own laundry down in the basement, going to matinees instead of full-price movies…” They find themselves searching under sofa cushions for money to pay the delivery boy from the deli__the notion of eking out a bare existence, having your dinner delivered from a midtown Manhattan deli, has a certain ‘let them eat brioches’ quality, does it not?
Fortunately, the doormen adore Mrs. Decker and the young master, and the maid offers to continue working without pay, willing, it seems, to set aside the need to earn a living for her own family in order to ensure that white people are not reduced to doing their own fucking laundry. Sorry, I told you the class thing got under my skin. In any case, before long Theo runs into genuine misfortune, as his mother gets blowed up in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum. He is left, like 99% of the heroes of American movies and novels, with no meaningful family or close friends, but lands on his feet and is able to continue his Manhattan life until Dad suddenly reappears and spirits him off to a life of depravity in Las Vegas.
Theo and his new bestie Boris (Ukraine’s answer to the Artful Dodger) end up fending for themselves in the almost complete absence of adult attention; I felt a sense of exhilaration at being released from Theo’s descriptions of cuff-links and imported rugs (the 13-year-old Manhattan Theo already appears to possess the soul of a middle-aged interior decorator), and, having spent a comparable period of my own life in a rather, er, unstructured environment, I was ready to participate in their struggles. But, as with the bizarre portrayal of servants in NY, I don’t think Tartt has thought carefully about what she is saying. Theo and Boris regularly obtain food by shoplifting steaks from a local supermarket…surely you can see what’s wrong with this picture. Two filthy-looking 14-year-old boys saunter into the Safeway, head on over to the meat counter and loiter there for a few minutes with their hands in their jacket pockets, then saunter on out of the store, buying little or nothing. The chances of getting away with this on a regular basis are about the same as the odds that a ribeye will materialize in your broiler due to probability fluctuations at the quantum level.
The problem here is not that I reuquire documentary realism from novelists, it’s that the novelist is being lazy, setting up a difficult situation and then taking an easy way out of it.
This brings us to the other, more cumulative drag on The Goldfinch, namely the careless and otiose writing. Francine Prose’s review in the New York Review of Books helped focus my thoughts on this aspect of the book and it struck me many of the seemingly ordinary passages she cites also had lodged like stubborn bits of peanut between the teeth of my memory. Here’s an example from Prose’s review:
Couldn’t I just relax and let the story sweep me along? Was I the only reader who, a few pages into the novel, was stopped cold by a sentence describing how people react to Theo’s half-Irish, half-Cherokee mother? “In the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic.” Could I really have been the only one thinking, “Sometimes? Just how many people guessed she was Icelandic?”
Well, that too, but I was chiefly brought up short by “tribal” and “Celtic Twilight.” Do Cherokee people have especially tribal-looking cheekbones? True, some Native Americans belong to tribes, but that doesn’t make them look tribal any more than a person from Ontario looks provincial. Likewise, Celtic Twilight WTF? Does Tartt mean that Mrs. Decker’s cheekbones reminded people of a late-19th-century Anglo-Irish Romantic essentialist conception of Irish identity? No, it’s just laziness, grasping at the first fancy word for Native American or Irish that comes to mind. I encourage you to try this as a parlor game though—for example, I know a woman who is half-Chinese and half-Norwegian, so the slant of her eyes must be an eccentric mix of inscrutability and lutefisk.
Prose’s autopsy of The Goldfinch (see link below) supplies many more examples, and its sushi-grade writing offers an implicit rebuke. As I said at the outset, though, I might have let these stylistic sins go in the interest of following the plot if Tartt hadn’t spent so much time on lyrical effusions, culminating at the end of the book in a long sermon on the meaning of life and the redemptive power of art. I am not sure how many pages this sermon takes, but I can testify that the congregation was getting very fidgety by the end.
How many people could produce an extended metaphysical monologue on the transcendent virtue of art that you would willingly spend an hour listening to? My list is real short: Keats, maybe Montaigne, maybe Richard Pryor. Theo Decker, humorless, self-absorbed junkie and con man who has committed art fraud and betrayed the person in the world to whom he most owes loyalty, somehow missed the cut. After this buildup, though, you’ll surely want a sample, so here you go:
And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loveliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.
Because—what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.
I am told (I am not in a position to judge) that the film known in English as Breathless could have its title translated more literally as Out of Breath or Winded. That’s about what we have here, an attempt at Exuberance-is-Beauty lyrical rapture that just huffs and puffs and finally collapses into bathos (“thimble of bravery”? Really?). One cannot achieve the sublime simply by piling up appositives separated commas, saying the same thing, or roughly the same thing, with minor variations and expansions, in a series of tedious (and they are very tedious) platitudes, until the very ponderousness of it invites parody.
The Goldfinch is frequently characterized as Dickensian, and though Prose takes issue with this in some ways, she does not mention an objection that seems to me very important: Dickens was funny. I know that he was not funny all the time, and wasn’t trying to be, but he was a comic writer all the time, except in his weakest moments. Bleak House is not a laugh riot but is full of the virtues and disciplines that a comic writer must cultivate. Comedy of course depends on a sense of timing, which is above all a consciousness that a careless, throwaway paragraph or page of dialogue is an opportunity pissed away. In particular, people like Jane Austen and Lorrie Moore don’t just trot out flaccid, flavorless metaphors, they exploit every resource that language offers them. And Real comic writers also have a gift for looking at themselves sideways which, if trusted, can save them from becoming pompous and sentimental (admittedly, Dickens had some serious lapses here). I don’t imagine that Tartt has any ambitions to be a comic, but it wouldn’t hurt her to learn from the pros.
Here is Francine Prose’s review of The Goldfinch: