Monday, August 1, 2016

The Goldfinch (2013)

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Allow me to eschew the well tread ground of pointing out that Tartt's latest novel parallels Dickens's bildungsroman Great Expectations, or that the image in the eponymous painting mirrors Theo Decker's own ineluctable tethering in life, and address what seems to be the more pressing question. People seem to be more interested in whether they should read the novel than in reading it. I discovered a lengthy thread on the LitNet forums where the original poster (OP) spends numerous posts seeking a sort of support group from the community to just get off the ground with the novel. Then follows further posts concerning the number of pages the OP had managed and more queries for affirmation that the OP was doing the right thing in reading the novel and sticking with it. To be sure, this is an extreme example, but from what I can tell, this book seems to pose a daunting threat to many readers.

The threat, in my estimation, seems to be twofold: length and belief (in art). Let's start with length. Yes, the book is long, both in page count (771, if you've got the first American hardcover edition) and in terms of story time--it's a bildungsroman, so we're in it for Theo's experience from late childhood to early adulthood, we will be carried from New York to Las Vegas to New York to Amsterdam to New York. And Donna Tartt has a careful, steady hand that leads us along plying our minds with detail after detail, much like a guide in an art museum. Every sentence constructs a world, so by some standards the text is not snappy. But I maintain this is necessary to slow us as readers down enough to achieve a sense of the long passage of time in the lives of the book's characters. Sure, you could speed-read through it in a few days, but I strongly believe this would hinder the intensity of the story's effect should we decide to dip into the book here and there each day until finished. For reference, it took me 17 days to read it and I read at least 20 pages a day. I think, in the end, we have this sense that we could be doing something better with our time. I challenge you to spend a few days without reading and see what fills your time. Not much could compare to the pleasure of the impact of Boris's word on page 550: "'Hard to put things right. You don't often get that chance. Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.'"

Next: belief in art. Really, as with Tartt's first novel, this book has a lot to do with art, but overt and implied. In fact the last handful of pages are pretty much Theo's own philosophy of art (the last section of the book is headed with the famous Nietzsche quote concerning the use of art to deal with reality). Though the book does concern what can be construed as spoiled kids wasting their days with drugs, the novel is to be taken seriously. Just take a look at the selection of quotes that head each of the five section divisions: Camus, Rimbaud, Rochefoucauld, Schiller, Nietzsche. These are what academics would call intellectual heavyweights. This should alert us to the strength of the mind behind the work. And they aren't merely chosen to show off Tartt's own reading standards; the quotes themselves depict Theo's character progression. (Need another quick example of Tartt's acumen? How about her choice of name for our protagonist, Theo? In Greek this word means God, and in many ways Theo, who narrates in the first person, is very much God in terms of the artifice he has created.) In the end, Tartt, an artist, has crafted something for us. She has not thrown together a medium for catharsis to satisfy a demanding publishing contract. Look at the time between her 3 novels. Sort of reminds one of Jonathan Franzen--and, in fact, Franzen's latest parallels Great Expectations. But, for me, Tartt writes novels that Franzen could only hope to write.

Now for a more abstract plea in favour of this novel.

While reading Tartt's masterful prose, I thought of Klimt's The Kiss. Both are richly layered, densely ornamented, and seductive. As with all art, some of us will be swept away immediately, others will have to spend time deriving its pleasure, and still others will move on looking for something that does strike out immediately. No matter which camp we're in with The Kiss or The Goldfinch, we have a choice. I argue for welcoming it into your precious time. Savour each sentence, as one would savour each colour in Klimt's piece. Tartt's metaphors and dips into the poetic are perfectly spread out through the book so as not to drive it too far into purple prose territory. Yet even the simple declarative sentences that keep the plot moving are often a delight to the knowing eye. Yes, I've more than once called Tartt a writer's writer, but I also believe that to some degree we are all writers.

Now, in terms of seduction, Tartt's prose and Klimt's painting are perfect analogues. Notice how, in the painting, the kiss is not full on right smack on the lips. The woman's head is tilted back and her cheek is receiving the kiss. Tartt does much the same thing. Proust, in his own 4,300-page bildungsroman, seems at pains to make the point that desire fulfilled is the end of seduction. Tartt and Klimt agree with him and employ the tactic in their art. Over and over again, Tartt brings the equivalent of the promise of a kiss and then...tilts our heads and makes us wait. She often introduces a powerful new element to the plot only then to delay its gratification. This, I maintain, is the master's way of keeping us interested. But, sadly, most of us seem content to go directly for the immediate gratification in life.

Be mature. Be intelligent. Expand your thinking. Read The Goldfinch.

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