Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Capturing The Goldfinch

with 10 comments

Donna Tartt

Last week, I finally finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, something like six months after I first picked it up. This protracted reading period wasn’t entirely the book’s fault: I’ve been so preoccupied by work and family, and plain exhausted at night, that I’ve rarely had a chance to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. And there’s no question that a page or two of The Goldfinch goes down as smooth and easy as a vanilla milkshake. After a hundred more, though, you find yourself in much the same place as you started, and as painless as it is, you start to wonder if it’s all really worth it. Its narrator, Theo Decker, may be the most passive protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream novel, and for grindingly long stretches, the novel traps you in the same kind of stasis. Over the course of more than seven hundred pages, Theo undertakes maybe three meaningful actions, and he spends the rest of the book in a riot of noticing, unspooling dense paragraphs of details and quirks and brand names. And it’s all true to his character. After surviving a bombing in New York that claimed his mother’s life, Theo spends the next decade in a state of paranoid numbness, a condition that would result in exactly the book we have here.

That doesn’t sound like a potential bestseller, but The Goldfinch has been a true phenomenon, moving over a million copies in hardcover on its way to a Pulitzer Prize. Part of its success has to do with how it keeps the pages turning, even through huge chunks of nonaction, and this is all to Tartt’s credit—to a point. Yet there’s no avoiding a sense that twenty or even fifty pages at a time could be lifted out of the book’s middle sections without anyone noticing. If it were a deliberate attempt to replicate Theo’s shellshocked brain, it would be a considerable literary achievement, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the causal arrow ran in the opposite direction. If Theo comes off as passive, it’s because the book around him fails to find a convincing shape for itself, not the other way around. Tartt is a writer of huge merits: when she’s on fire, as during the lengthy section in Las Vegas, she can deliver set pieces that rank with the best that contemporary fiction has to offer. And her book doesn’t lack for eventfulness. But the incidents don’t build so much as accumulate, like Tartt’s fat descriptive paragraphs, and I have a feeling that a lot of readers emerge in agreement with what Samuel Johnson said about Milton: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take it up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Which is the real reason it took me six months to read, when I might have polished off a more focused—or shorter—version of the same story over a long weekend. But I don’t mean to echo those critics, like James Wood of The New Yorker or Francine Prose of The New York Review of Books, who see the success of The Goldfinch as a symptom of a wider decline in literary standards. They seem to regret that Tartt didn’t write a different novel entirely, but as today’s quote from Christian Friedrich Hebbel reminds us, that’s a pernicious form of criticism. A novel, like a poem, deserves to be judged on the author’s intentions. (Wood is accurate, though, when he points out that Tartt’s American characters “move through a world of cozy Britishisms, like ‘they tucked into their food,’ ‘you look knackered,’ ‘crikey,’ ‘skive off,’ and ‘gobsmacked.'” It reminds me of what Lost in Space actor Jonathan Harris was reported to say when asked if he was British: “Oh no, my dear, just affected.”) But I’m not sure Tartt succeeds at the kind of novel she evidently wanted to write. I take a lot of interest in the intersection between literary and mainstream fiction: it’s where I see myself, even if my published novels skew more to the genre side. And I’d love to see Tartt pull it off, as she did, more or less, with The Secret History. But as eventful as The Goldfinch is, Tartt never convinces me that she knows how to construct a plot that would justify the investment of time it demands. And that’s a shame.

There’s a great deal of craft, obviously, involved in writing a huge, mostly readable novel through the eyes of a character who abdicates all responsibility for his fate, and who plays a minimal part in his own story’s resolution. Tartt refined the manuscript for eleven years, and she apparently wrote and discarded entire sections that required months of work. This may be part of the reason why The Goldfinch sometimes reads like a novel with its focus on all the wrong places: not just on Theo, who is the least compelling character in sight, but on the parts of his life it chooses to dramatize. (There’s a gutsy jump in time, effective in itself, that unfortunately skips over the single most interesting thing Theo ever does: he decides to become a con artist, which must have required considerable skill and ingenuity, but everything he attempts in that line is kept offstage, and instead, we’re treated to one chapter after another of Theo as a useless sad sack.) Tartt’s effort and accomplishment show on every page, but I can’t shake a nagging sense that this is the kind of book that Stephen King, one of the novel’s fans, could have cranked out in a year or so with less fuss. The result looks a lot like the kind of novel that many readers dream of finding, a great read of real literary heft, and it poses convincingly as one from sentence to sentence. But we can do better, and so can Tartt. A Pulitzer and a million copies sold aren’t likely to convince her of this—but I hope she takes another crack at it, and sooner than ten years from now.

10 Responses

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  1. I read this recently, and was fascinated and engrossed, though I agree it was all over the place. Henry James’s quote on War And Peace- ‘a great baggy monster of a book’- springs to mind.


    June 16, 2015 at 4:32 pm

  2. I have tried a few times to read this book. I loved The Secret History, but The Goldfinch and I don’t seem to be ready to dance. Your review makes me want to try it again.


    June 16, 2015 at 5:26 pm

  3. Excellent review! I’ve just started The Secret History and a friend has just started The Goldfinch. Your analysis is very thought-provoking indeed. Have you read Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’? Not really related but I think he accomplishes a protagonist who utterly succumbs to the world’s futility beautifully. Hemingway also wrestled with the ending, re-writing it 37 times in a similar quest for perfection as Tartt but the effect is a refinement of focus as opposed to a dilution. Anyway, I look forward to finishing The Secret History!

    The Writer

    June 16, 2015 at 6:52 pm

  4. @wrencollins: I may go back and give certain sections another shot—it probably wasn’t entirely fair to read it over such a long period.


    June 19, 2015 at 9:23 pm

  5. @how2fangirl: I should probably go back and read The Secret History. At the time, I was actually an undergraduate classics major at an Eastern university, so a lot of it seemed ridiculously overwrought. But I think I’d enjoy it more now.


    June 19, 2015 at 9:24 pm

  6. @The Writer: Oddly enough, I haven’t read a lot of Hemingway—just a couple of the novels, some of his short fiction, and Death in the Afternoon. We don’t seem to see eye to eye, although it’s been a while since I gave him a look.


    June 19, 2015 at 9:25 pm

  7. I can see how you might be a bit burnt out at that time, ha! I really did enjoy it (the story was well done). I had the same hopes for TG.


    June 20, 2015 at 1:00 am

  8. I imagine reading it over different time periods was a very different experience. Obviously there’s no right or wrong way to read a book, but I can see how it might have got monotonous.


    June 20, 2015 at 4:57 am

  9. I appreciate your rational and thoughtful argument but I lean towards Francine Prose’s comments…or worse, the novel made me very angry.


    June 25, 2015 at 11:21 am

  10. It definitely irritated me at times: I’ve rarely read a novel where I was more anxious for the author to just get to the point.


    July 6, 2015 at 11:07 am

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