Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Goldfinch

The birds and the books

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What have you bought based on its cover alone?”

In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called the good genes hypothesis—closely related to the delightfully named “sexy son hypothesis”—that states that such seemingly useless traits as elaborate plumage in birds can indicate real genetic advantages to potential mates. It’s hard to keep a bright, bulky set of tail feathers intact, and since it makes it harder to flee and increases visibility, it even puts its owner at increased risk of being eaten. A male that is capable of surviving with an inconvenient tail presumably has correspondingly good instincts or stamina, and it’s those qualities, rather than the tail itself, that make him attractive to females. Plumage or other aspects of a bird’s appearance can also be a sign of overall health. Parasites, for instance, can reduce the sheen of ultraviolet feathers in such species as the satin bowerbird, and comb size in roosters is a decent proxy for levels of testosterone, which affects health in other ways. And the size of the comb can be reduced by such issues as intestinal worms. In other words, there appears to be a strong evolutionary rationale on the species level for developing some sort of quickly processed signal, even if it seems otherwise pointless, that allows females to distinguish between prospects at a glance.

You could say much the same about art. It’s impossible to accurately and rapidly judge a book or movie in its entirety, so audiences develop heuristic shortcuts to make decisions about what to consume, and many of these cues are all but unconscious. Sound design, for example, is an exceptionally useful way to distinguish between films, but only in a negative sense. Many excellent movies have made a point of violating the usual standards of conventional cinematography, with grainy film stock, digital video, or shaky camerawork, but few have ever made an aesthetic virtue out of muddy sound. When we see a clip from a movie with awful sound design, we know at once that it’s likely to be amateurish in other important respects. (Of course, this is only really useful when it comes to independent productions: most studio films have advanced to the point where such technical departments as sound and lighting are always of high quality, even if other aspects suffer.) If I were an independent filmmaker, no matter how small my budget, I’d spend whatever it took in order to get an experienced sound team, as well as a good editor, and I’d prioritize it well above the cameras. We’re likely to give a low-budget movie with sloppy cinematography the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll turn off a movie with bad sound within a few seconds.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Similar factors apply to our choices of what books to read. As with movies, such aspects as cover design, typography, and paper quality are most effective as negative indicators: if the publisher clearly hasn’t taken much of an interest in a book’s tactile and visual qualities—either out of indifference or because of a lack of resources—it isn’t likely to have lavished much care on the contents, either. (Whenever I open a novel to see a ragged right margin and a sans-serif font, I close it at once. It may not be fair, but I don’t want to spend hours staring at that kind of page.) The fact that a book is handsomely packaged doesn’t mean that it’s any good, but it at least indicates the publisher’s confidence in the material. Such rules of thumb don’t always work: The Goldfinch is about as gorgeously mounted an example of the bookseller’s art as you’ll find, but I found it underwhelming as a novel. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the books I love are almost always a pleasure to handle as well as to read. This doesn’t mean that they have to be gilt-edged and hand-tooled, and in fact, handsome leather editions of the classics often strike me as in bad taste. But I’ll always have a weakness for a cleanly designed, attractively typeset paperback with a little heft to its pages.

In short, I’ve spent much of my reading life operating under the assumption that a book that shows obvious care in small details of design and presentation will devote a similar degree of attention to its words and ideas, at least on the editor’s side. And I’m not often steered wrong. Looking around my home office, I see countless titles to which I was drawn mostly because of how they struck my eye. It’s likely that I was first attracted to the Burton Club edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night because of how nice it looked lined up on the shelves of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and I’ve discovered many books that ended up being hugely important in my life, like The Anatomy of Melancholy, because they stood out in a used bookstore. And it’s fair to say that my own prejudices and tastes have been shaped by a lifetime of browsing in particular kinds of bookshops, in which the most interesting titles often dated from an era before digital typesetting and the widespread use of sans fonts. Someone who browses for books online, as I increasingly do, will develop a different set of heuristics, and if I recently became obsessed with the titles published by the Bollingen Library, it’s because they invariably come close to my ideal of how a book should look. And now that every new book’s contents are nothing but metadata, browsing itself is going out of style. But it never hurts to check out the plumage.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2015 at 8:38 am

Capturing The Goldfinch

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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.

Under the covers

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What great albums do you love that have ugly album covers?”

There are two kinds of readers in this world: those who keep the dust jackets on their books, and those who take them off. For most of my life, I’ve been in the latter camp. Whenever I’m out with a hardcover, I’ll usually leave the dust jacket behind, and although I’ll restore it as soon as the book is back on the shelf, I feel more comfortable carrying an anonymous spine in public. The reasons can be a little hard to parse, even for me. On a practical level, an unsecured dust jacket can be cumbersome and inconvenient: it has a way of slipping up or down whenever you’re reading a book that isn’t flat on a table, which leads to rumpled and torn corners. Really, though, it’s a matter of discretion. I don’t necessarily want to advertise what I’m reading for everyone else to see, and a book cover, among other things, is an advertisement, as well as an invitation to judge. Whenever we’re in close proximity to other readers, we all do it, but I prefer to avoid it entirely. Reading, for me, is an immersion in a private world, and what I do there is my own business. And this holds true whether or not the title could be construed as odd or embarrassing. (Only once in my adult life have I ever constructed a paper slipcover to conceal the cover of a book I was reading on the subway. It was the Bible.)

This is particularly true of covers that aggressively sell the contents to the point of active misrepresentation, which seems to be the case pretty often. As I’ve said before in reference to my own novels, a book’s cover art is under tremendous pressure to catch the buyer’s eye: frequently, it’s the only form of advertising a book ever gets. Hence the chunky fonts, embossed letters, and loud artwork that help a book stand out on shelves, but feel vaguely obscene when held in the hand. And the cover image need bear little resemblance to the material inside. Back in the heyday of pulp fiction, seemingly every paperback original was sold with the picture of a girl with a gun, even if the plot didn’t include any women at all. Hard Case Crime, the imprint founded by my friend and former colleague Charles Ardai, has made a specialty of publishing books with covers that triangulate camp, garishness, and allure, and sometimes it gleefully pushes the balance too far. I was recently tempted to pick up a copy of their reprint of Michael Crichton’s Binary, an early pulp thriller written under the pseudonym John Lange, but the art was about ten percent too lurid: I just couldn’t see myself taking it on a plane. There’s no question that it stood out in the store, but it made me think twice about taking it home.

Binary by John Lange

In theory, once we’ve purchased a book, album, or movie, its cover’s work is done, as with any other kind of packaging. And yet we also have to live with it, even if the degree of that engagement varies a lot from one medium to another. In an ideal world, every book would come with two covers—one to grab the browser’s eye, the other to reside comfortably on a shelf at home—and in fact, a lot of movies take this approach: the boxes for my copies of The Godfather Trilogy and The Social Network, among others, come with a flimsy fake cover to display in stores, designed to be removed to present a more sober front at home. It’s not so different from the original function of a dust jacket, which was meant solely as a protective covering to be thrown away after the book was purchased. In practice, I don’t feel nearly the same amount of ambivalence toward ugly DVD or album covers as I do with books: the experience of watching a movie or listening to music is detachable from the container in which it arrives, while a book is all of a piece. That said, there are a couple of movies in my collection, like Say Anything, that I wish didn’t look so egregiously awful. And like a lot of Kanye fans, I always do a double take when the deliberately mortifying cover art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy pops up in my iTunes queue.

But I don’t often think consciously about album art these days, any more than I can recall offhand how the box covers look for most of my movies. And there’s a sense in which such packaging has grown increasingly disposable. For many of us, the only time we’ll see the cover art for a movie or album is as a thumbnail on Amazon before we click on it to download. Even if we still buy physical discs, the jewel case is likely to be discarded or lost in a closet as soon as we’ve uploaded it in digital form. Covers have become an afterthought, and the few beautiful examples that we still see feel more like they’re meant to appeal to the egos of the artists or designers, as well as a small minority of devoted fans. But as long as physical media still survive, the book is the one format in which content and packaging will continue to exist as a unit, and although we’ll sometimes have to suffer through great books with bad covers, we can also applaud the volumes in which form and content tell a unified story. Pick up a novel like The Goldfinch, and you sense at once that you’re in good hands: regardless of how you feel about the book itself, the art, paper, and typesetting are all first-rate—it’s like leafing through a Cadillac. I feel happy whenever I see it on my shelf. And one of these days, I may even finish reading it.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2015 at 10:19 am

The confidence game

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Mastery comes in all shapes and sizes, but we’re often most impressed by the kind that announces itself to us from the start. Take Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. From that first, massive orchestral chord, followed by the piano’s cascading response, we know that we’re in the hands of a composer who is perfectly aware that he’s unlike any other man who ever lived. (Whenever I hear it, I think of a slightly restructured version of that famous quote from Douglas Adams: “Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, and Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”) The same is true of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, with its threefold declaration of purpose that manages, even after endless listenings, to seem both inevitable and like nothing else you’ve heard before. And in both cases, it’s the expression of the composer’s confidence that grabs the listener, an intuitive sense that only a lifetime of thought and exploration could have resulted in such monumental simplicity.

In film, the same impulse sometimes lies behind the opening shot, which serves as a statement of intention. Kubrick—a meticulously intelligent craftsman who also loved showy, obvious effects—always strove to seize the audience from the first frame, and each of his films from 2001 onward begins with an unforgettable image. As in most other ways, Kubrick was ahead of his time: movies these days seem increasingly obsessed with their first five minutes, to the point where they dispense with opening credits altogether in their rush to deliver that first big moment. This is largely a response to the fact that we’re just as likely to catch movies at home than to see them in a theater. Once we’ve paid for our tickets and are seated in the dark with a row of strangers between ourselves and the exit, we’re likely to give a movie the benefit of the doubt for at least the length of the first act. If we’re watching it streaming on Netflix, we’re more liable to treat it like a television show, which has only a few minutes to grab our attention. And if it fails, we turn to our phones.

Stanley Kubrick

As a result, movies and television shows have become more front-loaded than ever, and the same trends—the omission of main titles, the emphasis on an early narrative hook, the need to blow us away with action and violence in the opening scene—can be observed in both. It’s even started to affect the novels we read, which, as Jonathan Franzen once noted, are no longer competing just with other books for the reader’s attention. Even literary fiction is increasingly expected to read like a mainstream bestseller; the opening of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is all but indistinguishable from that of a paperback thriller. Yet this can also be a narrative miscalculation. Playwrights have known for a long time that it’s a mistake to start the play on a moment of high drama: you can afford to spend a few minutes introducing the viewer to your world before disrupting it, and a dramatic development holds more weight if you’ve established a baseline of normality. Start off too fast, and you’ve got nowhere to go, and the rest of the play can feel weighted down by the depressing realization that it’s never going to top its opening moments.

In his indispensable guidebook Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman offers a long sample of a misconceived opening for a screenplay—a beautiful girl running for her life through a forest to escape a disfigured giant—and sums up his analysis of its faults by saying: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” But it’s even worse than that. Listen to the Emperor concerto again, and you know that it opens the way it does because Beethoven is superbly confident in his own gifts. The first twenty minutes of your average action movie speaks to the opposite, a kind of desperation, concealed by gunshots and relentless cuts, that the audience’s attention will stray for even a minute. It’s the difference between real confidence and, well, a confidence game. An aggressive beginning can be fine in its place, but it isn’t speed or even technical proficiency to which viewers respond: it’s that confidence. And they can sense its absence even through a flurry of activity, even as they sense its presence in openings as leisurely as those of Tokyo Story or The Magic Mountain or The Goldberg Variations. Show them confidence, and they’ll follow you anywhere, but without it, not even the loudest opening chord in the world can convince them to listen.

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