I should post a reservation about BIG books in general. Both the Booker listed Kills and the winning Luminaries are substantial door-holders, so is Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, fewer pages but denser type, smaller margins. Such expansiveness demands more time, more intimacy, more attention and not necessarily in the first two examples at least to advantage. I resent the literary monopoly taken on my time. One expects a bigger payback.
That said Tartt makes the opening 150 pages or so an elegant captivating train ride into a New York trauma.
She has a number of qualities in her writing, noticeably a camera like roving attention to details, a reverse pornography if you like where she carefully dresses each of the people we meet and their surroundings. She also seems to demonstrably like her characters as if she is as curious as we are to know about them. “Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels almost fell to his ankles”.
She moves her plot scenery around seamlessly, idly shuffling the cards of her tale, a coquette perhaps. The dialogue is sharp almost too much so in the case of Theo’s pal Andy rowing with his father. The characters, carved as lovingly as by any sculptress, around our guilt-inclined boy hero…So far so good…
Tartt is from Grenada, Mississippi. She has that calm southern sense of a drawl. She takes her time, perhaps not the shrill, alcohol driven drive of a Tennessee Williams but blessed like Irish writers often are with a cadence, a lilt, a poetry even. We could be sitting on the porch while she unfolds all this…
The comparison is with Martin Amis. Both are unusually gifted with words, writers in search of a story worth the telling. Tartt perhaps has the edge in her portraitures. I want to be on the guest list of one of Mrs Barbour’s socialite parties. And she is the better story-teller. Amis perhaps is the sharper lyricist.
But then we hit this fundamental, almost elementary flaw. She is a woman writing as a man/boy. In the opening pages, it is almost an irrelevance. Theo could be either girl or boy but then we lurch into the teenage relationship with the wonderful Boris and we are moved outside any comfort zone of the sexes. This is a 50 something year old woman describing an adolescent relationship between two boys. And she does not get it or does not get inside the virile male humour that binds them. They are firecrackers going off in different directions.
Writing across the sexes is tricky, often fatal. Sometimes it can work where it is obvious what is happening, say the Time Traveller’s Wife or Gone Girl where you know his angst is really her turning the stilletto in his emotional ribs. Here Tartt is losing control. Her characters have gone rogue. She describes their antics like an aunt, but she is using the first person and cannot cross the natural divide.
Part three opens with a quote from Francois de la Rochefoucauld: “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves” which is unfortunate because at this stage we, and we are on page 370, as readers are uncertain as to who is really who, our narrator has no core, our world is shifting randomly, coincidentally trying to get back to something we sensed 200 pages earlier…More the pity because there are two subplots here which might have been books on their own, the superb Boris and the dog road movie.
Tartt now slams her foot on the literary brakes and is trying to get things back in order for which she resorts to some fairly incredible coincidences like she has has been taking the same drugs as her boy heroes…
Apart from the sex issue there is an issue of age. This text is not really believable as that of a young teenage boy. It is more of a twenty-something student angst rant. What keeps us – or me – going is not his concerns childish or otherwise but the fascinating cast of people around him described with the finesse of a Royal Copenhagen vase.
“Fair haired, brick red in the face, with startling robin’s-egg eyes, he was paunchy from drinking…”
Even the house assumes personality:
“But as much as I missed the nervous tingle of her presence, I was soothed by the house…old portraits and poorly lit hallways, loudly ticking clocks. It was as if I’d signed on as a cabin boy on the Marie Celeste…I moved about through stagnant silences, the pools of shadow and deep sun, the old floors creaked underfoot like the deck of a ship…Hobie’s presence below stairs was an anchor, a friendly weight: I was comforted to hear the tap of his mallet floating up…”
Even as the plot wears thin like a cigarette that has burnt down and all that is left now is the smoke and the mawkish meanderings of the teenage narrator become more nonsensical, Theo’s lens on the world around him does not miss a speck of dust, a fading of the curtains or the goodly humour of his consorts. We are with him in a travelogue, a timeologue even as he himself becomes more and more opaque as if he is being consumed by the telling…swept up by the people around him.
“Mrs DeFrees, a dealer in nineteenth century water colours who for all her stiff clothes and strong perfumes was a hugger and cuddler, with old lady-ish habits of liking to hold your arm or pat your hand as she talked…”
We are witnessing a literary mutiny where the hero and central character is being subsumed. This might not matter except it is written in the first person and we cannot escape him and his feeble transience.
Ultimately the analogy is with one of Hobie’s lovingly restored pieces of old furniture. Is it original? Does it matter? Where is the perception? Like the furniture pieces, the novel is a lash up of six or seven stories, none of which are satisfying taken to their conclusion. Everything is built around our vacuous victim self obsessed narrator who in a very teenage way is just not appreciating the fascinating cast assembled around his life or even us as readers. Finally he outrageously says: “No one is going to read this…” Oh, yes they are Theo, we just did. That is 700 pages out of my life.
So instead we take refuge in DT herself as Author, a self conscious schizophrenia. Theo is her day job. This is her office of characters. She hovers her cursor over the plot screen as she pleases. And she is bitchy enough that the other young female characters are as thin as paper, anorexic pawns that do not threaten her command of your attention, or if you want to believe this, which I don’t, more victims of post stress disorders.
The closest we get to human contact or emotions is when Theo reveals he was so nervous that he just “threw himself on top of this girl”. Now let us pause a moment here, Donna. Theo 16, Julie 27. Bedroom. Explain? Explore? Cause? Effect? Nah.
Eventually I am wanting a sequel, not necessarily written by Tartt herself, where all these captivating characters can be gathered up and resolved, the story lines rounded off and given a final context, a life that is not full of arbitrary coincidences or just needlessly slamming a few people together as if something important is being said. “Ten years later…”
Tartt finally cops out with the grandiose statement that the book is about the : “polychrome edge between truth and untruth”. Nah it isn’t.
There is a point about halfway where a delicious plot beckons but she double-backs and re-creates almost the same thing again like she wants a double barrelled shooting. The first set up is very old fashioned Graham Greene, the second very Martin Amis like sleazy. But it is a sawn off shot gun and the narrative pellets scatter.
One feels the wheels of publishing behind this book. Donna, you are big talent, you must write a big book. Come back in 10 years with an opus. Make it so big no one can argue with you.
And a few years later, a couple of hundred pages in, there is a second conversation which says: Oh, and give me a movie in there. But I am half way through? Got to have a movie in there. And as with the the Booker winning Luminaries if ever this makes the big screen some Hollywood screenwriter will have to start this story half way through.