Sunday, July 20, 2014

First Impressions: "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I've been looking forward to reading The Goldfinch ever since it came out. It sat, neglected, on my Kindle for months while I worked on my own book. I'm still working on that book, but I finally decided to dive into the book that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for literature.

As soon as I started reading, I realized I was going to have to start writing stuff down. Not because I was loving it, but because I was confused. That's the word that sums up my experience of this book so far: confusion.

I loved The Secret History. I haven't read The Little Friend. Those are the only other books Tartt has published, so there's not a heck of a lot of room for comparison. I immediately got sucked into the deep sense of mystery and foreboding in The Secret History. It opens with a murder, for heaven's sake. The Goldfinch doesn't. It's....difficult, and not in a good way. I'm still reading the book. But I started digging through reviews to see if other people were having the same WTF moments I'm having.

Let's take a look at some of those moments.

1. Problematic narrative voice. The narrator of The Goldfinch is a 13-year-old boy named Theo. Well, not's actually an older Theo, looking back on his life from a hotel room in Amsterdam. We have no idea how old he actually is when he's telling the story. He says he is too afraid to "telephone" anyone in Amsterdam, which is not something anyone under 25 would say (probably under 35). This made me think he's an old man now, or at least a middle-aged one.

Well, that theory worked until the narrator threw in a reference to a Jet Li movie that came out in 2005. This was in a flashback, so the narrator could have been anywhere between, say, 10 and 13 when that incident occurred. This means the narrator is probably in his very early 20s. I've seen reviews that say he's 23 as well as 27...apparently I'm not the only one having this problem. The other alternative is that he's telling his story from the future, in 2020 or something, thus accounting for the older feel of the narrative voice.

Some readers won't care. They can just go with it. I can't. Why? Because this narrative voice is old. Antiquated, almost. The sentence structure and word choice are difficult to believe as the product of a 20-something mind, even one who was educated at a posh Upper East Side private school. So either there's a huge disconnect between the voice Tartt chose and the character she chose to embody that voice, or the book isn't supposed to be remotely realistic and we're just supposed to go with it and screw everything else.

Why does this bother me so much? Because the story starts when Theo is 13, but so few of his thoughts and impressions ring true as those of a 13-year-old boy. The vocabulary and style alone rule that out. The voice is also asexual, which I'm pretty sure isn't a defining characteristic of most 13-year-olds. It's constantly jarring to be reminded that Theo is 13, when the impressions, phrasing, and descriptions he provides are those of a middle-aged man.

Here are a few examples:

" was upsetting him so."
Do you know a 13-year-old boy who would talk like this? I don't.

"...a chill wind of unreason blew over me."
Again, do you know a 13-year-old boy who talks like this?

"Everything came alive in her company; she cast a charmed theatrical light."
Unless we're in a weird reverse Oedipal scenario, I'm not sure most 13-year-old boys would describe their mothers this way.

"His voice was very faint, very scratchy, very cordial, with a ghastly pulmonary whistle."
Do you know a 13-year-old who uses the words "ghastly" and "pulmonary" on a regular basis?

I'm instantly reminded of that moment in 10 Things I Hate about You where Michael drops a bit of Shakespearean dialogue ("Sweet love, renew thy force!") and Patrick says, "Hey man, don't say shit like that to me. People can hear you." Teenagers are the ultimate bullshit detectors for language.

That being the case, why did Tartt need the framing device at the beginning of the book? Why not let us experience Theo's adventures in real time, with the eyes and voice of a real 13-year-old? I'd care more about a boy's trauma if it weren't described in the dry, pontificating voice of some old guy. Plus, to me, it would mean more to show Theo progressing through the life events that help him arrive at the book's ultimate meaning (something about art being the only thing that lasts) than to start the book as Tartt does by telling us, "Hey guys, I'm old and jaded now, but there's a meaning to this story. In 700 pages, I'll tell you what it is. You're cool with that, right?"

Interestingly, the narrative voice is what the Washington Post's Corinna Lothar praised about the book. Here's what she had to say: "Permanently damaged and scarred by the explosion and the death of his mother, the voice of the traumatized youth and the cynical, self-involved adult is ingenuous and startling."

So far, I disagree. But I'm willing to keep going.

2. Clunky sentences. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I'm having problems. My inner editor wants to cut out words and phrases in nearly every other sentence. Tartt has a Pulitzer. Clearly, she knows an assload more than I do about how to write good fiction. Still...I'm actually cringing at some of these sentences. Here are just a few, all from Chapter 1, Section V:

"The boys muttered, audibly."
This made me stop. Does the word "muttering" mean that muttered words are generally inaudible, requiring the adverb to clarify that they were? If so, doesn't that mean "muttering" isn't the right word for what the boys are doing? On the other hand, if mutterings are generally audible, why add the redundant adverb? Something's not right here.

"I had made it over to where he was when--unexpectedly fast--he shot out his dust-whitened arm and grabbed my hand."
Wouldn't "suddenly" convey the same thing as the clunky "unexpectedly fast"? For that matter, why is clarification even needed? "Shot out" pretty much implies a sharp, quick action. This whole construction is a bit janky.

"For a moment I wasn't sure; I listened, hard; and then it spieled off again: faint and draggy, a little weird."
The semicolons. Make them stop. And if the narrator can come up with a verb like "spiel" to describe the motion of a sound, "a little weird" rings false. Either get rid of "spieled" or "a little weird." I'm not buying both of them in the same sentence.

"Often, in the afternoons, perfume-smelling women with shopping bags dropped by for coffee and tea..."
Hold up. The way this sentence is constructed, it sounds like the women are professional perfume smellers. If they smelled of perfume, it should have said "women smelling of perfume with shopping bags." I'm so confused. Why is a bad construction like this there? Is this some form of characterization? Or in a book that's more than 700 pages, did no one take the time to fix small things like this?

There are also an assload of -ly adverbs ("audibly," "unexpectedly," "fretfully," "thickly," limply," "awkwardly," "fearfully," etc.). Giving Tartt the benefit of the doubt, maybe these are meant to convey a lack of sophistication appropriate for a 13-year-old narrator. But then why does the overall tone still feel so old? Like I said, I'm confused.

3. Drag-ass scenes. This is a slow-moving book with zero narrative tension (yet). It's not a spoiler alert to tell you that there's an explosion at the Met that happens while Theo and his mother visit (this happens in the very first chapter). The aftermath of the explosion takes freakin' forever (at least 50 pages). Theo wanders and wanders and wanders and describes bodies and his perambulations through the wreckage like he's getting paid by the word (maybe that's what people mean by saying this novel is Dickensian?). Each time Theo clambers over another piece of wreckage or accidentally touches a body, the description is repetitive to the point of being sleep-inducing. You'd think a scene like this would be tense or fraught with peril. Nope. I understand that this is a literary novel, but so far, if this book were left behind in a time capsule, future generations would think literary novels and page-turners were mutually exclusive. That's a shame, since Tartt's own The Secret History proves that wrong.

4. Strange editing choices. This is nitpicking, I know, I know. This doesn't have an effect on the overall power of the story. It just makes me wonder about the production value when I see the phrase "middle-school kids" (note the hyphenated multi-word adjective) and "non working phone" (note the non-hyphenated multi-word adjective) in the same chapter. This is the curse of being a writer and an editor and a reader. I can't turn off other parts of me when it's time to read for fun. If I saw this in one of my books, I'd fix it. Similarly, internal dialogue is sometimes italicized, sometimes put in quotation marks, and sometimes not. I'm still confused.

5. General weirdness. After the explosion in the museum, Theo sees a dead woman and notes her fake tan. How does he know it's fake? Because she's dead and still has "a healthy apricot glow." Now, this made me stop and go, huh? How does a 13-year-old kid know whether freshly dead bodies (we're talking minutes) lose their natural tan? Do they? Heck, I don't know. Maybe Theo's right and dead people instantly lose any natural tan they have. But that detail felt wrong. It pulled me out of the story and made me want to research what happens to dead people's tans. It made me think of all those episodes of CSI: Miami where they find dead girls on the beach (Were they still tan? Shit, why can't I remember?). I shouldn't be thinking these things. I should be thinking about Theo and wondering what happens to him next. Nope. Furthest thing from my mind.

Interestingly, there's a huge literary kerfuffle over this book and its literary worthiness. Apparently, you're either a big fan of the book's Dickensian reach and ability to touch the heart (Michiko Kakutani, Stephen King) or you think it's clunky, poorly written, and full of cliches (James Wood, Francine Prose, Lorin Stein). You can read more about that debate here, in a Vanity Fair article.

Personally, I don't give a shit about literary merit and whether the book is "serious" enough to deserve all its praise. All I care about is understanding why so many folks like it, and why I'm having such a hard time with it. I'll report back when I'm further through and give a final verdict.