Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Goldfinch" - Donna Tartt (novel review)

Well, I finally finished all 700 plus pages of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel (of 2014). It was not difficult to read, in terms of density...it was difficult to read in terms of endurance. Interesting enough to want to stay with it. Digressive enough and wordy enough and self-indulgent enough to want to throw the iPad across the room, wishing it was the book getting punished.

This novel's plot revolves around a 1654 painting of a little bird, a goldfinch, done by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. It is an actual piece of art hanging in the Hague, which Ms.Tartt has lifted (figuratively) for her saga.


The story behind the chained bird.
(thought this was interesting)



Spoiler Alert! Reading any further may give you more information than you want, if you haven't already read the novel. (which is unlikely)

Okay, the protagonist, a pre-teen named Theo, loses his beloved mother in an explosion at the museum where the Goldfinch is on loan to America. (The real artist Fabritius lost his life at a very early age in an explosion as well. This is just the first of many reality/fiction constructs in the plotting of this book.)

Due to odd happenings immediately after the explosion, Theo steals the painting thinking an old man who is dying beside him wants him to do so. I do not want to go through the plot of this book. I hate reviews that just re-tell the story in a shortened form (though in this case, it would likely take 300 pages to do so). But this is the kick-off which leads us down Tartt's labrynth of twisty plot turns that never fail to ultimately surprise me, but take forever to get to. There are outrageous happenings: quirky characters flow in and out, people die, people use heroin, people turn out differently than the reader expects. These are the good things! Surprises and plot twists that keep you reading Some of them seem far-fetched. Some seem totally inevitable. But they are never expected or predictable, a BIG plus in my estimation.

I have a lot of mixed emotions about this book. I thought it was ever so much more "impassioned" than her first book, "Secret History" (see review on this blog) which I found lacking in any passion at all, so--an adult has written this one instead of a clever school girl. But, but, but...TOO MANY WORDS as a friend of mine said, And by the time you have gotten to the end, you could SCREAM at her digressions. Totally infuriating, those tangents that she takes. Describing mundane tasks, refinishing furniture, viewing landscapes, backstory sojourns to childhood, miscellaneous minor characters' histories told for no reason whatsoever. WHERE was an editor??? I don't get it at all. I don't even blame Tartt, when I think about it. She spilled out 10 years worth of drafts and nobody reined her in. Whose fault is that?

Then, much to the dismay of many readers I know, the ending of this book is a philosophical harangue which clearly comes from Tartt's own heart. It explains much of the intention she had in writing the book. She had a life view that she questioned (or manufactured?) and she took her puppets (characters) and played them out over a sweeping stage of over-the-top (but intriguing) dramas and unlimited, irrelevant details, and then at the very end, she sat down and EXPLAINS it to us. The whys, the wherefores of her mind's reaches into life's mysteries of art, beauty, love, pain, death and meaning of life itself. Not a small undertaking.

Contrary to some, I found the philosophic ending much to my taste...as I wondered how the hell she was going to justify this insane book? It let me see, rather sadly, how she came to write the book and even why. But to sort of tack it on at the end as an explanation, almost a long rambling footnote, rather than have the essence of the philosophy be woven into the fabric of the book, was another aspect of her thinking that stumped me! Could not her characters convey this without the footnotes? I got the sense that she didn't quite trust her own characters to be up to the task of letting the reader in on the plan. It saddened me because this tremendous writer wins this enormous prize, but the very core of the ending of this book is a tell of the author's fear of failure and incompletion, much in the same vein as Theo's own character lives his life. The little goldfinch chained to his feeder box also loomed in my mind as I finished this book. Perhaps I am just projecting my own sad life view here, but I was touched and yet disheartened at the same time that this book did not quite come together as it could have/should have. That Tartt too was chained to the ideas that feed her, but never able to modestly organize and express them, freeing them to the literary world. Of course, it appears I am the only one who fully believes that! Apparently the Pulitzer people think she succeeded. I can certainly see where she was going. Just as I could see the raw talent in Secret History, this novel shows me the innate power of Tartt, but as yet not fully exploited. But she's young!!!

Pulitzer prize? I just don't get the judges at all. This woman can write. She has ideas and is (I think) struggling with her own life questions in her writing...and perhaps her own life problems or I'm projecting my own stuff onto her very unfairly, that's also possible. I'm willing for that to be true, but she has NOT yet successfully done the 'weave' in a way that produces GREAT art. She is NOT Dickens,(as suggested by Stephen King) not even close. I found this book like great chunks of "ideas" fleshed out, decorated, explored, surgically ripped open in draft after draft, and THEN, none of the drafts discarded! Instead, all gathered up, like Thomas Wolfe's pages in a pickle barrel,(and alas, NO Maxwell Perkins in attendance) and just published in entirety.

I haven't read the Pulitzer award winning novel of 2013, "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson. But you can be sure that now I'm going to give it a whirl.

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