Briefly: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

  It seems a bit perverse to write a short post about a book as long as The Goldfinch. But even if I weren’t still on vacation, I don’t think I would want to write a long one, because despite the book’s length I find I have little to say about it — or maybe that’s because of its length, which really wore me down.

I know, I know: I read long books for a living! And it seems as if hardly a reviewer missed the chance to call The Goldfinch “Dickensian.” The thing about Dickens, though, is that he’s The Inimitable, and Tartt is … hmmm. Well, I don’t have much to go on, but based on The Goldfinch I’d say Tartt is a competent contemporary novelist with big ambitions who really needed a more assertive editor.

Yes, I held the length of The Goldfinch against it. Not at first: I enjoyed the feeling of tipping over into a big immersive novel, and the story-telling, at first, was very good. Things started to drag in Las Vegas, though, and really they dragged for the rest of the book. I found myself strongly tempted to skim — a temptation I did not always resist — because I didn’t find the writing very interesting, or Theo, and Boris thoroughly annoyed me, and both Pippa and Kitsey were cliches in their own ways. I zipped through the “climactic” section in Amsterdam paying only enough attention to find out what happened, and that’s not the worst: the worst is that I barely cared.

And then I got to the very last section, in which Theo philosophizes about art and life and the meaning of it all — and it seemed so unearned, by him and by the novel. Where was that perspective — where were any of those deeper questions — for the rest of the novel? In itself, it was an interesting meditation on beauty and despair and what lasts and what we value and why. I can imagine finding it deeply satisfying as a way to end a novel about those things. Up to that point, though, I just hadn’t found The Goldfinch to be that book.

No doubt ingenious readers can explain how in fact that’s somehow the point, or how if you just look at the earlier parts the right way, they turn out to be profoundly illuminating about something besides drug-addled idiocy and vomiting. I could probably spin a story like that myself about the novel if I put my mind to it! It’s festooned with praise and prizes: I’m quite prepared to be persuaded that it’s better than I thought. I’m certainly not going to read it again to double-check, though, and I’m always going to be happy to reread David Copperfield.That’s my test of what’s really “Dickensian”!

18 Comments to Briefly: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

  1. July 4, 2015 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    I had the exact same experience, except maybe for giving in to the skimming. And about the end, you nailed it with “unearned.” I was slightly annoyed at the weak editing, after reading for so long, and then after the last chapter I wanted to throw things–who would be satisfied with that? Not impressed with Tartt after that. Competence is enough for some things, but not doorstops.

  2. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    July 5, 2015 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    Oh man, what I read about this book (which I don’t even remember) made it sound overhyped and not very interesting, which I guess would be your verdict on it as well. I am, however, interested in reading The Secret History; that sounds more interesting.

    There are even people who teach college English who hate Dickens. I know several Dickens haters from LiveJournal. I can understand the woman from the UK — I think Dickens got shoved down her throat at school — but I do not get why the NoCal community college English (think Liz MC2 except she teaches more writing than literature) I know who’s a fabulous editor/beta reader has it in for him other than her disapproval of his treatment of his wife. She firmly believes that Wilkie Collins is an objectively better writer and was close to belligerent when I told her I didn’t feel the same. I read The Moonstone first and was not all that impressed because the characters and story didn’t grab me. The Woman in White was good but uneven; I liked Armandale the best (Lydia Gwilt to the death!) and then No Name, even though it was a little interminable. But they’re very different stylistically and even thematically than Dickens.

    Collins might be less conventional in some ways, but he’s not a better writer. I am of the opinion that as literature the best of Dickens is better than the best of Collins. It’s fine to have a minority opinion, but it should be recognized as such.

    When it comes to what books they like and which writers they think are good, people are weird, truly.

  3. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    July 5, 2015 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    I will add, though, that I think most of the women in Dickens’ novels are there to amuse, ciphers, or cliches. A couple of characters in Bleak House — probably my favorite of his novels — are an exception (Lady Deadlock, Esther Summerson, IIRC). The little person/dwarf in David Copperfield (I forget her name). That’s a valid criticism.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      July 5, 2015 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I have not read all of Dickens by any means, and as I say in that post on David Copperfield, he’s not my most-loved writer or Victorian writer: my own sensibility is more Eliot-ian (I find it interesting, actually, that we don’t really have an adjective for “writing in some way the way George Eliot does”). For me too, his women are often sticking points, and yet I love DC despite (and even a little bit because of) Dora and Agnes. It is easy for me to see why people (including college instructors) would hate him — though if part of their job is professing literature, I would hope they’d make an effort to appreciate him, which is not the same as liking him.

      I don’t really know how to argue whether he or Collins is an “objectively better” writer. Collins is an excellent plotter and sometimes a really good stylist. He can write superb characters. These are all things that are true of Dickens too, but Dickens also has a quality that seems rarer to me: a fearless strangeness, a headstrong visionary quality. It makes him much less of a realist (so I think it can be a kind of category mistake faulting his characters for not being rounded or 3-dimensional). But it gives his prose its own special magic.

      I adore The Moonstone. It is one of my favourite novels altogether, not just a favourite Victorian novel.

  4. July 5, 2015 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    I had the exact same experience and I didn’t even read the book! Ha ha ha! I guess not exactly the same – a much shorter experience, for one thing.

    The book has been useful because it has revealed that most readers, including many professional reviewers, think “Dickensian” means plot elements borrowed from Oliver Twist and characters based on the Artful Dodger. We read the word “Dickensian” and think style, but most people think plot. A Dickensian writer writes like Dickens; we all agree on that.

    My understanding is that Tartt wrote the closing theodicy sermon first, presumably even before she named her character, and the novel as such followed. You would think she would have thus kneaded the essay into the dough a little more then. Again, aside from the character’s name.

    Does Theo ever explain how he learns to write so well? His prose is thin for a novelist, but for a young guy of his background knocking out a 700 page first book, pretty impressive, right? I have joked that he must have been taking Creative Non-Fiction classes at UNLV.

    lawless’s statement about the women in Dickens needs qualifiers:

    most of the young women in Dickens’ earliernovels are there to amuse, ciphers, or cliches

    There is no call to trash talk Mrs. Gamp: lambs could not forgive, nor worms forget.

    ‘I could have bore it with a thankful art. But the words she spoke of Mrs Harris, lambs could not forgive. No, Betsey!’ said Mrs Gamp, in a violent burst of feeling, ‘nor worms forget!’ (Ch. 49)

    • lawless's Gravatar lawless
      July 5, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Tom – Fair enough, although I don’t recognize Mrs. Gamp; which book is she from and how much of it does she inhabit? I am a Dickens fan, but I haven’t read everything he wrote, not all of which is equally good or interests me equally. For example, I tried to read The Pickwick Papers and couldn’t get into it.

      If Mrs. Gamp’s role is a minor one and can accurately be characterized as a thumbnail portrait, I don’t see how a that can be called three-dimensional, which is what I’m trying to measure. Also, while she might not be a cipher or cliche, she could be a character included for amusement purposes — a character type, like Betsey Trotwood. Furthermore, you are merely adding another character — one whose name sounds familiar but whose book I’m not sure I’ve read — to the list.

      I would call it a day and say opinions differ if you hadn’t presented this as a matter of indisputable truth: “[this statement] about the women in Dickens needs qualifiers” as opposed to “I disagree” or “it’s my opinion that…” In addition to reminding me of my friend’s bullheaded insistence that Collins is the better writer (which I assume you join me in disagreeing with), as opposed to being the writer she prefers, when presented as a bald statement of fact it needs proof for others (me at least) to take it seriously.

      I think you’re right that he had particular difficulty writing young women (I suspect my friend would say that’s connected to his general attitude toward women, which connects to his attitude toward his wife) and that he improved over time, but without knowledge of which books are the later books you refer to, familiarity with every one of them, and some idea of what kinds of characters qualify as fully-rounded (for instance, Miss Havisham and her pupil don’t strike me as such), I can’t possibly evaluate your claim. Moreover, it seemed obvious to me that my remark was an aside giving my friend her due as to her qualms about Dickens. Was it really worth it to issue an authoritative correction to what I wrote (which, to be fair, could be correct, but more pixels need to be spilled for me to reach the same conclusion) in this context, or is it a side issue that didn’t deserve the didacticism with which you presented it?

      Returning to The Goldfinch, I wonder why it became so popular and well-reviewed. (Question for everyone, especially Rohan, not just Tom.) Was it because the last chapter is smart and intellectual, or that it’s a sprawling, plotting book? There are reasons why even terrible books become best-sellers (hello, Fifty Shades!)

      I’d also be interested in how the plot elements from The Goldfinch line up with plot elements from Dickens’ novels. Or is that shorthand for “any sprawling book with a plot gets called Dickensian”? (This one actually is addressed to Tom.)

    • July 5, 2015 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I maybe should emphasize that The Goldfinch takes some of its plot and characters directly from Oliver Twist (Boris is The Artful Dodger), and that just leafing through the book I found other direct references to Dickens (but maybe by chance I found the only two examples, how would I know), so the choice of “Dickensian” as the descriptor is not random. Reviewers have been led to it by Tartt. But it turns out different people mean different things by “Dickensian.” Tartt is not Dickensian in the way that Rushdie is.

      The same issues are coming up in the Knausgaard phenomenon. He writes about Proust, and is writing a long semi-autobiographical series, therefore he is Proustian. But he does not sound remotely like Proust, object people for whom “Proustian” is a matter of style.

      Mrs. Gamp is in Martin Chuzzlewit. She is not a type but an original. “Three-dimensional,” though, shifts the grounds of the argument. Dickens is rarely interested in three-dimensional men, either.

      Please season the above with mental “I think”s and “in my opinion”s until the rhetorical pudding has reached the desired degree of blandness. That metaphor seems backwards.

      • lawless's Gravatar lawless
        July 5, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the information. I was not aware (or had conveniently forgotten) that The Goldfinch was influenced by Oliver Twist, probably my least favorite of the Dickens books I read (craft issues mostly). That may be why I gave it a mental “not for me.”

        I haven’t read Martin Chuzzlewit,which explains my lack of recollection of Mrs. Gamp. I am not sure, however, I agree with your assessment of types, originals, and three-dimensionality. I think character plausibility and human complexity is what I value, not character originality. YMMV. (Literally, your mileage may vary, meaning you may, and are entitled to, feel otherwise.)

        I will keep your advice in mind. However, if one is seeking excellence and clarity in writing, should not one also apply that to oneself rather than taking it as read that something asserted absolutely is meant relatively? I’d have a higher tolerance for mixing those two up in a blog meant solely or mostly for academics and the hashing out of academic disputes, but that is not this blog, and I would not bother to or feel welcome to comment on a blog run on those lines.

        One person’s blandness is another person’s respect. Besides, it’s possible to write with character and still manage to make clear that you’re offering an opinion, not making assertions of fact. The essays and reviews on this blog are a testament to that.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      July 5, 2015 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Tom, I thought a lot about your post on (reviews of) The Goldfinch as I was reading. I think you are spot on when you point out that “Dickensian” means different things to different users of the term. To me it means not just the style / sound of the prose but the moral vision and the theme-and-variations effect in the plotting that makes his best novels so astonishingly unified despite their sprawl. To me, taking specific plot elements does not make you Dickensian: at worst, it makes you derivative.

  5. LauraC's Gravatar LauraC
    July 5, 2015 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I agree with everything that you said (and you said it all well). The Secret History is my favorite book (and the end of that one was weak too), but THIS book was too much. You are right, it started out so well, but started dragging in Las Vegas. Did we need to know about every single moment of the stay there? I can’t believe that Ms. Tartt even HAD an editor.

  6. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    July 5, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Sorry for spamming comments here, but in addition to the wide belief that the books of Stephen King, who in my opinion is a better writer and stylist than he’s given credit for ( though he’s no Shirley Jackson), haven’t been edited in ages, leading to overstuffed bloat, I can think of at least one writer of genius who badly needed an editor for some of his major works: Dostoevsky. I don’t know if he would have resisted editing if he’d had time for it — he wrote to the wire and desperately needed to be paid — but the meandering The Idiot and The Devils/The Possessed are both badly in need of editorial pruning and focus.

    The Idiot in particular is full of wonderful but self-indulgent scenes that don’t go anywhere. Clearly Dostoevsky didn’t have the heart to kill his darlings. The Devils/The Possessed suffers from the suppression of an important chapter for moral reasons (Stavrogin confesses to sexually abusing a child who then committed suicide, although what he did is eluded) as well as an inability to decide whether Stavrogin or the political conspirators is the prime focus. Dostoevsky brings them together in the end, but it’s more of an undigested Mrs than anything else. And the ink spilled on town life, Stavrogin’s mother, and the narrator is almost all wasted.

    So it not just reasonably competent contemporary authors who suffer from this.

  7. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    July 5, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Sorry, that should be undigested mess, not Mrs. I blame the autocorrect, not the (non)proofreader.

  8. July 8, 2015 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I very reluctantly picked up The Goldfinch after hearing such positive reviews, especially the links to Dickens and Oliver Twist. I hadn’t been a fan of The Secret History and hadn’t intended on reading another Tartt novel. As I read the first part of The Goldfinch and liked it, I started thinking that maybe I should go back and read The Secret History again. Maybe I’d just missed something in it. Then the longer The Goldfinch went on, the less I cared about the characters. I ended up skimming through the rest and decided I don’t need to read any more of Donna Tartt’s work.

    Kate Atkinson, on the other hand, I will always read and re-read.

  9. July 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I have been putting this off for a fair while, mainly due to its length. A lot of friends have enjoyed it but as many have made rather indifference faces on being asked to offer an opinion on it. It probably shows my own lack of commitment as a reader, but I’m rather loath to dive into such a long book without feeling fairly confident it is worth my time. Bleak House, no problem, there like a shot – anything modern and the reviews would have to be pretty uniformly gushing. It is this same hesitancy putting me of A Little Life, which I have read a fair few good things about. Thanks for a useful read.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      July 12, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I think a bit of caution is reasonable! I suppose it depends on what you are reading for. By reading this one “belatedly” I missed the chance to participate in the conversation about it when it was still fresh, but unless I’m doing an “official” review of a book, or unless the book is one that’s intrinsically high priority for me, that’s not really a priority.

      • July 18, 2015 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        Very true – I’m having a similar dilemma with the new Harper Lee at the moment. I know that I will read it, but there are other things ahead of it in my TBR pile at the moment. Do I skip to Go Set a Watchman, or miss being part of the discussion?… ah, the meaningless problems of the web-connected bibliophile. 😉

  10. Ethan's Gravatar Ethan
    September 25, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Your take on The Goldfinch, esp.

    a competent contemporary novelist with big ambitions who really needed a more assertive editor

    really resonates with what I think about a lot of contemporary North American authors. A striking example is the much-lauded Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, although I think ‘competent’ is arguable in the case of Catton, since it is exactly her competence as a novelist that is in question.

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