Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gallery Walk

I can't stop thinking about that bird book. Days after finishing Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I'm still walking around with the story in my head. Wondering about the characters as though their lives continue. It was a meaty read, and I savored it. This lingering feeling, though, after finishing a book, is so rare that I've been trying to think about why it happens. And to observe that phenomenon while letting it happen to me at the same time. Memories from the book keep popping up at odd moments in my day. I keep thinking of all the characters. Dabs of language. Questions I still have.

The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt's story of Theo Decker, caught in a terrorist bombing at the Met as a teen. He loses his mother that day and ends up with the painting by Carel Fabritius (the iconic finch peeking through that trompe l'oeil book cover); the painting becomes his prized, secret possession. Theo's story takes him from New York to Las Vegas and back again over a span of 14 years. He meets a mixed bag of characters--spend any time reading reviews and you'll see the word Dickensian--and falls for a damaged girl who he then loves from afar. The story takes him through casino culture, the world of furniture restoration, bus stops, drug culture, and in and out of various entanglements of companionship. Always, he carries the painting along with some serious feelings of doubt about how to move on without his mother.

In an interview at The Rumpus, story writer Stephen Comer says this of stories that stick to us:
I used to be sad that stories and novels actually end. Now I realize they don’t really have to. That the conversation can go on—does this make any sense? If a novel or a story works, you don’t stop thinking about it; it doesn’t truly end.
By this definition, then, The Goldfinch works. For me. That is to say that the book hasn't ended.

This has manifested itself in my life in an unusual way. Since I finished reading it, my thoughts have started to coalesce around one particular idea of what it meant--to me only, not in the general sense. I've been reading reviews of the book obsessively, searching for my own feelings in them and hoping to see them mirrored back. Confirmed, as though that would matter, somehow. I haven't yet found them. Or not quite. There are certainly a range of opinions, from the earliest reviews that championed and celebrated the book to the more recent comers who want to take on the idea of the long and winding novel, itself.

The writing on this book runs the gamut because it's so popular. Any aspect of the book you can imagine has been covered. There's this piece in Vanity Fair that begins by discussing Tartt's book covers (good stuff on the words there, too: "If Bret Easton Ellis was our Truman Capote, then Donna Tartt was our Harper Lee.") There's this piece at The Millions by Adam Dalva, who sees himself in the main character, Theo. This piece even instructs about how to tweet like Boris.

It's no secret why I'd want to pay attention to book reviews, but one thing I'm trying to measure is my reaction to a negative or a positive review. I've kept myself pretty quiet on the discussion of the idea of negative criticism largely because as a newbie book critic, I want to work. This fight over positive vs. negative continues to be a hot topic (since last fall when Isaac Fitzgerald said in an interview on Poynter that he would only run positive reviews as BuzzFeed's new books editor). It isn't wise for me to rant about the subject. But that hasn't stopped me from trying to gauge my own reaction to reviews: to see how they affect me as a reader and consumer. The argument against negative book reviews is that they will hurt sales. Is this true? I've been conducting my case study of one, and my first test case has been The Goldfinch.

Criticism abounds. Stephen King reviews the book for the New York times, saying, "[l]ike the best of Dickens [...], the novel turns on mere happenstance". NPR calls it a "crowded, exuberantly plotted triumph of a novel", declaring it worth the wait. Tartt's habit of writing a book once every decade or so is a common theme of reviews.

This thoughtful piece from Kamila Shamsie at The Guardian focuses not just on the action of the novel, but the stillness. "The novel changes gear and, for a while, is primarily involved with showing us, affectingly, the dislocation of Theo's life – a dislocation both emotional and physical." Shamsie is right--what makes The Goldfinch work so well is Tartt's ability to sustain interest through the quieter moments of those nearly 800 pages. Tartt makes Theo compelling, flawed. He rings true, without becoming a stereotype of a brooding young man.

James Wood reviews it in this excellent piece for The New Yorker. This experiential piece in The Rumpus calls Tartt's work "catnip for educated people who want to read entertaining but not difficult things about lofty topics and cosmopolitan people." Me-ow. Helena Fitzgerald at The Nervous Breakdown is consumed by the book, yet just flat out doesn't like what it represents. Greg Gwik looks at it in the context of Tartt's other work in LARB. It seems you can consider this book from just about any angle.

Except this, which I have yet to find. There's a moment in The Goldfinch when Theo studies his love interest, Pippa, and remarks that she's small even though she's reached adulthood. That time seems to have frozen for her at the moment of the bombing. They say that tragedy stunts the growth of girls at her school who experience trauma. That their development stops, and for some this means they never fully mature. That, for me, is the essence of Theo and of the novel itself: the stasis that came from the moment of the explosion in the earliest pages resulted in an extended adolescence. And I think Theo resonates with us as a character because we're a nation that's both felt tragedy and adjusted our expectations about what are expectations are of young people. Theo ages, yes. He gets older. But to hear this novel described as a bildungsroman or coming of age novel feels false. The book has has the trappings of the classic story, with the boy growing into a man, but Tartt does something more interesting. She moves him away from school. Away from the city. Away, in many ways, from education, development and the kind of experiences that build up your run of the mill teenage protagonist. Does Theo change? He seems to become more of himself--more of the guilt-ridden young man who ducked into the museum with his mom to escape the rain, and more of his father, the genes of avarice, excess and obsession asserting themselves more obtusely. He is bigger, bolder, more. But changed? A dynamic character? Tartt's novel seems to defy that interpretation.

This fascinates me. And makes it amazing. I haven't yet found that in a review. But I can tell you that I sure enjoyed reading them all. And not one of them made me not want to read the book. A few of them made me want to read it again.

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