Saturday, June 4, 2016
Pulitzer Project: The Goldfinch
Then I pulled The Goldfinch off the shelf as part of my normal every-other-week trip to the library, recalled a friend had enthused about it a year or two ago, checked it out, eventually started reading it, and then found out it was a recent winner. My reaction was. . . oh, maybe a tad peeved at myself? I'd screwed up the nice neat order I was doing things in. I'm not supposed to skip around; it breaks my self-imposed rules. I consoled myself with the fact it was an accident -- there was nothing on the cover that would have warned me, and I hadn't looked at the list in awhile so how was I supposed to know?
So what exactly is The Goldfinch? For starters, it's really fat. This is not a book you pick up to skim on the bus on the way to work or to zip through on a weekend. It quite possibly is what might be termed a beach book, something you tote with you when you're looking forward to having a bunch of unstructured time to just kick back and read and not worry about how long it's taking you to get through it. It is a book with heft. In case of a home invasion, it could serve as a defensive weapon. It would also make a nifty doorstop.
It is also quite readable. Donna Tartt can write. She manages to wax almost lyrical when describing the trash floating in the canals in Amsterdam and the sand blowing through the decaying unfinished suburban housing developments in Las Vegas. If someone had told me someone could make descriptions of teenage druggies puking into trash cans readable, I wouldn't have believed it but Tartt pulls it off. How believable the scenarios are is another question -- I know adults can be pretty oblivious to the deviant behavior adolescents indulge in, but I find it hard to believe any two high school kids could show up at school day after day so stoned on alcohol and pills that it's a minor miracle they can walk. It's a rather implausible scenario. Then again, at that point the kid is going to school in Las Vegas so who knows? Maybe compared to his cohort, his behavior would have seemed pretty mainstream.
The Goldfinch is a coming of age story, sort of. The narrator is 13 when the book opens, mid-20s when it ends. It's his perspective on what's happened in his life since the day his mother died. It's been compared to Catcher in the Rye, but it's been so many years since I read that book that I have no idea if it's a valid comparison. I do seem to recall that Holden Caulfield didn't spend his time curled up in a fetal position from post traumatic stress while self-medicating like crazy and wallowing in paranoid fantasies, so I'm doubtful that the books actually have much in common. My memory of Holden is that he was pretty defiant; in contrast Theo (aka "Potter") spends a lot of time huddling under the bedclothes (metaphorically speaking) and having paranoid fantasies about being hauled off to prison in chains. He's pretty much a prisoner of his own fears.
The narrator in The Goldfinch, Theo Decker, is one of the oddest mixes of character traits I've seen in a long time. He's academically gifted, definitely book-smart, but remarkably naive when it comes to people. It doesn't help that with his own age group he has the social skills of a rock. Adults like him; his peers tolerate or bully him. When the book opens he apparently has only one friend, a sociopathic rich kid with a bad case of kleptomania, who drops Theo like the proverbial hot potato after Theo's mother dies. Theo also suffers from full-blown, total PTSD after surviving a bombing (vaguely ascribed to domestic terrorism) along with all the usual adolescent angst. The kid has one of the most wretched lives imaginable, loses his mother in the bombing, gets stuck living with his amoral alcoholic, drug-abusing con man of a father, and ends up living in a Las Vegas suburb that bears a strong resemblance to a ghost town. And it goes downhill from there. One horrible thing after another happens to Theo until he finds himself burning up with fever and freaking out from drug withdrawal in an Amsterdam hotel room. Then the author waves her magic wand, and, bingo, suddenly the thing that's terrified him for 13 years is no longer an issue. Even better, he's suddenly wallowing in huge amounts of money. To say this particular plot twist felt like cheating is an understatement.
Maybe it wouldn't have felt so much like cheating if some of the horrible stuff that happened to Theo hadn't been his own fault. True, he was sadly orphaned in his teens and he did wind up drug-addicted, but that didn't automatically entail him to decide as an adult to sell fake antiques to gullible wealthy clients. The last chapter or so of the book really had me going, "That's it? All that weirdness and suddenly Theo gets a happily ever after? WTF?!" It felt contrived, formulaic, trite, you name it. It just didn't ring true. Then again, the same thing could be said of the whole book. . . so maybe it wasn't cheating after all; it was just the author doing an, "Oh, crap, I'm 650 pages into this sucker and no logical end in sight. Time to wrap it all up so my editor will stop harassing me about missed deadlines."
Bottom line: The Goldfinch is readable but odd. Tartt is sufficiently skilled as a wordsmith that the book flows smoothly; it's just a shame that when you hit the end you find yourself thinking she could have done it better with a lot less prose and some good illustrations. It feels like a graphic novel or the plot line for a not-very-good movie. You know, if it had actually been a movie and I'd paid to see it in a theater, I'd have walked out thinking, "Crap. Should have waited for it to be on Netflix." Except I'm not sure there's a Netflix equivalent for books -- does Reader's Digest still do condensed books?
Which I guess answers the question would I recommend this book to other readers? Not really. Once you start, the writing is sufficiently skilled that you get sucked into it, but in the end you just feel like you've wasted way too many hours of your life on a not very good book.
Next up with the Pulitzers: supposedly it'll be House Made of Dawn by Scott Momaby but having messed with the natural order of things with The Goldfinch, who knows?