A tale of two time periods

goldfinch cover

At first glance, Donna Tartt seems to be the anti-Bret Easton Ellis. The two were friends, and dated briefly, as undergraduates at Bennington College. At school, Ellis and Tartt shared the manuscripts of their debuts-in-progress, manuscripts that would become “Less Than Zero” and “The Secret History.” “Less Than Zero”’s Clay returns from college in New Hampshire to Los Angeles for winter break; “The Secret History”’s Richard leaves California for college in Vermont. “Less Than Zero” is full of affectless, nihilistic college students engaging in drug abuse and sexual depravity; “The Secret History” is full of seriously affected Classics majors who become obsessed with enacting a bacchanal, resulting in the death of a groundskeeper. “The Secret History” is a work informed by the Greek tragic tradition, full of classical allusions, incest, and suicide. There is an inevitability to the novel’s events, as if the Fates are weaving just behind the curtain. “Less Than Zero” revels in the absence of any such divine logic: Clay’s drug dealer Rip, a man with a penthouse and a bottomless trust fund, keeps a 12-year-old sex slave chained up because he has “nothing to lose.” Ellis went on to mine the nihilism of the eighties’ nouveau riche to exhaustion (and then some) in his most notorious work, “American Psycho.” Nowadays he’s known for his ridiculous tweets, including his posthumous bashing of David Foster Wallace, and his ill-conceived (to put it lightly) film collaboration with Paul Schrader starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen; Ellis is more of a media presence than a novelist. Donna Tartt, in contrast, is known for her reserve. She writes alone on her Virginia farm, and her novels are steeped in the literary tradition. She’s not on Twitter, and she rarely interviews. At age 49 she has just released her third novel, “The Goldfinch.”

After a quick establishing frame of the protagonist, Theo Decker, holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam, leaving his room only to snag a Dutch newspaper and scan it for reports of a crime, we return to the day of his mother’s death. On the way to a school meeting about 13-year-old Theo’s recent expulsion, he and his mother stop at a museum to see an Old Masters show. A bomb goes off, killing Theo’s mother and others and setting the stage for a dream-like set piece when Theo comes to amidst the rubble. He encounters an old man who, before he expires, entrusts Theo with a ring and an address: “Hobert and Blackwell […] Ring the green bell.” He also has Theo, in his disoriented state, snag the titular painting, Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” knocked free from the wall. Thus Theo acquires the book’s enchanting, and frustrating, MacGuffin. But at this point in the novel, we are immersed. Theo’s world has been upended, and the stage has been set for whatever is to come.

And then the exposition continues for another 300 pages. To avoid child services, Theo stays with the Barbours, a family of New York gentry crowbarred into the novel, before being whisked off by his newly sober dad and his cocaine-dealing girlfriend to Las Vegas. What follows can only be described as a drug-fueled YA novella that co-opts the narrative for over 100 pages. Theo meets another displaced youth, the Ukrainian Boris, and, free from any adult supervision, they lounge around their Vegas tract mansions and drink a lot of vodka (this rampant drug and alcohol use allows for some narrative sleight-of-hand that explains certain events later in the novel). Theo’s dad gets in deep with the wrong people, and stress drives him back to drinking, and, unfortunately, to drive. Theo sustains his second loss in nearly 200 pages. He must say goodbye to his new friend and return to New York. Boris exits the narrative here, though he will spring up with Victorian serendipity later in the novel. And with that we are nearly back where we started, halfway through the 800-page tome, ringing the green bell at Hobert and Blackwell.

Things happen—Boris returns, complications arise regarding the painting, Theo gets engaged—all culminating in an action set piece in Amsterdam, closing the frame narrative. Critics have already pointed out the novel’s strengths and weaknesses in numerous publications, mostly with doe-eyed fawning. The novel does run long and some narrative devices are very obviously contrived to keep the plot going, but Tartt is an admirable storyteller, so you rarely pause to gripe. Reviewers have also already picked out the novel’s fairly obvious parallels with “Great Expectations”: an orphaned protagonist narrating in the first-person, his apprenticeship to a craftsman, his love for a fellow orphan girl, and the befriending of a criminal who returns to play a narrative role. What critics have neglected to consider is the novel’s structure within its own historical period—that is, what are the implications of using a Dickensian structure in the 21st century?

For the Russian formalists, a school of literary critics who espoused a “scientific” method of investigating poetic forms and language, basic plot structures are ahistorical. However, when they manifest in novels, they must do so in a guise suitable to their times. Viktor Shklovsky in “Energy of Delusion: A Book On Plot” observes that one way for this to occur is parody. He takes the figure of Don Quixote as his example, a parody of the knight-errantry hero down to his equipment: “His pasteboard helmet is the death of the old epic weapons.” In one sense, parody is an act of scavenging, taking those bits which are of use and discarding or whittling those that aren’t to fit the demands of modernity. The humor arises when some of the old devices aren’t modified, and are instead shown for what they are in the light of the new. Don Quixote sees the present day through the tinted filter of the medieval epic, and windmills become giants. For the project of keeping literature relevant, parody is a necessary act of subversion.

Even in Tartt’s model, Dickens, parody is present. As Shklovsky notes, the initial characterization of Mr. Pickwick, from Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers,” is rife with it. When Dickens describes Pickwick’s tracing of the mighty ponds of Hampstead to their source and his revolutionary theory of the Tittlebats, Shklovsky observes: “The hero is presented as a parody. The ponds mentioned in this passage are in the city. The tittlebat, I’d say, is the worst of all the fish. The hero himself, his frock and his gestures—everything is parody.” A modern reader would expect something of a similar treatment by Tartt when Hobie steps out of his antique shop like some Victorian artisan, clad in a paisley robe with satin lapels, while, presumably, commuters walk by engrossed in their cell phones, and I.E.D.s are being detonated in the Middle East, and, far away from Hobie’s basement workshop, regular non-artisan pieces of furniture are being fabricated in third-world sweatshops. But no, Hobie is a man with a twinkle in his eye. He is the kind of character who, presumably having failed to watch any of the myriad films of our time chock-full of emotional cliches, can look at a piece from his collection and say, with no self-awareness, “this piece, not of the first quality, doesn’t fit with anything else I own, and yet isn’t it always the innappropriate thing, the thing that doesn’t quite work, that’s oddly the dearest?” not even so much as wincing at the treacle content of that sentence. Tartt’s propensity to use genre-fiction-y cliffhangers as if her work were, like Dickens’s, published serially (“I understood the instant I saw them, that my life, as I knew it, was over”; “It was a fantastic night—one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite what happened later.”) and the tired cliches that litter the entirety of the novel, and which Francine Prose enumerates in her review in the New York Review of Books (“Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg.’ A dying man ‘grappled and thrashed—a fish out of water.’ After the explosion, the bomb site is ‘a madhouse.’ The shock of seeing the girl Theo loves is ‘like a dash of cold water.’ Mrs. Barbour assigns Theo to share Andy’s room ‘without beating around the bush.’”), confirm that Tartt apes Dickens’s structure without matching his linguistic precision – that which allows us to forgive Dickens his occasional narrative inconsistency and what makes his prose such a joy to read. And while there is an initial hope that some wave of reality will come crashing down to sweep away the “Dickensian” trappings, it never does. Serendipity gets Theo out of all his jams, and the police and gangsters operate on the periphery until the novel’s climax, and even then everything works out alright. The result is a holographic novel: tip it one way and it is Dickensian, the other and it’s modern. Unfortunately it never puts the two in dialogue, and is thus never completely convincing in either mode.

I framed this piece the way I did in order to, in a clever rhetorical twist, collapse the distinction I drew between Ellis and Tartt, and suggest that “The Goldfinch”’s flimsy idealistic conclusion belies Tartt’s fundamental nihilism. But in the end, I don’t know if that’s a legitimate claim to make; or rather, the book is simply not ostentatious enough to deserve that kind of savaging. I discuss the need for parody, but perhaps that is just faulting the novel for not willing to be progressive. At no point is it really disastrously anachronistic. Neither is Theo terribly nihilistic. Rather, he pouts just enough for us to not really care for him as he meanders through the baggy novel. Ultimately, the twist is not that the book is not what you think it is, but that it is exactly what its publicity suggests it is: last year’s Big Novel, a late-2013’s “The Art of Fielding.” The novel may sputter along at times and contain, as James Wood points out, passages of just plain sloppy writing, but with its pasted-on concluding essay-cum-monologue by Theo checking all the right boxes, critics can, with genuine wonder, praise Tartt for her celebration of the “enduring power of art.” Unfortunately, neither side of Tartt’s juxtaposition of Theo’s enduring personal gloom (“Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe…and I’ll keep repeating it till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face…better never born, than born into this cesspool.”) with his universal rhapsodizing about the “point where the mind strikes reality […] the space where all art exists, and all magic” registers as any less contrived than the novel’s unreflective use of Dickensian structure. I slighted Ellis for his recent collaboration with director Paul Schrader, and yet it generated the massive “New York Times” piece “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie,” which may contain more genuine pathos than the entirety of Tartt’s novel. Maybe I’ll go watch “The Canyons” now after all.


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