Sunday, January 11, 2015

Life is catastrophe

Donna Tartt does not have a webpage (and the site I linked to is out of date), which is kind of astonishing in this age. I approached The Goldfinch strategically; I'd been number one (suspended) on the hold list for awhile waiting for the right three weeks to listen because I knew I'd need every minute. (I find I wasn't as strategic in my current doorstop listening -- Middlemarch -- and as a result I'm going to be paying some overdues.) And, foolish me, I thought that those three weeks of one book would enable me to catch up on the blogging ... well, we know how well that turned out!

For any reader occupying the space beneath a rock, The Goldfinch is a 32+-hour bildungsroman of one Theo Decker, who loses his beloved mother in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and steals a petite painting by Carel Fabritius (who himself died in an explosion). Then, more acted upon than acting, he totes that painting from an Upper East Side apartment to an unfinished housing development in exurban Las Vegas, to a Greenwich Village townhouse, and finally to Amsterdam. Theo was possibly modeled on Charles Dickens' Pip, and like that boy he encounters a raft of memorable characters (and a girl who doesn't love him) who frighten him, amuse him, befriend him, support him, deceive him, and generally propel the grieving child into a stunted, drug-fueled, manipulative -- and finally, possibly, redeeming -- manhood. Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Like her first book, The Secret History, it was absolutely compelling from the outset. Theo's fate is uncertain and it's easy to get invested in his future (and whether or not he has one); once he finds sanctuary with the kindly Village furniture restorer, Hobie, he manages to screw this up on his own, keeping the listener on tenterhooks. And when the larger-than-life Russian schoolfriend Boris (first encountered in Las Vegas) shows up again, with a crackpot plan that requires the painting, well, it's fairly suspenseful. On the other hand, once the novel finally gets to Amsterdam, I could not wait for it to be over. And there were still a good six to eight hours to go. I think there was a full disc (or more) devoted to Theo's feverish ravings in an Amsterdam hotel over Christmas. Or at least it felt like it. I had the same problem with The Secret History, it's almost like Tartt can't bring herself to finish so she drags out her story beyond its natural life.

David Pittu is the excellent narrator. I've only heard him read really ordinary children's books, so his work here is kind of revelatory. Unlike his listener, he never flags -- pacing the novel so that its sense of suspense is (almost) never released. He has a gravelly, adult voice and is telling Theo's first-person story from his adult perspective. Yet, at the beginning, he imbues his voice with an adolescent's delivery and all Theo's sadness -- which permeates this novel -- is clear in Pittu's reading.

Like its Dickensian inspiration, The Goldfinch's many characters are vivid and unforgettable and Pittu makes the most of them. Even when their appearances are brief, Pittu gives them a unique voice, authentic and interesting. No caricatures here. I particularly liked Boris (who could not like Boris?) with his Russian inflections, potty-mouth and overwhelming personality. Pittu's women sound natural, although -- with the exception of Theo's dad's blackjack-dealing girlfriend Xandra (and Theo makes a no-longer-remembered comment about her name) -- they are not the interesting people in this novel.

I will say that the music that underbeds the conclusion and the credits is a bit much. It sounds a bit like hackneyed, sweeping-epic movie music and in that vein kind of diminishes Theo's final statement about the power of art: "And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things and looked out for them and pulled them from the fire and sought them when they were lost and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers and the next." (I'm sure there is missing punctuation in that quote, but I transcribed this from the audio.)

Perhaps some found the metaphor of the chained goldfinch to be a little obvious, but I appreciated all the ways that Theo could not break from his past, from that life-changing event. Clinging to that painting, and more literally to the fact that he had that painting (for, of course, he couldn't hang it on the wall), redeems Theo in the end. Despite everything that has happened to him, and all that he brought upon himself, Theo goes on. Kind of like "The Goldfinch." Kind of like art.

And also, how cool is it that Tartt took as her polestar a real painting and had fictional things happen to it? That alone will win me over.

[I don't usually like to repeat images that are already on the book covers, but I want you to see the whole painting. When "The Goldfinch" is at home, it hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. This image is from the Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Narrated by David Pittu
Hachette Audio, 2013.  32:29

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