On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is a novel that is crafted like a classic bildungsroman—a coming of age story where a young man’s life is thrown off its set path by a freak incident, and in a new and unfamiliar world filled with crime and opulence, he grows into his own. And like a classic nineteenth-century novel, the book sweeps over large portions of time, skipping several years between chapters, but suddenly zooming into the details of a necklace, the finish on an antique table, a long conversation with a returned friend. The pacing is often frustrating—these sudden jumps in time followed by long periods of languishing—and the protagonist, with his brooding amorality, is far from likeable.

I am not the most loyal reader, and I often abandon books midway to pick up others, or I read a few pages on a lazy Sunday morning and put the book back on a teetering pile to never glance at those pages again. What then was it about this book that kept bringing me back—that at the end of some other entirely different book, I would wonder what indeed had happened to Theodore Decker? And like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I would open the book again at the postcard which I used as a bookmark, and away we would go. A hundred pages later, rather predictably, I would abandon the protagonist in his latest drug haze and wander away only to return months later.

This is a flawed book, and there are many critics who are more than ready to point out its many weaknesses—its lack of literary beauty, its plot’s reliance of coincidences—but for me, what jarred the most was its lack of soul. Or rather, where the book did have soul—the friendship between Theo and Boris, Hobby’s love for antiques—it seemed to be hidden under layers and layers of cold sophistication and the need for the book to be about more. The author was trying so hard to make a grand philosophical statement about the importance of objects in our lives, what it means for art to conquer time, that she had missed the warmth that pulses at the centre of the book. At its core runs a story of an intense male friendship—two young men who are completely unlike each other, but also alike in that they have no one but each other—and what brought me back to the book was not the protagonist, but his friend, Boris, who is as untrustworthy as he is generous. (It is only later that I realised what a cliche this character is—the Dostovesky-reading drug dealer—and perhaps it is credit to this book that it never struck me while reading it.) But there is so much in between about antiques and unhappy rich families, that those few scenes seem windows of sunlight in an otherwise cold and sterile gallery.

The book goes on far longer than it should—as though the author could not quite figure out that the book had already ended and she goes on trying to explain what the book was really about. It feels like you’re watching a movie where you’re more interested in the side-character, your eye drifting to the blurred corner where something infinitely more interesting is happening. If only the book was a little less consumed by its own greatness, if only it could have been a little more honest, it would have been a truly great book. The prose is for the most part overwrought, though some scenes are astoundingly lyrical, and one is left with the feeling that if only the author had tried to write a story and not a masterpiece, a book closer to the painting it is named after may have emerged. The goldfinch in the painting is described as small and vulnerable, yet unshrinking from the world. The book, in contrast, is imposing and ambitious.

My feelings about books often change in the two weeks after I read them—I find myself tripping over ideas from a book that I found immensely frustrating to read, or I would entirely forget about an enjoyable book and slip into the next one without so much as a backward glance. Goldfinch, for me, was a book that still impresses me for what it set it out to do. It is beautifully plotted and it captures a certain feel of New York—Central Park in Fall, Manhattan at night, a conversation between Russian men at the back of a limo. I am fond of this book for the ambition of its initial premise, the ingenuity of its plot. Where it works, it works extraordinarily well. The description of carefully observed body language, the disorientation in moments of violence, the wired ecstasy of a drug high in the Las Vegas desert. It kept me returning to it over six months though I was constantly distracted by other books; it kept me wondering about how things really turned out for Theo; it made me care about the fate of this painting of a small bird. But the book never rises beyond evoking curiosity to inspire any empathy or joy; it offers no observation that will strike you in the middle of a conversation a month later; it is not the sort of book that will wedge itself in the corner of your eye and change the way you see the world forever. It is a book that is structurally beautiful but, ultimately, hollow inside.

 

Advertisements

This Is Not A Sad Poem

Why does everything have to happen

right now? Why was the report due yesterday

why is there no time better than now,

why not do things tomorrow, why do

them at all? What if I don’t want to

seize the day or eat the bigger frog,

what if I do miss the bus and opportunity

never again knocks? Let the bubble

break, I’m not going to let it go,

what does it matter I only live

once, I just don’t want to

do it — I’ll live in another moment

and make hay when the sun isn’t shining;

I’ll hold on to the past and forget to speak

in a church wedding. Who cares if this the bird in hand

or the other in the bush, I don’t want to smell

the roses or forever hold my peace; I want to bar some holds

and what if I just want to fold?

A Season of Exits

Dear friend,
I know you are halfway through the door
and this is just a final look over the shoulder
to check that you haven’t forgotten something important
on the bedside table. Your thoughts have gone ahead of you:
eyes already seeking guiding lights through
frosted airplane windows, your body left behind,
hand resting on the door, one last smudge of warmth
in a place you used to call home before you turn off the lights.

What does goodbye mean in this world where we only travel
in circles and not in lines; that old feeling of deja vu
I leave and you stay
I stay and you leave —
a door endlessly banging open
too old and warped to properly shut now.

What can be said when everything
that had to be said has already been said —
to the ceiling, while lying on your floor,
over a weepy phone call, at 3 AM — or is now
irrelevant because of the oppressive weight of
possibilities: what if we forget to speak
each other’s languages and are reconfigured
into two people who can only talk about that one time
when that one thing happened to someone
we once knew.

But what use is a goodbye if it doesn’t feel like a goodbye,
if it’s not for forever, but only a question
of two minutes or two years or two decades,
the door banging open again, an old feeling of deja vu
as I turn on the lights — to a new

series of entrances.

 

 

On purpose

There was a time when I felt other than myself. I no longer felt the need to push ahead and make something, primarily because something as nuanced as editing felt increasingly meaningless in a world that was rapidly losing all sense of nuance. In addition, the planet was about to be destroyed, the third world war was coming, AI was going to destroy all our jobs, and in the grand scheme of things, what does a misplaced comma matter really? During a conversation with a friend, when I was telling her about how pessimistic I was feeling, she pointed out (somewhat tangentially) that as long as I measure my work through numbers – hours, billing, etc. – I will never be happy. It is all about the quality, she said. I, my head still full of the data my various productivity trackers were tracking, completely misunderstood her and thought she was referring to the amount of work done in an hour and started to complain about how distracted I have been. Let’s just say the point went over my head by a few feet.

A few days later, I was editing an article on stone pelting in Kashmir. The article was essentially a collection of short interviews with “stone pelters” and captures their day-to-day lives. It was an article with a strong voice, but the pitfall it was headed toward was very apparent. Without any data, it appeared to be mere anecdotes and opinion. As I worked my way through the article, painfully smoothening it out word by word, the gears at the back of my head kept clicking: how do I make this more credible? How do I provide a context for these conversations? How do I keep this article from being so easily dismissed? I wanted the article to not just read well, but for it to be read and understood the way it was intended to be read and understood and not be dismissed as mere opinion. I do not know what form the article will finally take after the many drafts I foresee, but I do know this: I will be proud of the work I’ve done on this one when it does come out. But here in the tricky part. If my friend hadn’t spoken to me about quality, if that conversation hadn’t been rattling around at the back of my head, would I still feel this pride? Or would it be overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt – of having spent so long on something which should have taken half as long? “We really cannot afford to work this way,” a business part of my brain would have kicked in, drowning any sense of accomplishment the artisan in me felt.

Over the last few months, I have been feeling a distinct lack of meaning and purpose. “This is so pointless,” a small voice within me would whine, “who is going to read this tripe anyway? Who cares if this sentence is slightly more elegant, or if that reference list is in perfect alphabetical order?” I would usually shelve the feeling away, telling myself that purpose was not for everyone. I have other nice things, like a TV, a recliner, and friends who actually do have purpose, and I should be happy with that. But here was my moment: a bucket of purpose had been tipped over my head. I could either complain about how it was more underwhelming that I had imagined it to be, or I could bask in it. I have always envied friends who I thought were producing good work (however I defined the term), though I theoretically knew that it was the result of a butt load of hard work and some difficult choices. But it was only now (a little late to the party, I know) that I realised that living a life of purpose is not one gigantic decision you make one morning – it is simply how you choose to live your life, moment from moment. It is quite simple, really: recognise something worthy when it comes your way, commit to it, and then work hard on it. And if you enjoy the feeling of having contributed something, of having made something, experienced or learned something, helped someone, conquered ground, made progress, or however you define purpose, then keep doing it again, and again, and again, until you’re full up on purpose (if that’s something you’re into).

As you can guess, this was a rather underwhelming realisation. Through my twenty-seven years of existence, I had somehow missed the most fundamental aspect of purpose: it is subjective. For some reason I had expected it to bestow an ethereal glow on the person who had it, a divine light shining from above, instantly recognisable from ten feet away. As though it was something to be sought outside of oneself, but really it is something that you confer on the things around you when you recognise their importance. It is not so much what you do, as much as clarifying to yourself why you do it.

But why do anything at all? What makes anything meaningful? I don’t know. For me, it has always been about making voices heard that may not otherwise have been, about easing the way of something from the shadows into daylight, about drawing attention to something that is hidden. Why does this in particular push my buttons the way nothing else does? I don’t know. I just know that doing this sort of work makes me feel I have contributed something – made a difference if you will. But that just happens to be my personal understanding of meaning. Meaning too, I am learning, is something we craft for ourselves. It is individual, personal, and non-transferable. Perhaps that is why there are so many different theories about it  – serve others! serve society! improve your family’s/clan’s status! worship god! preach this political ideology! save the environment!   – some reason their way to it, and others stumble onto it in a rush of emotion. The only defining feature is that it lights that dim fire of pleasure within us when we consciously pursue it.

To a Younger Self

Old friend,
do not for a moment think
that you will receive a warm welcome here.
We parted on amicable terms years ago –
I thought we had an arrangement.

Life was simpler without you.
I found joy in going to bed early,
a secure income, insurance cover,
I had forgotten what a mess you are
of rage and desire; impatient
in your reminder of how swift
each contraction of the heart is;
I really want to slam the door in your face.

Crazy woman,
why did you come back?
It is my task now to
clothe you and civilise you
to not give in to your madness
to teach you to speak with words
and not claws.

It’s true that I’m not quite in form –
that I let myself go –
that it’s going to take me a while
to figure out how to tame you.
My beast.
My beloved.
Welcome back.
You have returned my story to me
Don’t leave just yet.

On Reading Anthony Doerr

It’s been a while since I read a book where I was not plummeting towards an ending. I tend to favour short intense books that swallow me whole and spit me out before I can blink. I like reading like a swimmer hurtling to the surface for air. I have a fondness for brevity, minimalism, lightness. Any draft that comes my way goes back bleeding red.

But this book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, was a refreshing change of pace. It slows you down; it stops you on a busy street corner and says “Look!” It tells you the names of the birds in the air, which trees are flowering this season, it tells you exactly how breakfast tasted. It reminds you that you are standing in the locus of an electromagnetic spectrum and in this very moment, there are millions of messages hurtling past you—I love you, and I miss you, and don’t forget the eggs. There are so many things that are fantastic about this book and I don’t know where quite to start—but perhaps here—it reintroduces you to that feeling of wonder—when you can look at a bird spiraling high above and think, isn’t this just fantasticContinue reading