Monday 22 September 2014

existence is catastrophe

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt has been the subject of a great deal of attention, including this article in Vanity Fair  on whether it is really the great novel that everyone is claiming. I have admitted before to being a bit of a literature snob, to not reading much 'popular' fiction and to not really being in the 'any kind of reading is good reading' camp: life is too short to read bad books in my opinion. This was a very good book. There is something different about a good short book, and a good long book; when a book is, say, less than 200 pages, it has to manage the story and the characters differently from one, like this, that is well in excess of 800. Not, however, that it felt (unlike the last four Harry Potter books) like it needed a bit of radical editing, the sometimes meandering and often boring detail all added to your sense of following someone real, because life often is meandering and boring. I felt that it was a good book because by the end I cared about everyone in it, I cared about what happened to all of them, and boy did I care about the painting. It was lovely to discover that it is a real painting and not something of the author's invention.

The Goldfinch
(Possible spoilers but it's a bit unavoidable I'm afraid) The story is told first-hand by Theo and relates the years of his life following the death of his mother in a terrorist bomb attack on a museum. As a bewildered young boy he is taken in for a few months by a friend's family but then his estranged father and his girlfriend turn up and he is shipped off to Vegas. Here he is left pretty much to fend for himself and he survives due mainly to the friendship of Boris, with whom he consumes vast amounts of alcohol and recreational drugs and they appear to live almost entirely on snack food. A subsequent tragedy necessitates a hasty return to New York, where he finds a foster home with Hobie, a furniture dealer and restorer. In the years that follow old friends reappear in his life bringing with them a variety of unforseen consequences.

But what about the painting, I hear you cry. Well, Theo steals the painting in the aftermath of the bomb, to save it for his mother, he convinces himself. But once it is in his possession it becomes a tangible link to her, something she loved, and the longer he has it the more he finds himself unable to let go of it. Though most the book does not revolve around what happens to the painting it remains this vital part of the story, a reminder for Theo of what has gone before but also something strangely permanent in the often unpredictable world. 

The book is a weird contradiction. Lengthy passages detailing the dissolute and chaotic life of neglected teenage boys manage to make you think very hard about the nature of adolescence and how they make sense of life. The endless drug taking would have depressed me except it seemed to depress him more. His determination not to create any expectations for either himself or others about his life paints a vivid picture of a person adrift in his own life; he doesn't know how to ask for help because he has no notion of what is missing. He is so isolated that he cannot trust even Hobie with knowledge of the painting. He shares with Pippa that fate of being haunted by the bombing, something that, in his favourite moments, bonds them together, but they are both too lost to be able to help each other. I wished she had been more significant to the story, but she becomes another shadow figure who cannot help him. Summed up in this lovely quote:

"Worse: my love for Pippa was muddied-up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother's death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. All that blind, infantile hunger to save and be saved, to repeat the past and make it different, had somehow attached itself, ravenously, to her. There was an instability in it, a sickness. I was seeing things that weren't there. I was only one step away from some trailer park loner stalking a girl he'd spotted at the mall. For the truth of it was: Pippa and I saw each other maybe twice a year; we e-mailed and texted, though with no great regularity; when she was in town we loaned each other books and went to the movies; we were friends; nothing more. My hopes for a relationship with her were wholly unreal, whereas my ongoing misery, and frustration, were an all-too-horrible reality. Was groundless, hopeless, unrequited obsession any way to waste the rest of my life?" (p.570)

Despite being 864 pages it seems to race along, though I did read a large chunk of it very fast yesterday because it was overdue at the library. I'm not sure I appreciated everything about it. Quotes I found and like, capturing certain aspects of the story and what it is trying to say. This one when he is sitting with Welty in the wreckage of the museum; it's as if part of him has realised instantaneously how his life has changed, while the rest of his mind pretends he has to go and meet his mother:

"But his hand in mine was limp. I sat there and looked at him, not knowing what to do. It was time to go, well past time - my mother had made that perfectly clear - and yet I could see no path out of the space where I was and in fact in some ways it was hard to imagine being anywhere else in the world - that there was another world, outside that one. It was like I'd never had another life at all." (p.45)

This one just amused me, and there were not many laughs in the book:

"Christ, I thought, turning from the mirror to sneeze. I hadn't been around a mirror in a while and I barely recognised myself: bruised jaw, spattering of chin acne, face blotched and swollen from my cold - eyes swollen too, lidded and sleepy, giving me a sort of dumb, shifty, homeschooled look. I looked like some cult-raised kid just rescued by local law enforcement, brought blinking from some basement stocked with firearms and powdered milk." (p.421)

I tried very hard not to be irritated by the affluent people (books about rich people are so irritating and literary fiction abounds with them), and the claim that his mother was having 'financial problems' but she still manages to leave him all this money and he goes to school with people who are incredibly wealthy. However I liked this. At one point he is horrified to find his old building has been gutted for renovation, the need to have things stay the same becomes very important. Here he is reassured by the permanence of the doorman at the Barbour's building and this is his imagining:

"Even in some smoky post-catastrophe Manhattan you could imagine him swaying genially at the door in the rags of his uniform, the Barbours up in the apartment burning old National Geographic for warmth, living off gin and tinned crabmeat." (P.527)

These two, touching on the same idea really, the last one comes from the final pages. What is life really all about, and why do we bother with it? 

"Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative gaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious and less abhorrent. People gambled and gloved and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbours and poured over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organisations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try and make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten top to bottom." (p.535)

"Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop you ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?" (p.853)

Such a cast of characters: the wild and reckless Boris; wonderful intuitive, reliable Hobie; Mrs Barbour, reserved and in control of everything, but then so crushed and vulnerable when Theo comes back; the enigmatic Pippa; Kitsey and Platt each coping with their family trauma in their own ways; the unpleasant and insidious Lucius Reeve. And then, having had bouts of relative stability punctuated by sudden trauma, and then pottered along harmlessly for several hundred pages, it turns into something of a tense thriller that had me racing through the pages saying aloud 'but where's the bloody painting!' All in all a wonderful book.

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