Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is huge. It is a massive, time-consuming tome that, though it is fun and exciting and gripping, often witty and (in a few places – but not enough) insightful, not really worth the time it takes to read.
The least enjoyable book I’ve read in recent memory was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, a book I found, ultimately, dull and not engaging enough. That is shorter than The Goldfinch but took me much longer to read because, although I do have many criticisms, one thing Tartt’s book cannot be accused of is a lack of Excitement. And that is capitalised and italicised because that is, sadly, the defining mood of the novel.
Maybe, being a bit older and (dare I say it) wiser, I’m less willing to accept big novels, but I don’t think that’s true. Infinite Jest is the best book I have read, hands down, for years – and that is a massive modern American novel, much like this. That is set in a slightly altered contemporary world, that focuses on addiction and creativity and petty criminality and… It also considers every other fucking theme that literature can engage with and offers searing, highly emotional and HIGHLY insightful evocations of a massive cast of characters. The Goldfinch, by comparison, has very few characters – though, to be fair, pretty much every last one is “rounded” and some – Boris, the protagonist’s best friend, to some extent Hobie, his guardian – are bloody great.* And although David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece does include a lot of events, there is a lot of plot in Infinite Jest, yes, but other than a bit of detail about art and antiques (which I kind of know about as I’m middle class), The Goldfinch is little more than a series of action pieces.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Tartt plots with fucking aplomb. Her plotting, often unexpected and thrilling and taut, is expertly done. This is what she has down. When things happen, they happen and they are gripping and exciting, and the only reason why I’ve read this not-excellent massive book in a week is because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Like some kind of cretinous moron tuning in to the next episode of fucking Doctors** or whatever, chasing plot.
Now, I am happy to retire my intellect and enjoy a thriller from time to time. I have read every James Bond novel (should I admit that?), whenever my girlfriend goes away for a few days I plough through a season of The Walking Dead, I have enjoyed action films and science fiction films and Pixar films – I am happy to relax for a few hours with a light, entertaining, rollicking bit of entertainment. I enjoy being thrilled, I’ll admit that, but only when I’ve signed up for being thrilled. And I was under the impression that The Goldfinch was serious literary fiction…
Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, as a counterexample, is hard fucking work. It is a dense, politicised, historical novel that, in great detail, establishes the entire society and history of a fictional country. And then in the final quarter of the novel there’s a coup and it become a swash-buckingly adventure smash – the action, the plot, and the heady thrilleryness comes as a result of learning about the background, and caring about the characters.
But Tartt’s characters, here, are all a bit annoying. Everyone has too much money, or too many drugs, or is too pathetic to run their own business, or can’t get over bereavement… Those last two are the tone the narrator/protagonist takes, and that’s another big problem.
I didn’t like the main character, the protagonist, the narrator. And he is ALWAYS there. I was SO HOPING for a change of voice or perspective or pace at the end of the first part, but no. I was hoping for one at the start of part three, but no. By four and five I’d resigned myself.
But a book of this length, with only one point of view, one voice, one perspective, one style, gets tiresome. Infinite Jest shifts A LOT, The Savage Detectives (Bolaño) shifts a lot too – these are long novels that WORK.
The Goldfinch is a thriller, a good thriller, yes (full of references to similarly plot-driven popular fiction like Harry Potter and the Stieg Larrson books), but it doesn’t elevate itself any higher. It is genre fiction masquerading as literature by virtue of its length and the fact that there are people that know about Art in it.
But the Pierce Brosnan Thomas Crown Affair isn’t considered art house cinema because it has art in, is it?
The Goldfinch is a great thriller, exciting, thrilling, fun, offering a bit of detail about a few things I didn’t know about (as one expects from any half-decent thriller), but it’s all on a very similar level and is far too long. All the fun could have been had in half the length, and without the fun it would be a very middling read.
Also, there’s a sudden shift at the very end and every character starts monologuing morals, which offers a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. For a book that is all about entertainment, its ending isn’t entertaining enough.
But, hey, who am I to judge?
I’d say it’d be a great holiday read, but unless you’re on holiday for a month most people probably wouldn’t have the time to finish it.
A let down. But a lot of fun. And a GREAT cover.
(I went in wanting to enjoy it, for the record.)
* Until the ending.
** Doctors is a long-running Midlands-based daytime television serial, or at least it used to.