What a fascinating enigma this book is. It’s almost eight hundred pages long. Its first-person narrator and its plot are compelling. It’s at times unspeakably sad. It’s not especially well written. It’s about art and growing up and friendship and the human tendency to be deeply irresponsible at one another’s expense. At times it’s unforgivably wordy. My gut response it that it’s nowhere near as good as Tartt’s The Secret History, although I’m also willing to believe that my sensibilities have matured a bit since I read that novel in 1998. But yet – all those incredible reviews. All my Facebook friends raving about it. And… the Pulitzer? Really?
I enjoyed this book a good deal, but it doesn’t deserve the Pulitzer – not at all. I’ll explain.
Theodore Decker, the novel’s narrator, is in the eighth grade at the beginning of the novel. His mother has just gotten word that he has been suspended from school, and the two of them are getting ready to leave their New York City apartment to go to a meeting at school about whatever Theo did to deserve his suspension. Theo himself doesn’t know; he has been smoking cigarettes with a classmate and assumes that a teacher may have witnessed them, but he also has a vague sense that the school officials may have somehow learned that he and his friend Tom Cable have been sneaking into houses on Long Island and snooping around – not stealing, just opening closets and drawers and thinking about the lives of the people who live there. Theo and his mother never make it to this meeting, and the reader never learns why he was suspended, but this brief incident does a lot to demonstrate to the reader that the seeds of the life of secrecy and dishonesty that Theo will eventually lead were planted in his childhood – before he loses his mother, before the influence of his deeply dishonest father and Theo’s Russian-hoodlum friend Boris, before Theo’s ventures into the world of art theft and antiques fraud.
The first chapter of the novel introduces a frame: it presents the adult Theo trapped in a hotel room in Amsterdam, compulsively scanning newspapers and watching the TV news for references to himself. This frame didn’t do much to draw me into the novel, but once the novel moves into flashback, the first 200 pages or so are fantastic. I could barely stop reading (although even then I was saying, “The Pulitzer? Really?). Theo and his mother have recently been abandoned by Theo’s father, and they are generally happy to have him gone – although they are suffering financially. Theo idolizes his mother, sees her as the only person in his world that he can trust – and I found myself thinking a lot about John Wheelwright’s mother in A Prayer for Owen Meany in these chapters. Theo’s mother (her name is Audrey) is annoyed with Theo for getting expelled and annoyed in general at the financial stresses in her life. She and Theo leave home in the morning, on their way to the meeting at school. Theo is hungry – he hasn’t had breakfast – but he’s afraid to tell his mother that he wants to go out to breakfast because he doesn’t want to make her angry (seen figuratively, this situation is in some ways a metaphor for the whole novel: Theo is hungry (for love, for stability – and, increasingly as the novel goes on, for drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes) but is afraid to tell other people about his hunger.
To kill time before the meeting, Theo and his mother decide to walk around in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They go there a lot – Audrey is a former art-history major who now works for a fashion magazine – but this time there is a specific exhibit of Dutch paintings that she wants to see. The museum is crowded, and Theo follows his mother dumbly around each exhibit hall, too consumed with his hunger and his nervousness to pay attention to art. However, Theo does catch a glimpse of a girl who interests him – a red-haired girl carrying a flute case. It’s never clear what it is that draws Theo to this girl, except insofar as human beings are often drawn to certain people for mysterious reasons, but Theo does draw a parallel between his fascination with this girl and the thrill of breaking into people’s houses with his friend Tom: she strikes him immediately as someone whose secrets he would like to know.
And then, long story short, a bomb goes off. We never know who set the bomb or why, though it’s certainly portrayed as an act of terrorism. Theo is knocked unconscious, and he wakes up in a dark space surrounded by dead bodies. He gets up slowly – he has a terrible headache – and begins to feel his way around, looking for his mother. He makes his way into an adjacent exhibit hall, where he sees the grandfather of the red-haired girl (they had been walking around the museum hall together earlier), who is dying of a severe injury. He calls Theo over, babbles some seemingly-nonsensical statements to him, gives him a signet ring, tells him to “go to Blackwell’s,” and points to a painting that is lying in the rubble and tells Theo to take it. The painting is The Goldfinch – the very painting that Theo’s mother brought him to the museum to see. This painting is known for its extremely small size – which allows Theo to carry it out of the museum unseen – and for the fact that it is one of the only works of its artist, Fabritius, to survive the explosion (irony!) that killed him. After the girl’s grandfather dies, Theo carries the ring and the painting out of the museum, passing through other exhibit halls full of bodies. Outside, he is largely ignored by rescue personnel, who have just learned that there is a second bomb in the building and are racing around to make sure everyone is evacuated. Theo’s mother has always told him that if they are ever separated, he should go back to their apartment, so that’s what he does. He carries the ring and the painting and his terrible headache home, and he waits.
I invented a new acronym while I was reading the opening chapters of this book: SNEGBE. It means “Said no eighth grade boy ever.” Tartt seems endlessly confused about exactly what an eighth grader is and what kinds of thoughts and habits he is likely to have. In this novel, thirteen year-olds take “a full schedule of AP classes.” They do things like turn off cell phones (no teenager ever turns off a cell phone) and carry handkerchiefs, and they make complicated ironic allusions to Lawrence of Arabia and observations about strangers like, “He was one of those guys who wore a wedding ring that didn’t really look like a wedding ring – or maybe it wasn’t a wedding ring at all and he was just super-proud of his Celtic heritage. If I had to guess, I would have said he was newly married, with a baby” (148).
Oh, and also, the drinking age in New York City is eighteen. Just in case you had any questions about that.
There are similar incongruities in The Secret History. I don’t remember specifics, but I remember enjoying that novel thoroughly while also asking myself every few pages if this author had ever met an actual college student. I am curious about Donna Tartt – who is she, and what does she do all day that keeps her understanding about the daily lives of ordinary people so incomplete and disjointed?
Time to speed up the summary: Theo’s mother dies in the explosion, and Theo is sent to live with the family of a friend of his – Andy Barbour. The Barbours are kind to Theo, giving him time at home to grieve and then supporting him as he returns to school. They are just starting to talk about adopting Theo when his father shows up with his strung-out new girlfriend Xandra, with whom he has started a new life in Las Vegas. Social Services were tireless in tracking him down – this incident is one of many moments in this novel whose message is that we should never, under any circumstances, trust people in positions of authority.
Theo moves to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra, where he is largely ignored. His first friend there is a boy named Boris – they bond over their shared love of Walden(!) – whose father is some kind of sketchy miner. The exact nature of his sketchiness is never made entirely clear, but Boris has grown up moving from city to city all over the world, following his father’s sketchy mining career. In doing so, Boris has spent a lot of time around scary Russian thugs, and by thirteen he has become a scary Russian thug in his own right. Boris and Theo embark on a life of shoplifting, alcoholism, and alarmingly severe drug use. Meanwhile, Theo still has the painting he took from the museum, wrapped up in a pillowcase and taped to the back of the headboard of his bed. Also meanwhile, Theo’s father becomes scarier and scarier – he is clearly deeply buried in a gambling addiction, celebrating his wins lavishly and then hiding for weeks at a time from various hitmen and thugs.
But back to the red-haired girl for a moment. Her name is Pippa, and she was injured in the explosion too, but she survived. Before he left New York, Theo figured out what “Go to Blackwell’s” means, and he goes there and meets a man named Hobie, who was Pippa’s grandfather’s business partner. Theo gives Hobie the signet ring the old man had given him, and Hobie invites him to visit at any time. Theo is able to see Pippa briefly, but then some steely female relative shows up and packs Pippa off to a special boarding school in Switzerland for girls who have sustained traumatic injuries.
Hobie has an other-worldly quality about him. At times he reminded me of the classics professor in The Secret History (and at other times he reminded me of a John Lithgow character in a sitcom about a family from outer space that as far as I know I never watched – got to love my brain and its wacky free associations). Theo is drawn to him for reasons he can’t fully understand, and when Theo is in a position to leave Las Vegas in a big hurry (long story short), he packs a change of clothes and, of course, the painting, and heads straight for Hobie in New York. Hobie is a restorer of antique furniture, and his home (which is attached to his shop) has a very Miss-Havishammy feel to it (made especially interesting when we consider that his home is also sometimes the home of a character named Pippa – get it?). Hobie is even more disconnected from the normal flow of time than the rest of the characters in this novel – and that is no small accomplishment.
There is so, so much more to say about the events that bring Theo from Hobie’s house in New York to that hotel room in Amsterdam, and of course the painting is involved. I’ll leave you to read it on your own and form your own opinion, and I do recommend this book – it’s a great read for a vacation or a long flight. But I do want to say a bit more about my reasons for doubting the decision of the Pulitzer committee.
I have always seen the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as distinguished for 1) artistry and 2) for making some kind of important statement about American life. I am deliberately NOT running a Google search to find out how the Pulitzer committee defines the prize (just on the off-chance that using one’s own reasoning skills turns out to be a good thing), but the recent winners that I remember offhand – Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Middlesex, March, The Known World, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Hours, and so on – all have these qualities in common.
The Goldfinch approaches artistry at times: in its spellbinding opening chapters in the museum, in certain passages of description, and in individual glimmers of insight, such as the moment when Theo, in the Amsterdam hotel, turns on the TV to find a rerun of a show in which his debauched father’s younger self had a minor role: “one of his many non-speaking roles, a yes-man hovering behind a political candidate at a press conference, nodding at the guy’s campaign promises and for one eerie blink glancing into the camera and straight across the ocean and into the future, at me… Except for his haircut and his heavier build… he might have been my twin. But the biggest shock was how straightforward he looked – my already (circa 1985) criminally dishonest and sliding-into-alcoholism father. None of his character, or his future, was visible in his face. Instead he looked resolute, attentive, a model of certainty and promise” (699). An even nicer touch is that less than two pages later, Tartt drops the now-familiar expression “What was done can never be undone” (701), hoping, presumably, that the reader would recognize this as an allusion to Macbeth, another famous depiction of a man who starts out stable and privileged and sane, only to descend into violence and madness.
Elsewhere, though, the language is downright sloppy. I rarely say that a book should be shorter – the way I see it, if I don’t enjoy a book, I can always find more substantive reasons for my negative response than “It was too long,” and if I do like a book, I want it to go on for as long as possible. In this case, I’ll make an exception. I did enjoy this book, but I think it should have been shorter – considerably so. I think this story could be told in four hundred pages – requiring an editing-down of nearly half its length. Tartt overuses adjectives and adverbs to an almost-comical extreme. While Tartt is capable of wonderfully vivid characterization in just a few well-chosen words (“a concave bartender” ), she is also an aficionado of what I’m calling the detailed but hypothetical simile (“In the red-carpeted front room, which felt like a room where’d you go to kiss your grandfather on the cheek after being freshly released from prison, large family-style gatherings of drinkers in Louis VI-style chairs ate and smoked and shouted and pounded each other on the back around tables swagged with metallic gold fabric” ) and “With his ripped jeans and combat boots he was like a scuffed-up version of some below-the-title Hollywood character actor from the 1940’s, some minor mitteleuropäischer known for playing tragic violinists and weary, cultivated refugees” ). Each of these excerpts I’ve quoted here is charming enough in and of itself, but there are so many of them, and in the aggregate their effect is to create a novel that is sort of blob-shaped – jolting and transfiguring itself in twenty directions at once like a blob of mercury in a petri dish.
The last hundred pages of this novel were hard to get through. The plot itself is resolved by page 700 or so, and the remaining 75 pages are devoted to philosophizing. Some of this philosophizing is wonderful (“A great sorrow and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are… If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your 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 checkups, 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… is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?” (761).
See what I mean? There is beauty and truth here – but there are also way, way too many words. This novel is a block of stone that needs Michelangelo to come along and chip away the excess until the sculpture it wants to be emerges. And I haven’t even told you yet about the endless long passages regaling Theo’s various drug experiences, which have unfortunately not become more interesting since the frat boys in my 9 am Shakespeare class reminisced about their weekends on Monday mornings.
But then I remembered one more thing. Donna Tartt is a southern writer – a Mississippi writer, in fact – and in some ways she really does write in the tradition of Faulkner, with little distinction between present and past, between self and other, between spirit and matter, between interior and exterior. There’s even something – dare I invoke his name in the off-season? – Conroyvian about the way Tartt takes her time and nurtures her own excesses in this novel. From some reviewers, this comparison would be a kiss of death. But here at Postcards from Purgatory, we feel a deep indulgence for this kind of florid, meandering storytelling.
Indulgence, yes. But a Pulitzer? No way.