Someone Please Explain Why The Goldfinch Is So GoodBy brian longtin • Feb 10th, 2014 • Category: reading • Popularity: 9%
For most of this novel we’re stuck following a person who has no goal, no dream, no quest. And his seeming not to care what happens to him enough to do anything about it, ever, made it impossible for me to care either.
I did not enjoy Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Critics and friends have praised it highly. That and the premise — a young man’s life changed by the death of his mother and a painting that falls into his possession, and the chaotic years that spiral out from that moment — intrigued me enough to dive in. But somewhere near the middle, aside from some annoyance at a tendency to describe in ten pages what could have been conveyed in two, I asked myself, “What am I missing?” I was not having the epiphany I’d been hoping for. If after 300-plus pages the book still hadn’t got its hooks in me, maybe it never would. But why not?
By the 500th or so page I’d figured out the core problem: the protagonist doesn’t want anything. Yes, Theo Decker desires a few things. A stable family. The painting he associates with his mother. More drugs. And admittedly, the thing he seems to want most, the girl he pines for, provided some of the book’s best scenes. But for most of this novel we’re stuck following a person who has no goal, no dream, no quest. He bounces from one sad state to another with little aim. He avoids mishaps and catastrophes by the luck of a friend or family member being in the right place at the right time (most of which turn around and cause the next tragedy). But for the most part (and even in the case of the love of his life), he doesn’t take a single considered action to pursue a purpose of his own. His lack of agency, his seeming not to care what happens to him enough to do anything about it, ever, made it impossible for me to care either.
That’s the whole point!, one might argue. Life is a series of unfortunate events and we simply tumble from letdown to heartache to horror, powerless to slow this grim descent. If so, the philosophical closing chapter addressing art and beauty and love as life’s only redeeming qualities feels even more unearned — an uplifting soliloquy delivered by someone who had no such realization at any point during the book’s actual events. A last-minute reflection summing up the unchronicled months between the story’s conclusion and the book’s final pages. Why not take us on that emotional journey of realization, instead of wallowing in 750 pages of misery before skimming over what caused this great change in worldview? Why not have those values be his savior at some point during the action of the book, instead of a surprise influx of cash, the convenient reappearance of an old friend, or some other twist of fate?
Normally I enjoy books about disaffected men struggling with the seeming pointlessness of life. I could point to a dozen on my shelf right now from Lethem to Yates, Netherland to The Stranger. But in this case I think the problem was that there was no struggling on the part of our narrator. He wasn’t trying to figure anything out, he just floated through it in a depressed haze. Unless someone can explain why I should feel otherwise, it’s a haze I’m grateful to be out of.