Mod Mobilian’s Southern Culture Sunday:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Available in print, ebook, audiobook. (Remember our local bookstores)
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch should at least be known, if not read, by Southerners as it is the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner by a native Southerner since Richard Ford’s Independence Day won in 1996.
Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Grenada. She went to Ole Miss to was admitted to the graduate short story course under Barry Hannah upon the recommendation of Willie Morris. She then transferred to Bennington College in Vermont where she befriended Bret Easton Ellis and wrote her first novel, which was published in 1992 as The Secret History to critical acclaim. Her second novel, The Little Friend, is set in Mississippi and was published in 2002. It was eleven years before her next novel, The Goldfinch, was published. She now lives in New York and was selected as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People for 2014.
The Goldfinch is the first-person narrative of its protagonist Theo Decker from ages thirteen to twenty-seven. It begins with the death of his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in Manhattan) and Theo’s taking of the painting The Goldfinch (by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius) from the museum in the aftermath of the bombing. He goes on to live with a wealthy Park Avenue family in New York, before the story moves to the failed suburbs of Las Vegas and the Amsterdam underworld. Along the way he encounters his best friend and Ukranian gangster Boris, his antique restoration mentor Hobie, and his love at first sight Pippa, among other characters.
Because of the bildungsroman setting of the young man growing up with class conflicts and shifting fortunes, his encounters with characters of a variety of morals, improbable coincidences, and particularly the book’s length at 784 pages, many reviewers have commented on its resemblance to classic Dickens novels like Great Expectations and David Copperfield.
Tartt says in Salon:
(The book) evolved into something Dickensian because it had to do with questions of wealth. Theo’s setup is Dickensian. I love Dickens a lot and just kind of internalize him.
But it might be called “Dickens on mescaline” without much exaggeration – mostly because Theo does a lot of drugs and there are extended first person narratives of episodes with mind-altering substances, not to mention mind-altering violence (e.g. the bombing). Many readers have critized these extended scenes and decried Tartt’s need for an editor – but their length and repetitiveness add an element of realism to the stream of consciousness, particularly after the terrorist bombing and at the novel’s conclusion.
The book has generated widespread acclaim in additions to its awards, beginning with Stephen King in the New York Times Book Review that “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.”
But it has also generated controversy, with some critics claiming that it is nothing but “just another” Harry Potter or Hunger Games, as outlined in the Vanity Fair article “It’s Tartt – but is it Art?” They contend that a cult has developed around Tartt after her first novel, and that cult and the anticipation around the novel’s release after a 11 year hiatus has pushed the novel beyond its artistic merits. As a rebuttal, Maddie Crum in the Huffington Post reminded the critics that Wes Anderson built his artistic reputation on “contrived-looking worlds.” The Goldfinch is worth being aware of for its role in the popular-vs.-critical literature debate alone. (Sidenote: The Vanity Fair article states “Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War blockbuster, Gone with the Wind, won the Pulitzer and inspired comparisons to Tolstoy, Dickens, and Thomas Hardy. Now it’s considered a schmaltzy relic read by teenage girls, if anyone.”)
But, you know, Dickens was popular too. Many times popular opinion is more accurate than critical opinion in predicting long-term significance. A Tale of Two Cities is still a great novel. But is Tartt the next Dickens? It’s still hard to say. It’s a good book but will it prove to have been overhyped? If we had to guess – probably so. We didn’t develop any of the empathy for these characters that we did for Dickens’.
Should you read it? If David Copperfield-meets-Altered States sounds appealing to you then yes. As a Southerner, should you be aware it and its author regardless? Absolutely.
Let us know what you think.