Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Why 'The Goldfinch' Makes No Sense

Donna Tartt's watch (image via Lacza).

There has been, in some circles, much debate over the literary and artistic worth of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's most recent novel, an international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner. The argument can be briefly caricatured as something like populists vs snobs: those who admire the novel's abundance of plot, its nods to 'high' culture, and its imitation of a Victorian three-decker against those who condemn its uncontrolled prose, its clanking narrative machinery, and its general aura of childishness

I, unfortunately, am firmly on the side of the snobs. The Goldfinch is terrible. Better explanations than I can give have been made, so I will offer a single example of what I consider to be Tartt's inattention to detail. This inattention concerns something I consider to be fairly important: the novel's timeline (compare, for example, Vladimir Nabokov's unpicking of the dual timelines of Anna Karenina).

This article is going to reveal quite a lot of the plot, if you care about that sort of thing. The plot goes something like this: 

  1. A scene where 27 year old Theo reflects on a crime he has recently committed, then commits to telling his story, and looks 14 years into the past... 
  2. ...where 13 year old Theo is involved in a bombing at an art museum that initiates all of his adventures. 
  3. Theo, after living with the Barbour family in New York from roughly March, when the bombing happens, until the end of term, is reunited with his absent father, and moves to Las Vegas. 
  4. After bumming around for the summer, Theo attends school in Las Vegas for two years. He is now 15. 
  5. Theo's daddy dies. Not wanting to enter social services in Vegas, he attempts to return to New York. There is a scene where he tries to board a greyhound bus. He is told that he has to be 15 to travel alone. Theo is relieved that he is just 15. 
  6. Theo arrives in New York and begins to live with a friend, Hobie, who is some old guy. He spends some time recovering from the shock of his father's death, and then begins studying for early college entrance. As far as I can tell – and this is the weakest point of my reconstruction – this section is only a matter of months long. 
  7. The narrative jumps forward 8 years. Theo is now 26. A whole bunch of stuff has happened, most interestingly that 3 years have gone missing. By my calculations, Theo should be 23 – the 8 year jump only makes sense if the previous section is 3 years long. The narrative includes a description of Theo's college days following his successful early entry (and early entry itself only makes sense if Theo is not yet 18 – otherwise it would just be entry). So where did the years go? 

The pedantic reader encounters further problems when she tries to date the story. My initial assumption was that the narrative of 27 year old Theo was intended to be set at the same time as the book's publication, roughly 2013. This places the start of 13 year old Theo's narration 14 years before in 1999, which makes sense given that the bombing seems to occur in a pre-9/11 new York, and there is a later reference to the subsequent tightening of, of all things, the punishments for art theft as a result of 9/11. So the bombing seems likely to have happened around '99 or 2000.

There are references that confound this, however, most prominent in my mind an early passage where Theo describes his life pre-bombing: him and Tom Ford break into holiday homes in the Hamptons to steal Xboxes. The first Xbox was released in November 2001, so this would date the bombing sometime after 2001, most likely the summer of 2002 (after all, who winters in the Hamptons?). Another reference sticks out, the weirdest in the novel: Theo and Boris, his Las Vegas friend, are reunited as adults in the narratorial present. They hear and get nostalgic over the song 'Comfy in Nautica' by Panda Bear, from his 2007 album Person Pitch, although the song was released as a double A-side single (with 'I'm Not') in September 2005. Presuming that Theo and Boris, despite their limited internet access (Theo repeatedly complains that the only laptop in the house is kept in Xandra's locked room), and the fact that they spend all their time in the suburban hinterland of Las Vegas sniffing glue, and never mention any particular interest in music of any kind, let alone in relatively obscure indie music, discovered 'Comfy in Nautica' very early, in 2005, we can construct a plausible timeline for the novel's events: 

  1. The bombing happens around 2003. 
  2. Theo moves to Vegas in the summer of this year, and leaves towards the end of 2005, just in time to catch Panda Bear's debut. 
  3. '8 years later' would then be 2013, which seems reasonable. 

But, again, we have 3 missing years! Arguably, of course, the novel's narrative present could be set in the near future – something like 2016. But why? There is no indication of this, no exploitation of a near future setting, not even any telling or joky references (compare, for example, the near-future chapters of David Mitchell's recent The Bone Clocks). Indeed, there's very little indication in the novel that the characters live in the 21st century at all. Occasionally they use the internet or their smartphones, but mostly they repair furniture and snort coke. There's a passage, near the end, when Theo is sitting in an Amsterdam hotel room worrying about a murder he has recently committed, and trying ineffectively to read Dutch-language newspapers to find out how much attention the murder has received. Theo struggles with the Dutch – so why doesn't he use his iPhone (mentioned repeatedly) or a computer in the hotel (acknowledged when it is needed to make an application for a temporary passport) to either get help with translation (OK, Google translate isn't perfect, but it's better than nothing) or to try to find some sources in English? Worse, Theo makes a whole big deal of sneaking around trying to find Dutch-language newspapers so he can try to read them in the first place – why doesn't he find the articles on the internet? Plausibly, he could be concerned about online surveillance, or that his internet history could be used as evidence against him, although neither of these concerns is voiced. Or, equally plausibly, Theo could just be an idiot. 

These are the kind of inconsistencies in the fabric of Tartt's fictional world that niggle away throughout the book, and are ultimately a big part of why I couldn't enjoy it. I don't think that Tartt has either deliberately set her book in the future or deliberately broken the novel's timeline – although it would all be so much simpler if she had just not insisted that Theo was 26 going on 27 in the '8 years had passed' section! The most obvious explanation is that Tartt wasn't particularly concerned with keeping track of her timeline, or, perhaps more acutely, that she wasn't particularly concerned with making the incidental cultural references she throws away throughout the novel consistent with the internal timeline of her fiction. It seems far more likely that Xboxes and Panda Bear are anachronisms, weird sections of the future cast into the past, than that they are meant to effectively date the narrative. But, I mean, come on Donna! There's not really a good excuse for this kind of laziness, for the lack of control that is demonstrated in so many of the novel's scenes, in so much of its construction. This is a book that's been hailed as a masterpiece, that the author worked on for 11 years, a novel that is praised and inattentive. Us snobs would hope that a masterpiece would treat itself with a little more respect.

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