Category Archives: Criticism

Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (8-15)

flyer03A4_291x400The second part of a lyric essay started on Saturday, 10/11

8.

Franklin P. Adams said, “I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.”

9.

Where anything might have a form (the noun) and anything might, naturally or unnaturally form (the verb), a heavier shadow stretches from the adjective “formal.”

Its connotations seem revealing. Whether you enjoy gowns and jackets with tails or not, whether you respond to a slight with a demand for a written apology or not, you have to recognize the effort in being formal. It holds an elevated status, occupies a plane higher than necessity. It’s neater, more definitive, pure.

But there’s another form, the sort you fill-out for Human Resources or in a doctor’s waiting room. All those blanks direct you through specific requests, and, when you finish, you fulfill what that page (or pages) meant to do. Its emptiness and completion are equally neat and equally formal.

9.

I have a friend who loathes the sort of essay you’re reading now. She finds these “lyric essays” loose, too easy because they favor association over logic and glorify evasiveness. To her, their hints only seem functional; really they’re an excuse not to focus your thinking or to lead anyone anywhere good.

She may be right, and she’s certainly identified what I enjoy about them.

10.

“It is a very sad thing,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “nowadays there’s so little useless information.”

11.

I have a crazy rereading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to offer, one that likely has nothing to do with the story’s actual purpose. Everyone knows the hero is the child who points out the naked Emperor. The innocent is saner and wiser than those seduced by pretense, those duped into denial because they fear standing alone. We know what it’s about.

But what if we revise it? The special state of believing a fiction may be just as impressive—maybe more?—than acknowledging plain truth. And what’s so terrible about nudity? Couldn’t clothing be more ridiculous than being our raw selves? What if the Emperor’s bare bottom is only an issue because it’s identified as bare? Is our adherence to the child’s view just as conformist as our going along with the royal tailor?

The mystery and messiness of the situation reaches a clear resolution when the child points and laughs, but the author could easily choose to leave that moment out. Then the fiction might speak to our daily uncertainty about what we’re supposed to know and do. The tale might be more interesting for eluding its obvious and commonplace function.

12.

I attended a lecture where Robert Creeley said Louis Sullivan’s “Form ever follows function” might be exactly wrong. Every poem chooses its own form—you know what you can and can’t do—and, in living with and/or strategically violating those rules, you determine what your work will and won’t be. Selection, he suggested, focuses a poem’s effect.

His theory echoed one of the most popular metaphors in my MFA classes, the poem as a machine, one with cooperative parts producing a collective effect. Discussing machine-poems sometimes confused me, however. I was unsure if I should gather fan belts and pulleys and wheels and cogs and carburetors and wings to fashion an engine or if a blueprint sent me searching for those parts. Neither process seemed particularly accurate, as my poems often felt equal parts destination and deviation. Some poems seemed to have one wing. Others were a slice of obsidian.

13.

Last night’s dream:

A regular and prolonged drone makes conversation almost impossible with my eighth grade gym coach, but that doesn’t matter too much because we are only trying to identify the sound which, come to think of it, seems evident only in our discussion and not something I’m experiencing firsthand. “He’s always like this,” I think, without examining what “like this” or “always” might mean, and, in any case, he says he has to go, and my next appointment will be arriving shortly. If it’s arriving. I may be the one traveling to meet someone for an appointment elsewhere. Coach is no help. The helicopter is driving him crazy, and he has to get out of there. No time for an answer.

Shall I interpret? Have I interpreted?

14.

“Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps sub-consciousness,” Aaron Copeland said, “I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

15.

I do believe a thesis is the backbone of every essay, even this one. I’m just not sure how much that means.

A thesis can be as rigorous as an argument with your lifelong friend or as diffuse and nonspecific as the persistent whisper three tables away. It can insist, and it can flash and fade like sunlight in a partly cloudy sky.

Someone might want me to say more, and, usually, I do too.

The compulsion to express yourself neatly, however, is hard to read. You may be getting yourself out of trouble or into it. Sometimes only the slanted truth presents itself and straightening it out feels like a violation. Other times you want that jacket with tails, the spats, top hat, and cane. The form may already exist… or it may be invented altogether.

Other people know which. I’m trying to be content not knowing.

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Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (1-7)

Louis+Sullivan+CarsonThe other parts will appear here on Tuesday, 10/14…

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,” John Steinbeck

1.

Near here, at the back of a liquor superstore, is the section where the fussy drinkers shop, and amid the calibrated jiggers, cherry swords, and seasonal bottle stoppers, are molds for making exciting ice cubes. The forms they create—spheres, giant and perfect cubes, bars, lips, dollar signs, and zeroes—are really only frozen water, as all ice is, but these vessels sculpt what flows from the tap into something more special than industrial cubes from my freezer.

They make ice notable again, give the commonplace shape, render it visible.

2.

A certain kind of artist distrusts form. If you mean to write from a true place, they argue, you cannot impose or superimpose on expression. You cannot restrict or constrict. Once you do, you court artifice, and anything that arises from artifice will be false. Worse still is working to fill a frame or template, which is absolute chicanery.

I won’t reenter this debate because I’ve said enough already, but I think about a still life. Even the most photorealistic communicates choice. You arranged the objects as you did. You lit them as you did. You placed the edges of the painting, the proportion of its focus, your angle of attention, determined how you will represent texture, color, and shade.

Whether these decisions were conscious or not, what is art without them? When do these choices shift from representation to imposition? When is form absent? How can it be right or wrong if it is inevitable?

3.

The quotation, “Form follows function” derives from Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect. In 1896, in An Autobiography of an Idea, he said:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

The quotation has always bothered me for philosophical reasons. It assumes utility is the highest standard, that each function suggests one proper form that only needs to be discovered, that only the essential belongs in any design, that surplus is never an option. I could go on.

As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a lot of Sullivan’s work and certainly understand the statement as it applies to skyscrapers and the steel beams that simplified their form and permitted their skyward stretch. Yet the statement makes less sense when you consider Sullivan’s ironwork, especially the elaborately tangled, storms of shapes I see as I walk in the city. They seem to have no function other than ornamentation, and it’s their excess—albeit geometric, neatly symmetrical and controlled excess—that makes them impressive.

Were I channeling Sullivan, I might say arresting a viewer’s attention is their function, and something simple might not achieve it as well. Perhaps these baroque, proliferating, woven, fever-dream effusions of dramatic contours are a type of utilitarianism too, but I’d rather they weren’t. I’d rather they were born of their own necessity, reflective of Sullivan’s mind unwound, taking a form that brings his soul to light.

4.

As is often the case with creation myths, the Mayan story of the first humans is a complicated affair. It involves twins seeking to rescue their father’s severed head from the underworld and, after their success, their ascension to the heavens to become the sun and moon. Only then can men be properly formed.

What’s intriguing to me, though, are all the failures in the account. Once the gods decided they needed someone to worship them and be “keepers of the days,” they tried to shape humans from mud. These mud creatures, however, wouldn’t hold souls, and soon the gods sent a great flood to wash them away. Then the gods tried wood, which didn’t work either, though these wooden beings became monkeys.

Finally, in defeating the gods in an underworld ball game, liberating their father’s noggin, and rising to illuminate everything, the miraculous twins permitted humans’ true form. Men were made of white and yellow corn.

Which says something about corn’s importance in Mayan culture but also begs the question “Why corn?” If the Mayan gods sought a race to be “keepers of the days,” maybe organisms that germinated, grew, and died marked time in ways gods could not. Maybe the gods sought something that would rely on light, moisture, and soil to echo humans’ dependence on them. Maybe corn is more sturdy than mud and more pliable than wood.

5.

“We need poetry because names die,” John Vernon says, “because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

6.

My daughter told me a version of the Mayan creation myth as interesting as the original. The way she remembered the story, the gods first tried water (which wouldn’t hold together), then stone (which could not move), and then turned to corn.

I still wonder, “Why corn?” but more important is the linearity of her description. In offering a cleaner plot, her revision presents each stage as an important step toward the ultimate ideal, as if the earlier forms weren’t properly “mistakes” at all because they led the Mayan gods to the answer. Each had utility.

That’s very different from the narrative I’ve learned since, which bends into odd, dream-like curlicues and rises in smoke. I like my daughter’s story. I like the Mayans’ more.

7.

My son took me to a bar that served cocktails containing exotic ice. His drink arrived with a single cube so large it barely found room to move in the glass, and mine included an equally large sphere that, every time I tried to imbibe, avalanched onto my nose.

We laughed about how challenging the experience was, speculated that the bartender was playing some whimsical trick on us. But the jester bartender didn’t stop us from drinking. Or ordering another.

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Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.

 

 

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Another Tempest 8-15

prospero-and-arielThe second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.

8.

The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.

In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

His supplication sounds nothing like victory.

9.

Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?

 10.

Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.

But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?

Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.

But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.

11.

It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.

Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?

12.

Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.

If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.

 13.

You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.

14.

If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.

He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.

I wonder if he does.

15.

Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.

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Another Tempest 1-7

prosperoThe first part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The second part will appear Saturday.

 1.

In the last act of The Tempest, Prospero describes his impending escape from his island exile and his eventual return home. He will first sail to Naples to see his daughter Miranda marry into a handy alliance and then travel to Milan where he will be restored as Duke.

It seems a joyous outcome—and one Prospero labors four acts to effect—but, thinking of his future sitting on his restored throne, Prospero reports, “Every third thought shall be my grave.”

How does success make him so unhappy?

 2.

The Rolling Stones tell us we can’t always get what we want, which is true, but we also know we should be careful what we wish for in the first place. Sometimes what we wanted isn’t what it pretended. Aspiration looks good from afar, but capture can be less fulfilling than pursuit.

I sometimes tell my students they shouldn’t take my criticism so hard because an essay without flaws might be more curse than boon. Write the perfect essay and what would you do tomorrow?

Fruition invites redefinition. Having done something means something more to do… someone else to be.

3.

Among Prospero’s final deeds is shedding his books, staff, and magic. Nothing makes that step necessary—being naked of magic isn’t a condition of his return—but he decides that, once he’s redressed all the wrongs against him, he won’t need his powers. He frees one beloved slave and another not-so-beloved one with the words, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” He forgives deceivers who wronged him and ends twelve years of isolation.

Yet he seems melancholy. He never quite says so but swings between satisfaction or surrender. As the action of the play ends, he invites the usurpers and schemers into his cell to hear how he has lived, how he survived and thrived in the harsh island’s conditions, his glee with where he’s been more vivid than his anticipated return to civilization.

4.

Sometimes we want things because we think we ought. Envy makes us desire what others have attained because, after all, we feel just as able, or think we are. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries and incites clumsy effort to find its proper place. Getting there may promise little pleasure—quite the contrary, you may feel you cut cross-grain against deeper, more immediate and comfortable desires—but it’s not always easy to distinguish between should and ought. Should sounds gentler. Ought suggests some grander, more dubious, aim.

5.

Ariel, the slave Prospero likes best, brings dispatches—the status of the villains Prospero tests and torments. Some of them suffer. They’re ignorant of Prospero’s plan and its happy conclusion and know only their grief and torment.

“Your charm so strongly works ’em,” Ariel tells Prospero, “that if you now beheld them, your affections / would become tender,” and Prospero bristles. He replies, “shall not myself, / One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, /Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?”

Prospero is often so defensive. Part of him wonders if his unjust usurpation arose from an accurate cause. Part of him knows his plans aren’t harmless, yet he didn’t consider how others might feel. Worse, he hasn’t examined his own feelings, whether his longing is so important he can abide becoming a stranger to himself.

6.

When I came to Chicago almost ten years ago, it was as the chair of the English department. My old school had become predictable. My place there was—and appeared would always be—a younger brother, a role I know well. I’m used to being George, not Paul or John, nor even Ringo, who has the good sense to choose humor over earnestness and anarchy over hierarchy.

It took six months to recognize the person the job required and how different he was from me. I was competent in the skills and vision required but incompetent in desire. The job wasn’t beyond me, just beyond my perseverance. I played the role for a while because I refused to surrender, to give up an exalted sense of capabilities I didn’t care that much about proving.

And when I stepped down after two years, I felt no better. Whether I called it quitting or others did mattered little. For another year, I thought I should be chair and, since I should be, I ought to be too. Yet I’d sacrificed my spot and couldn’t go back.

7.

Each decision is sacrifice, one alternative dying for another. You may find a means to return but will have to confront the choice that necessitated doubling back. You won’t know whether you were right all along or right now, and, in that case, both are wrong.

 

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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