Category Archives: Reading

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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Bleaker Than Fiction

348sMy condition has no name I know. You might call it “impatience,” but that label seems too generic and mild:

  • I race through all the instant view options on Netflix, half reading each, without settling on one, or, settling finally, watch ten minutes and say, “Stupid. Unbearable….”
  • 625 pages into the 779 pages of The Goldfinch, I find myself irredeemably bothered and think, “Enough.” I can’t stand another mistake, another boneheaded decision.
  • My wife says, “You have to watch House of Cards!” and I do, only to find I can’t watch more than thirty minutes before anguishing over events that make me want to howl.

Empathy is the most flattering explanation. “If only I didn’t feel so much!” I think, “I might not be so bothered by every downturn and mishap!” I say. “It’s just that Pete Russo was such a good man,” I reassure myself.

Truth is, I’m an ice cube in a frying pan, spinning in the steam of its own disintegration. Empathy has less to do with my state than raw discomfort, agony akin to mild electrocution… willingly, deliberately, undergone.

As a boy, television used to agitate me profoundly. The Beaver’s next blunder would certainly send me running into the kitchen, and every Brady seemed, at one time or another, bound for humiliation. Even Petticoat Junction might lead me into baffled territory. My hand over my eyes, I wanted to retreat to a corner, hide myself from myself.

You might think forbearance might grow—certainly my exposure to literary and cinematic turnarounds should have grown. The outcome always settles on a steady note, experience ought to tell me. Yet, with age, my condition worsens. I try to figure it out. “Think of yourself in a room sealed tight,” I say to my wife, “when you pull the door closed, you trap another gulp of air and it’s too full and the pressure jumps. It’s too much.”

“Huh?” she says.

Maybe this is the problem, I think: I’m indulged. I’ve grown accustomed to the proper fit of circumstances, controlled environments where fulfillment is assured. I want complacency, worrylessness, satisfaction, pleasure. No challenges please, I’m tired of those. Give me candy.

I try convincing myself each strange development won’t be that strange or may even enhance my satisfaction when events, improbably, reverse. The present calamity could—ultimately—delight more than frighten. “Give it ten minutes,” I say, “then decide.” These fictions aren’t happening to me. I should stand above, drolly saying, “How interesting.”

The true issue, I say, is faith…or faith and courage… or faith, courage, and remove. When you believe in a positive outcome, suffer bravely through seemingly hopeless moments, and stop to breathe outside the fiction, you’re fine.

I’m not fine. Theo kicks drugs, he picks them up again. Finally, the poor influence of Boris is gone, and Theo runs into him on a New York street. Kitsey gets caught in infidelity, and Theo might easily leave her for Pippa—we know he loves Pippa best—then stays with Kitsey because Kitsey says, “My mother loves you. Leaving me will kill her.” I want to hurl the book and might, if my wife didn’t put her hand on mine and repeat, “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

I sometimes wish I lived in a naïve fantasy where everything, everything, everything will be so okay in the end. Maybe it will, but this world, the one I live in, is depraved, and nothing in reality persuades me (enough) fiction will be different. Nothing I experience convinces me, “Believe!”

 

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Battling Literature

literature-versus-traffic_obKyL_11446Suggesting books occasionally leads to conversations like this:

“What were you thinking?”

“What?”

Crying of Lot 49. I almost quit with five pages left. That was the longest short book I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I understood a word of it.”

“I’m sorry—“

“You are going to have to explain to me why anyone would consider that great literature.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Among lists suitably retitled “100 Books You Should Suffer Through Before Dying” or “50 Books Smart People Know” or “Bragging Rights: Books” are some troublesome texts, and, as an English teacher, people sometimes want me to name them. They ask me what was the strangest book I read—A Void—or the most complex—Name of the Rose—or the most troubling—Blood Meridian—the most baffling—Tie: Pound’s The Cantos and Joyce’s Ulysses.

I regard these conversations as getting-to-know-you banter, but my listeners sometimes hear them as recommendations:

“You are one sick dude.”

“What?”

“You told me about that book Disgrace. Christ, could it have been more miserable? I wanted to jump off a bridge.”

“You didn’t like it?”

A special person undertakes books as challenges. You have to love puzzling, carrying a riddle around all day hoping the tiny metal ball will somehow—while you’re not watching—nestle into its dimple. You have to put aside knowing and settle for guessing. You have to feel good about having a sense of meaning.

“Do you think anyone really understands The Sound and the Fury?”

“I don’t know. Maybe people who study it.”

“Why would anyone study it? It’s just so bizarre. I was completely lost.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Right now, in one of my classes, I’m teaching Time’s Arrow, a narrator’s account of living within his “host” as the host’s life reels backwards toward a horrendous past. Every event is presented in reverse—tennis players gather the ball out of the net or backstop and then bat it around until someone, seemingly arbitrarily, grabs the ball from the air and pockets it. The narrator doesn’t understand what we ought to, but actually we don’t understand it without effort either. We have to rearrange, read in reverse, talk about it. In class, that process might lead to discussion:

“I don’t get it.”

“What specifically?”

“Anything. What is the point? I mean, if the narrator is confused, how are we supposed to know what’s going on?”

“Because you figure it out.”

“But that’s impossible… or, anyway, really, really hard. Too hard.”

“What, you don’t like it?”

As a high school student I gathered my book badges, the arcane and long-hair novels I’d read on my own—Moby Dick, The Metamorphosis, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Pale Fire. I can’t say I understood them all or grokked them as fully as I did later, but I didn’t expect to. I accepted that I was exercising, matching my brain against brains much more complicated and potent than my own. As an acolyte, what more might I expect?

Some of my students take the same perspective. They love the process even if it leads to no material result, and they revel in conversations about what might and might not be known. They experience singular excitement over not understanding entirely. Being at sea, they recognize, is sometimes wonderful. In literature, there’s certainly less harm in being mentally adrift than actually being lost in a lifeboat, and they don’t mind feeling dumb if they also feel stimulated, tested.

“I love the language.”

“What?”

Remembrance of Things Past

“Do you get it?”

“No, not really, but sometimes.”

“So are you understanding it?’

“Sometimes, but that’s enough, I guess.”

“You appreciate it.”

“Yes.”

“So you like it?”

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On Being Dickensian

96h07/fion/3340/exp1576Others must know Dickens better than I do and must be better able to channel him, but I wouldn’t mind being called “Dickensian.” The term evokes, for me, a great and amassing gravitas akin to amber gathering antiquity in a golden orb and turning it crystal. Putting aside the man (because I’ve written about that before), his style entices, seduces, and embraces. It makes another sort of time and place entirely imaginary.

This time of year, I often reread A Christmas Carol and watch the words roll like loose cannon balls on the deck of a storm-beset ship. They head somewhere according to shifts of direction and pitch just the sea knows:

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slyly down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowing sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.

Dicken’s prose takes its time, rolling in and out of personification—the “gruff” bell, the tower “peeping,” its “teeth chattering in its frozen head” inside clouds—and then tumbling toward some other detail of the vast scene—those laborers who are “winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.” The vision of the narration roves, staring at each detail with equal intensity, bringing all of it into intimate focus. The “sullenly congealed” ice is “misanthropic,” caught unawares. With Dickens, everything seems caught in a beam of peculiar light, revealing itself as if never seen.

Of course I know the story of A Christmas Carol well—seemingly everyone does—and, even if they didn’t, they might know its skeleton, the tale of a lost man, the heavy-handed turn toward sentimentality as, from the dark, some barely lit candle gutters. I imagine that’s what some writers despise about Dickens, his insistence on resolution, the sort that rescues hope from deep, really too interesting, cynicism. Those writers must sense Dickens at the wheel, gripping against the wind and turning his ship too deftly aright.

Last summer, I reread A Tale of Two Cities and felt what many unsympathetic readers must, that Dickens gets his characters into trouble only to get them out. He makes few, if any, truly, truly dangerous moves and only ones that later will seem as poised on promise as disaster.

I rejoice at the end of A Christmas Carol, but I also hear desperate self-assurance in it, Dickens consoling himself as much as us:

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Did Dickens hear ridicule as he wrote? Did he recognize the incredible reform and alteration in Scrooge stretching beyond the bounds of his creation? Did he sense laughter licking at him? Did he see what others might, the character’s turn is too complete, an evolution that must be anticipated to be actualized? Dickens says skeptics would “wrinkle up their eyes in grins” at Scrooge but that someone might like that as much as “the malady in other forms.” What forms? What malady? What did Dickens himself consider and experience? How did he wrinkle his own eyes, before setting them aright? Was this fabricated redemption actually “quite enough for him”?

And maybe that’s the answer to his elliptical prose. He is always approaching and retreating, trying to stay true and trying to satisfy. I love that in him, the friction under his movement—the dragging and the soaring, the hard stare and the light laugh.

When I was a ninth grader, my teacher assigned Great Expectations and I read it in a weekend, the longest book I’d devoured up until then. I remember putting it down Sunday night and regretting I’d never be able to read it again for the first time. I’ve reread Dickens—especially A Christmas Carol—many times since, but I’ve come no closer to the secret he’s keeping, whether he transcended the melancholy he hints and made more than fiction from redemption.

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Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

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Thoughts in Third Person (8-15)

hqdefaultThe second half of the lyric essay posted on Wednesday 6/5.

8.

After hundreds of pages, Henry Adams’ illeism feels different. His chief complaint about the modern world is that it had no place for him. He never exactly says so, but his alienation seems plain nonetheless. The rest of humanity sees matters one way, and he another. Yet he can’t help feeling right. Perhaps he hopes others will agree.

9.

Writers sometimes inject themselves into narratives, as when a character sits down across from a novel’s author on a train or, after presenting a stray bit of dialogue, the narration identifies the speaker as the book’s author.

These moments ostensibly announce artifice. Lest the reader forget a story has a creator, there he or she is, suddenly present and intruding. The author, this sudden appearance may imply, is merely another character, another fictional creation.

But why couldn’t an author’s reality be a nod to fact? 18th century novels sometimes referred to characters as Mr. ___________ because they wished to protect identities when, actually, authors fabricated these identities. If the author lands suddenly in a scene, then perhaps he or she was there recording, did live these events, even if much of the rest the author dreamed. Is the creator’s appearance artificial or the closest brush with witnessed reality?

10.

Maybe fiction means to disorient, to lull readers into false security and then shift the rule of horizon, earth, and sky and make up down and the opposite, to establish everything as chosen and arbitrary. Everything becomes intention. No place remains for comfortable observers, and everywhere is someplace deliberately strange.

11.

The conceit of modernism—and post-modernism after it—is that it’s all fiction.

12.

Episodes of the 1960 children’s program “Romper Room” included an odd moment with an emptied hand mirror. Through the open space where reflections normally appeared, the host peered into the camera and said, “I see Gwen, and I see Alan, and I see Debbie, and I see David….”

These names may have been random—or perhaps producers harvested them from fan mail—but, to some of the program’s audience, such encounters must have seemed real and frightening. Children usually protected by confident subjectivity may not have been prepared to be called out and seen by everyone—or by television, as close to “everyone” as a child can consider.

13.

Despite his multiverse and third-person stance, Henry Adams creates companions in readers. They sit to listen, and, in doing so, expect something they know. They also expect to hear what they don’t know, but only sympathy compels them to keep silent and still. They expect to be drawn in. They desire it.

14.

Notes after a loved one’s death sting with sympathy. They are sweetly painful and elicit the oddest gratitude. A shared appreciation and acknowledgment of pain seems an essential stage of separation. “You will move on,” these notes seem to say, “but you’re permitted to revel in the exclusivity of your grief. You may mourn.”

15.

Henry Adams had hands and feet. He sat in trains, laughing with friends, and perhaps strangers. He turned his head to scan the landscape slipping through the window and smelled smoke and pollen, food and filth, perfume and decomposition. His eyes moved to his wife. His eyes moved to his memory, to the page of handwriting before him.

He gathered everything he made and pored over it, grooming the words until they spoke just what he wished or the closest he could come. He must have thought of readers, even if he invented them.

They would know him. He would have to be sure of that, I’m sure.

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Thoughts in Third Person (1-7)

henry-adams-2Another long lyric essay in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention…. the rest will appear on Saturday, 6/8

1.

Henry Adams, great grandson and grandson of presidents, Harvard history professor, and early voice of modernism, wrote a third person memoir, The Education of Henry Adams. In it, he skips over twenty years—much of his marriage—and only obliquely refers to his wife’s suicide. He cannot name her or discuss the event and includes only a description of his visits to the Saint-Gaudens monument he commissioned for her grave.

Is his third-person omission love or cruelty? Did he wish to erase her or was he saying she, and his years with her, were the one aspect of his life beyond words?

2.

After his wife’s death, Adams wrote John Hay, “The world seems to me to have suddenly changed, and to have left me an old man, pretty well stranded and very indifferent to situations which another generation must deal with… I have been thrown out of the procession, and can’t catch up again.”

Adams tastes bitterness in everything, and, even if he never utters Clover Adams’ name in his autobiography, her absence seems another shadow in a dim and disappointing life. Any report of comfort is missing too.

3.

Using third person doesn’t shake the message from the messenger, nor does metaphor, imagery, or elusive syntax. Observers see the author hiding in the scene. That dwindling candle is his longing. The photograph without a frame is his conception of life in our age. Light scattered through that crystal bowl is a spectral vision of idiosyncratic perception.

Authors remain as long as readers look to find them.

4.

Michel de Montaigne believed, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Montaigne thought even his idiosyncratic observations and revelations would be understood because his readers must also be idiosyncratic in their own ways.

Moderns are not so sure. Henry Adams coined the term “multiverse” to describe the product of irreconcilable perspectives. Subjectivity destroys the uni-verse because two people never experience the same scene or reach exactly the same understanding of it.

“Exactly” seems key phrasing. Any degree of disagreement signals the impossibility of a shared perspective. To speak in third-person, as God might, is just as much an invention as speaking as oneself.

Montaigne said he could express himself and humanity all at once, but, apparently, he was wrong—humans don’t know anything, least of all themselves.

5.

Writers sometimes prefer first person narration because they think they can speak directly using a voice that, if not themselves, is at least some facsimile. Yet first person can be challenging too. As inventions, first person narrators must communicate character, and not just in what they say but also in their expression, the fingerprints of their voice.

And omission is no less critical. First person narrators omit without noticing. They still leave gaps for readers to fill and, in the process, allow readers to observe more than the narrators notice themselves. They grant readers judgment, just as third person narrators do.

6.

Hidden authority is ominous. A voiceless, faceless perspective dictates what’s known and also what world readers occupy. Insufferable first person narrators can be smothering, but readers can walk away, rejecting this character’s take on the world. Third person leaves little choice but to believe. Third person says, “This is real.”

Yet it may not seem so.

7.

When a person uses third person to describe him or herself it’s called “illeism.”  Lebron James, the Big Lebowski, and Bob Dole are notable examples, and when they slip outside themselves and look back, a listener senses oblivious—often comic—egotism. Once a reporter asked the baseball player Wade Boggs why he always referred to himself as Wade Boggs, and he replied, “’My father always told me not to be a braggart, not to say I, I, I.”

It’s hard for a person to voice his or her name without elevating it. To go third person is to go big and expand a solitary view into something cosmic.

Parts 8-15 on Saturday…

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