Thursday, December 12, 2013

Donna Tartt's Boychik



Main character Theodore Decker narrates Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch. He is very much the boychik, his story beginning when he is a naive but precocious early teen and then concluding when he is a world-weary young man in his mid twenties. This coming-of-age story is full of his personal introspection and psychological turmoil. It will be difficult to write about it without some spoilers, since the engine of the plot is his travails to overcome a life-changing traumatic event. So be warned.
Near the outset, Theo and his mother duck into a New York museum in the rain and are caught in a terrorist bomb blast. His mother is killed but he is one of the few survivors. Another fatality is a cultured old man named Welty, who was at the museum with his ward Pippa. The girl is close to Theo's age and also survives but with some debilitating injuries.
Before Welty expires next to Theo in the rubble of the blast, he gives him his signet ring and tells him to take the painting - The Goldfinch - with him to keep it safe. After Theo learns of his mother's death, he becomes a temporary ward of some rich friends, the Barbours of Park Avenue. He has no idea what to do with the painting, but decides to hide it and keep it a secret from everyone. The ring leads him eventually to Welty's antique-dealer business partner Hobie, who is now taking care of the wounded Pippa as she recovers from major surgery. For Theo, it was love at first sight with Pippa at the museum. Along with the painting, this love will become his obsession. Here is my first quibble with the book, and I have many, even though I think it is both masterful and well worth the reading. That is, as in some time-worn Jane Austen stiff-necked saga, Theo can never bring himself to tell Pippa he loves her. Years later, he will do it indirectly and not in person, and she will tell him he is dear to her but they are both too damaged to build a life together. It will take hundreds of pages to find that out, and sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Another troublesome issue is the first-person narration. As the book begins, it's difficult to believe that the teen narrator has such an extensive vocabulary, sophistication, and worldly experience. We find out later that the older version of Theo is telling the story, based on contemporaneous notes he made all along. The author's having to explain this point is cumbersome and awkward, and, as with other elements, disclosed much too late in the story to avoid some degree of aggravation in the reading. Another classic problem with first-person narration is, how do you resolve the plot? Especially if the narrator perishes, as it seems at various points he might, how will the reader get this information? Who will live to tell the tale? One method is to have one of the other characters step in late as narrator and say that he or she found the unfinished manuscript. This, too, can be a lame way to repair a structural mistake. Because I did suspect that Theo would survive his dark nights of the soul - and there are many, many of them - it all rings somewhat hollow that at no point did I fear he would actually die. My final complaint is that, after all kinds of momentous events and bumps and shocks along life's journey, Tartt devotes the last portion of the book to metaphysical agonizing. I thought I'd dropped into a lecture on Existentialism. This novel owes a lot to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, both of which it mentions. The underlying philosophical questions are worth investigating - Why is there evil in the world? What is the point of living? - but I could have wished they'd have been more organic to the narrative.
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