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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Reviews Archive: BIG Novels - "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt and "The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton

Having just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara with its 700+ pages, I got to thinking about the other two novels of that length I read in the last two years.  Here are my reviews of those tomes:  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction.  Does this bode well for A Little Life?

Review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt   2 Stars

I finished this book with regret – regret that I had invested so much of my time reading this 771-page tome. It has received many rave reviews and was chosen as a Best Book of 2013 by the New York Times. Last week it was at the top of the best seller list in Maclean’s. I am obviously in the minority, but I found it wordy and pretentious.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a bombing at an art museum, but his mother is killed. He escapes without anyone noticing him and takes with him The Goldfinch, a painting by a 17th-century Dutch painter. He is provided a home by the family of a schoolmate before being taken to Las Vegas by his father, a man whose personality is dominated by the addiction gene. Later he moves in with Hobie, the business partner of a man who spoke his dying words to Theo after the museum explosion and who (Theo believes) told him to take the painting with him. As he drifts into adulthood, he keeps the painting despite experiencing tremendous guilt about having it in his possession. Eventually he is drawn into the criminal underworld which uses stolen masterpieces as currency.

I was expecting the novel to examine the power of art on our lives, and I was not disappointed in this regard. There are several discussions of the impact of art. Hobie tells Theo, “’And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty’” (757)? Hobie insists that a painting can change “’the way you see, and think, and feel’” (758). For Theo, The Goldfinch is a thing of beauty but it also connects him to his mother who loved the painting. At one point, he says that “The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary” (559). At the end, he summarizes that “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time” (771).

Theo, the narrator, is not a likeable person. At the beginning one would have to be totally heartless not to sympathize with a child who loses a parent he desperately loves after having been abandoned by a selfish, unfaithful father. The Barbour family takes him in and provides him with a home, but it is a temporary arrangement and Mrs. Barbour is not the maternal type. When Theo’s father reappears, he proves to be anything but a model parent. It becomes difficult to sympathize however, as Theo continues to make one poor decision after another, well into adulthood. Even when provided with a stable home and support and affection, Theo comes across as an ingrate as he behaves in ways that put all that in jeopardy. One could make a plausible argument that Theo suffers from post-traumatic stress, but from the very beginning he wallows in self-pity and behaves in ways that are self-destructive and hurtful to others; for example, after his father left, Theo engaged in petty criminality even though the staff at his school was very supportive and even though he understood the consequences for him and the hurt his beloved mother would experience.

Then, in the end, he makes an appraisal of his role in preserving art; arguing that love follows art through time, he decides that he played a “bright, immutable part in that Immortality.” And he concludes with a lofty statement: “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next” (771). His mother once said to him that “’anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’” (28) and he implies that he has helped perform a miracle?! Oh please!

As a teen in Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris who has a tremendous impact on Theo’s life. I found Boris unbelievable. He is fluent in multiple languages and reads Dostoevsky even though he is drunk or high most of the time? Hobie is another unbelievable character; in his case, he is just too good to be true. When Theo finally admits to Hobie of an illegal scheme that could have dire consequences for both him and Hobie, Hobie isn’t angry; instead, he blames himself: “’I’m as much to blame for this as you’” (497). When he later learns of Theo’s further criminality, he says, “’It does all swing around strangely sometimes, doesn’t it? . . . How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises’” (753).

The plotting is very slow and occasionally stretches credibility. The description of the explosion’s aftermath made me wonder if Theo would ever find his way out of the museum. And when he does, he manages to get out without anyone seeing him? The drinking and drug use sessions in Las Vegas go on and on. The descriptions of the effects of drugs become tedious in their repetitiveness. The extensive tangents are unnecessary; for example, if I were interested in furniture restoration, I’d consult non-fiction books written by an expert in the field. Horst, “a bad junkie” (572) goes on for pages about the technical skill of various artists. And the number of coincidences is problematic. Boris, for instance, makes an appearance just when he is expected to do so. There are so many coincidences that it seems the author feels she has to justify them: “’Who was it said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous’” (758). Characters are always exchanging meaningful glances: “A glance was exchanged – the heft of which I recognized instantly” (531) and “They looked at each other and some unspoken something seemed to pass between them” (570). The scenes in Amsterdam, those outside Theo’s hotel room, are perfect for an action film but are not in the same genre as the rest of the novel.

Much has been made of the style of the book. There is no doubt that the author is intelligent and educated, but at times I sensed some pretension. The number of literary and artistic allusions is impressive. German, Russian, Polish, French and Dutch phrases are used. But is a sentence of over 200 words really necessary (715)?

There were several times when I considered abandoning the book; however, I kept hoping I would encounter something that would change my largely negative opinion and that somehow the book, unlike the tethered goldfinch in the painting, would be able to soar. It did not. At one point, Theo describes the finch in the painting as “fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place” (306). The book does the same.

Review of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton   3 Stars
    I picked up this tome with some trepidation; its length of 832 pages is daunting. What swayed me was its winning of both the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. After finishing it, I would not have chosen it for these literary awards, but it is interesting enough and will especially appeal to lovers of 19th-century novels.

This historical suspense is set in the 1860s during the gold rush in New Zealand in a mining town on the South Island’s west coast. Twelve men gather secretly to discuss three events that occurred two weeks earlier: the death of a hermit, the disappearance of a young man, and a prostitute’s near death due to drug overdose. Their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Walter Moody, a newcomer to the goldfields. In Part I of the novel, 360 pages, they reveal what they know; each man has at least one piece of information the others don’t; “No one man could really be called ‘guilty’, just as no one man could really be called ‘innocent’” (350). In the rest of the novel, the men seek out each other and tidbits of information emerge in their conversations. Flashbacks help to give the back stories so that in the end the reader can piece together a fairly complete picture of what transpired and why.

The variety of characters presented is wide: a whoremonger, a Maori greenstone hunter, a Jewish newspaperman, a Chinese prospector, a chaplain, a prostitute, a hotelier, a ship’s captain, a politician, a magistrate, an opium dealer, a brothel owner, a gaoler, among others. In keeping with the style of a 19th-century novel, straightforward character appraisals and physical descriptions are given whenever a new person is introduced. At times it was difficult to keep all the characters straight in my mind, but the character chart at the beginning was helpful.

The book has all the accoutrements of a Dickensian plot: long-lost siblings, murder, conspiracies, phantoms, assignations, secrets, purloined letters, shipwrecks, lost treasure, eavesdropping, betrayals, a séance, power plays, sex, opium, and love affairs. Of course there are numerous chance encounters and coincidences. Moody even refers to the number of coincidences: “’A string of coincidences is not a coincidence’? And what was a coincidence . . . but a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained” (350).

Because the plot is non-linear, the reader might find him/herself becoming confused: “What a convoluted picture it was – and how difficult to see, in its entirety” (343). Fortunately, the author assists a great deal by occasionally offering recaps to make certain the reader has all the details.

The style of the book is very much 19th-century. Besides the blunt character descriptions and old-fashioned plot elements, the syntax is that of the time period. Chapters are prefaced with synopses, expletives are concealed with dashes, chapters end with cliff hangers, the narrator is omniscient and intrusive, and the book even has a dark and stormy night opening.

The structure of the narrative is complex. It is based on the astrological calendar. There are twelve parts, and each part is half the length of the previous. The first part has twelve chapters, and each part thereafter has one less chapter so the last part has only one. All of this suggests a waning moon, as further emphasized by the cover art. Also, the various characters fade into the background as others ascend in influence. The traits of the characters seem to be determined by their sun signs. The related influence of the planetary figures (as mentioned in the character chart) is particularly telling. I know little about astrology so there is probably much that missed my notice. I will admit to some discomfort with the inclusion of astral soul-mates (716).

This is a novel of plot, not a novel of character (since all characters are static) or a novel of theme. There are, however, some observations, mostly made by Moody – whose influence, appropriately, is Reason – which serve as commentary on the human condition. The one topic on which he repeatedly comments is the unknowability of the complete truth. He tells the group of twelve that, “’one should never take another man’s truth for one’s own’” and “’there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths – and pertinence . . . is always a matter of perspective. . . . But your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole’” (282). Later, he cautions himself that “a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition” (392). The chaplain agrees: “’If I have learned anything from experience, it is this: never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view’” (620 – 621). It is appropriate, therefore, that in the end, there are some unanswered questions. The reader has enough information to make a good guess as to who did what, but some assumptions have to be made: “How opaque, the minds of absent men and women! And how elusive, motivation.”

Having read other of the nominations for both the Man Booker and the Governor-General’s Award, I do disagree with the final choices of the judges. The Luminaries is an interesting read with a complex plot and structure, and the author can be commended for her research (e.g. elements of 19th-century fiction, astrology, New Zealand gold rush) but, for me, it does not have the luminary quality I expect of a book chosen to receive these prestigious awards.