I’m not really qualified to decide what does and doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer. But I’m of the somewhat strong opinion that “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt shouldn’t have made the cut.
Let me break down this epic journey in rambling, poorly plotted, erratically written, Pulitzer-worthy material. And then let me explain why it spells trouble for the book industry if “The Goldfinch” is what we consider great literature. I’d warn you that there are some minor spoilers ahead, kind of, although, since Tartt fails to put anything at stake or develop any meaningful characters (aside from one), there’s really nothing to spoil. You read the book for the writing, put it down, and say: “Huh. Well, guess it’s over.”
An Art History Major’s Paradise
Let’s get one thing straight: “The Goldfinch” is about a painting. Kind of. It’s also about the thrilling world of antique refurbishment, with a decided focus on furniture. Are you at the edge of your seat yet? Don’t worry, you won’t be.
The main character, “Theo” – a narrator so bland and passive that you often forget his name – starts his life off in a modest brownstone on the Upper West Side. He likes art and his mother and video games and playing chess, like any normal thirteen year-old in 2014. Then, his mother dies in a terrorist attack that is never explained or affects the world in any noticeable way for the months following.
Because, you know, the terrorist attack was just a Plot Device. So don’t worry about why a primary target was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hit them where it hurts, I guess was the anonymous terrorist group’s tactic. You know how emotionally rocked the American public would be if we lost paintings from European artists.
It’s important to to note this was Tartt’s first novel in 11 years. So yes, the idea probably germinated when terrorist attacks were in vogue. For some reason, she decided this would be a great way to start a plot with no relation to terrorism or politics or America.
Theo survives the attack, but not before hoisting off a painting that he manages to carry back to his house, despite the general difficulty of having a concussion and hallucinating. That would be “The Goldfinch.” Pay attention to the description of it, because you won’t see much of it – or read about it that often – for about 500 more pages. As is the usual course of action for objects so important that the book is titled after them.
A Young Adult Trap
At this point, it should be apparent to any reader that “The Goldfinch” isn’t some literary gem full of revelations about life and human nature. It’s a young adult adventure where a parent is fortunately killed off at the beginning so the author doesn’t have to come up with a more creative way of dealing with more characters.
Theo goes to live with a bunch of other rich people. He stays there for a while. He meets an antique dealer because there was an antique dealer killed in the anonymous terrorist attack on a museum and the antique dealer gave him some stuff. After a while, he goes to Las Vegas and meets one memorable character, a Russian delinquent named Boris.
Thus, we’re treated to the first of what probably amounts to around 200 pages of Theo being drunk or high. If you like reading about drunk teenagers running around, completely free of traditional restraints such as parents or plots, this is great. If you keep waiting for their actions or the characters around them to tie back to anything that happened in the first section of the book, you’ll be disappointed.
But you keep reading, because the writing is good. Sometimes, it’s terribly, painfully clumsy. There are instances where Tartt will try six back-to-back metaphors that do not form a cohesive picture or have a recognizable cadence. I assume this was when she was writing the first draft and wanted to try a bunch of things out. Unfortunately, we’re left with the dizzying result.
Escape to New York
You turn pages. Las Vegas keeps going. Once you start to seriously wonder when Theo will inevitably go back to New York to meet up with the other set of characters you don’t care about, he does. And “The Goldfinch” takes a turn for the worse.
Tartt’s biggest mistake in the book, I think, is pivoting and shooting for a time lapse. A teen with a complex and troubled past, who’s developing some serious problems, abruptly becomes a 26-year old man who is not noticeably any different. Boris comes back and he has tragically grown up into a stereotype (nihilism, meet Russia. Russia, meet nihilism).
The last third of the book introduces a number of interchangeable new characters. Theo, who has spent his entire adult life (and much of his childhood) worrying about how to return “The Goldfinch” to the MET, embarks on an epic journey to Amsterdam to retrieve it for himself.
To cap it all off, we’re treated to a torrential downpour of exposition at the conclusion. Just to make sure the reader picked up on the one solid theme in the book. Which is that art is good and it makes people feel good.
Writing About Great Art =/ Great Art
I wouldn’t actually have been nearly as critical if “The Goldfinch” hadn’t won the Pulitzer, but an award as prestigious as that warrants a little additional scrutiny. The rotten core of the book is this: it claims to be contemporary fiction.
Throughout the book, there is one reference to Facebook. People read lots of newspapers. There’s no mention of modern politics, dwindling attention spans, new partisan divides, income inequality, climate change, globalism, corporatism or anything else. I would argue that “The Hunger Games” has done far more to discuss and analyze contemporary issues than the conceited, wet, mossy bundle of elitism and emotion that is “The Goldfinch.”
“The Goldfinch” is a time capsule. It’s an attempt at art writing about art, all other “contemporary” developments and events be damned.
All of this is forgivable without the Pulitzer. But with that award, the committee seems to confirm that they don’t want fiction to transgress into real world issues, either. Like Tartt, they appear to believe that, in 2014, the impact of the Internet, social media, smartphones, climate change, partisanship, income inequality, or anything else that are real issues begging for attention are secondary to a long-winded thesis on why art from the nineteenth century is great.
This is the only plausible explanation for why we have a Pulitzer-award winning novel about paintings and antiques and literally nothing else, with characters that rise from the depths and pop like air bubbles.
The goal of a novel that wins the Pulitzer should be to make readers think, to take them out of their comfort zones. Instead, we have a comfortably middle class narrative with comfortably middle class values, with a tacked-on thriller element at the end that is still somehow about art.
“The Goldfinch” is a preconceived picture of what society should value, purporting to be a painting of the present, written for the majority audience of elite book readers today: people who want to read a story set in a time – and with the values – they believe should be most important.
Anything that remotely smacks of actual issues that are occupying people’s attention just gets in the way of this artistic vision.
Like so many objects in the book, like so many things Theo sells to people in his exhilarating occupation as antique furniture salesman, “The Goldfinch” is an imitation of antiquated great art.
And it’s too long.