As mentioned in my July post about summer reading, I had begun reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning The Goldfinch. In spite of its extravagant length, I finished the novel rather quickly, and spent the rest of the summer reading her other two books. What follows is an unstructured consideration of Tartt’s novels from a reader’s point of view. I could write a more detailed analysis of her style and construction, but that interests me less at the moment than the experience of reading her books back-to-back.
While Tartt’s 2013 novel is not the one that put her on the map—her first novel The Secret History actually made quite the splash in its day—the success of The Goldfinch greatly expanded her respectability and general popularity. It was recommended to me by a friend as one of the most beautiful novels he had read in years. That was high praise coming from him, so I found myself a copy and dove in.
The 771-page count is intimidating. If it had not been so strongly recommended, I might have let it sit unread on my bookshelf much longer. However, Tartt’s prose is so densely rich that I quickly found myself willingly enchanted. The novel opens in Amsterdam under uncertain circumstances, building up to a tense anxiety that never truly diminishes throughout the course of the story. In fact, this anxiety remains surprisingly steady without much modulation, even in the more action-heavy sections of the book. There aren’t many ups and downs in The Goldfinch, but more of a constant hum of disquiet and desperation. This in spite of many violent deaths and run-ins with unsavory characters.
Theodore Decker, the narrator and protagonist, is never quite likeable and only occasionally sympathetic. It’s impossible not to pity him while he suffers the fallout of his mother’s violent death, but even before that he acts a bit like a selfish boy, and he plays the victim card so often as he grows older that it’s a minor miracle he does not alienate every person in his life. He also seems far too dissolute of a man (as a rather high-functioning drug addict) to be able to write a memoir of such exquisite detail.
Yet it is in the details that The Goldfinch shines. As Miss Tartt has said elsewhere, she paints on large canvases with small brushes. Whenever she is describing the work of restoring antiques, the Christmas decorations littering Amsterdam, or the minute and luminous Dutch brushstrokes of the novel’s titular painting, it is common to feel ecstatically raised above the mundanities of the world. Her prose in such cases is sonorous, rhythmic, baroque. At times I was reminded of the experimental style of Brideshead Revisited.
But as a reader, The Goldfinch left me frustrated. The plot, while busy and diverse, is never as interesting as the parts that compose it. As a boy, Theo pushes the limits of the reader’s sympathy even as he is being threatened by malignant forces, and by the time he is a professionally established adult, I was nearly wishing for something horrible to happen to him. The musings on beauty are so thoroughly absent for most of the book that their inclusion at the very end feels like an unwarranted intrusion. Theo has not earned the aesthetic philosophy he finally expounds upon, and this reader was not convinced that his supposed love of beauty was truly the one thing keeping him afloat in a sea of nihilism all his life.
The Secret History
From here I moved on to Tartt’s The Secret History, her first published novel from 1992. I had enjoyed her style in The Goldfinch enough to look into her previous publications, and found the plot of her first book very interesting. A small, elitist Classical Studies group of students at a New England college murders one of their own. Don’t worry about spoilers, as this story point is introduced on the very first page, and is succeeded by a very long prequel, the so-called secret history.
The narrative here is also in the first person, and the narrator Richard Papen has some (but thankfully not too many) similarities to Theo Decker. Richard, who hails from a lower class Californian family, manages to enroll himself in Vermont’s Hampden College after demonstrating a knack for foreign and ancient languages, especially classical Greek. Once there, he deftly lies about his past and makes his way into the closed Classics group, which is headed by a mysterious professor who seems to be able to do whatever he pleases at Hampden, in spite of the school’s increasingly egalitarian policies. The group consists of Charles and Camilla (fraternal twins, both charming, the brother being reminiscent of Brideshead’s Sebastian Flyte), Henry (intimidating in size as well as intellect), Francis (who seems to have walked straight out of an Oscar Wilde novel), and Bunny (an obnoxious jokester doomed to be murdered by his fellow classicists).
Unlike her more recent novel, The Secret History was enjoyable in nearly all its aspects. It was a page-turner in the best possible sense, a murder mystery where the mystery is not the killer’s identity but his motive. The world of Hampden College is rich and pleasant, in spite of some of the people who live there. The in-story study of the classics provides a larger aesthetic scope beyond the American northeast, and the often violent realm of pagan Greek religion offers a contrast to the mix of irreligiosity and cultural Catholicism in the Classical Studies group. The novel has a rich setting and a wealth of philosophical intention; it squanders neither.
As a reader, there is much to love about Tartt’s debut novel. The carefully crafted baroque style of The Goldfinch is in evidence already twenty years earlier, although in a somewhat rougher form. The plot only drags a few times, but is otherwise in perpetual and meaningful motion. The characters are all either likeable or entertainingly despicable. It’s possible the story overstays its welcome by the end, but if so it’s as a guest whose company you have thoroughly enjoyed, and who you hope will come to visit again.
The Little Friend
In the ten years after The Secret History, Tartt’s readers were by all accounts desperate for the arrival of her sophomore novel. In 2002, The Little Friend finally hit bookstores, ultimately leaving her fans and critics divided. I read nothing but the book jacket’s description before jumping in, hoping to avoid any preconceptions.
The novel opens, again, with a murder. This murder is the opposite of that in The Secret History: instead of an adult murdered by his friends, a boy is murdered by parties unknown; instead of the open-and-shut clarity of perpetrator and motivation, this murder is never properly solved; instead of a surprisingly mundane killing, we have the image of nine year-old Robin Dufresnes dangling lifeless from the black tupelo tree.
About a decade later, Robin’s baby sister Harriet decides she is going to spend her summer vacation solving the mystery of her brother’s murder. She was just an infant when her big brother died, and much has happened in the mean time. Nobody was ever tried or seriously suspected for the murder. Her mother descended into a decade of tranquilizers. Her father moved to Nashville to start a new life with his mistress. Her big sister Allison, who was playing in the yard during the murder, has long claimed amnesia during that time and for many other years, and willingly sleeps away every possible hour. The ghost of Robin haunts her family home, as well as her extended family of great-aunts.
Indeed, the ghost image of Robin’s dangling body is so vivid that the reader is frustrated to find the plot constantly deviating into coming-of-age drama, social commentary on the South, the comedy of extended families, facially-scarred preachers with snakes in hand, poor drug addicts living in the woods, and the tension of crumbling friendships. Not that any nor even all of these things couldn’t be worked into a murder mystery plot, but when they do appear they conquer the narrative so completely that the reader simply does not know what kind of story he will be reading from page to page. There is one point after so much of this distraction when Harriet suddenly remembers that she was going to solve her brother’s murder, and seems to forget what was happening just before so she can run off and resume the earlier story. It’s a mess of too many ideas, but any one of which could make for its own compelling narrative if it had clearly taken charge.
The writing style is still very good. Harriet’s Mississippi of the 1970s is vivid and immersive. Even the more degenerate places are a pleasure to read about. When a black bird gets its wings caught in a mess of freshly-laid tar, the incident is hauntingly vivid. When Harriet and her friend Hely go hunting for snakes, you feel their fright, frustration, and exhaustion. All of the novel’s individual parts are gorgeously embodied, one might almost say carnal.
It’s hard not to speculate that Miss Tartt got lost in reminiscences of her own southern childhood in Mississippi. At times, The Little Friend feels like an impressionistic memoir of one’s younger years. Imagining Harriet as a younger version of Tartt herself is tempting. It is almost as though the ominous murder of Robin Dufresnes was simply an excuse to write a novel about the culture she considered herself grown out of. The murder itself ultimately feels like a red herring, a cheap magician’s trick to distract the audience while he’s opening and closing doors with his toes. Unfortunately, it is still more interesting than anything else.
I cannot help but think that Tartt has, as an artist, succumbed to the “fatal flaw” admitted by Richard in her first novel: “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”