Archive for October, 2014

The Future of “The Secret History”

Posted in Book Reviews on October 25, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think I would be able to count all of the books that I have read during my life so far. However, there are only a small number of books that I re-read on a regular basis. Stephen King’s “Insomnia” is on that list, and so are Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News,” John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” One of the books I re-read most frequently, though, is Donna Tartt’s debut novel “The Secret History.”

And so when Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” came out in 2013, 11 years after her second novel, I grabbed it for my Kindle as soon as I could. However, it sat in my reading list, as I was waiting for some time to give it my undivided attention. What I found was, in addition to a rich novel of its own right, a set of crib notes to the motivations behind “The Secret History.”

In “The Secret History,” a group of students who do not fit into mainstream society in any discernible way cover up the accidental killing of a local farmer and then the extremely intentional murder of one of their own, when the first secret is about to unravel. The main character, one Richard Papen, is a young man aesthetically displeased with his upbringing. His surroundings at Hampden College in Vermont look like what he thinks college — and life — should be. The dorms look like cottages; the fall brings apple trees and red-cheeked girls just finishing their field hockey. However, Hampden is a college for people who did not do well anywhere else, and Richard and his cohorts have separated themselves from the rest of the college, as they take all of their courses from Julian Morrow, the Greek teacher who even has his own building on the edge of campus.

It is the pursuit of beauty for its own sake that undoes Richard; as his initial advisor at Hampden tells him, beauty can do nothing without truth. However, Richard falls in love with a group that turns out to be cold-blooded; gives his heart to a classmate who does not appear to have an affective cell in her body; he ends up in Southern California, just as wretched and alone at the end as he was when he first looked at brochures of Hampden College.

And so now, 15 years after “The Secret History” and 11 years after a wonderful mystery entitled “The Little Friend,” Tartt has taken on the topic of beauty again. One of the Greek epigrams that the crew in “The Secret History” learns is that “Beauty is harsh,” but nowhere is it harsher than in “The Goldfinch.”

The title of the book comes from a painting that Theodore Decker, the main character, loves because his mother loved it. The last day he spends with his mother is the day terrorists attack the art museum in New York City where they are visiting. Theodore ends up dazed in a gallery with an old man who gives him a ring and a cryptic destination — the green bell at an intersection in the city. He also spirits away “The Goldfinch” with him, “saving” it from the rubble of the museum but never quite managing to return it, or tell others where it is from.

Theodore loves the beauty of the painting so much that he keeps it with him always, but he is so afraid of losing it that he hides it inside a bag and then squirrels it away int a public storage unit — the irony, of course, being that no one gets to see the beauty of the painting at all.

In the painting, the bird is chained to its perch, much the same way in which the painting is held captive in its sack (or so Theodore thinks, but that would be a spoiler).

With his mother dead and his father having disappeared, Theodore moves in which the family of a friend to avoid the hell of life with a foster family; his father eventually shows up and drags him out to a new life in Las Vegas (as in “The Secret History,” there is nothing west of the Mississippi that is aesthetically pleasing). But his father ends up committing suicide, leaving Theodore once again quite alone.

Instead of being left at the mercy of Social Services, though, Theodore moves in with a man he had befriended shortly after the museum disaster — the person who lives behind the door with the green bell. James Hobart had been the business partner of the old man who gave Theodore the ring in the museum gallery. Theodore learns how to run Hobart’s business so that he gets out of trouble with the IRS; unfortunately, Theodore is fraudulently selling the furniture that Hobart is restoring by billing it as having a much finer provenance than it actually has, replacing the very real wrath of the IRS with the potential destruction of the business by ruining its reputation with buyers.

And so the old truism “Beauty is harsh” returns with a vengeance in “The Goldfinch.” A bitter rogue in the antiques industry uncovers the fraud and begins to blackmail Theodore; he realizes that the painting is not where he thought it was; the two loves of his life (Boris and Pippa) are not accessible to him in the way he wants; the woman he asks to marry him (Kitsey) is as ambivalent about him as he is about her. The questions that the end of the novel asks about the sufficiency of doing one’s best in life seem more like Theodore’s own soul-searching than anything else.

The best parts of Tartt’s writing involve the epic sweep of the tale, as well as the intricate workings of the description. Many reviewers compare her to Dickens in terms of the scope of her stories. I prefer to compare her to Fitzgerald, who seems to have been just as anxious to ensure that each word is in the right place before moving on to the next sentence, the next paragraph, even the next page. It is one thing to mass produce literature in the vein of today’s James Patterson. It is quite another to edge, one unit of thought at a time, across the vast canvas of a novel, until one steps back and realizes that a masterwork is at hand.

Both Theodore Decker and Richard Papen struggle to find a place in the modern world. No matter how many drinks or drugs they try, their very square shapes do not resolve to the round holes that the world has waiting for them. It is this tension that makes them characters of interest. It is the unstinting lens that Tartt gives the reader to view them that has added “The Goldfinch” to the list of books I plan to re-read. And re-read some more.

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