Today I review a review of a book I have not read. So many good ideas in one place.
The book is current sensation The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, an author I have never read; the review is by novelist Francine Prose in the New York Review of Books, January 9, 2014, pp. 10-12 (unfortunately subscriber-only). The review is entirely negative. Prose is dismayed by Tartt’s novel.
Because I have an ideally equable critical temperament, if I were to read The Goldfinch, which given its 2013 publication date and 771 pages is unlikely, I would surely enjoy its pleasures and wince at its faults. Prose’s review is 100% wincing.
Come to think of it, I have never read any of Prose’s books either. I would probably like them, too. What is easier than liking a book? All sorts of people do it every day.
Prose’s review is useful for the way it pins down an approach to literature. I share a lot of her assumptions. Prose begins her piece with an overview of the word “Dickensian,” misapplied to this novel she thinks (this part is available at the link). Does the word mean “long” or “lots of characters” or “orphans” – and Tartt is Dickensian in this sense – or does it mean “the depth and breadth of his powers of observation, his cadenced, graceful language” and a long list of other attributes which can be packed into one word, “style.” All of us, Prose and I who are thinking of style, and others who are referring to content, mean “in the manner of Dickens.”
The Goldfinch is about an orphan who falls in with a bad crowd, a bit like Oliver Twist, including a version of the Artful Dodger. He is not actually an orphan, but has a father who is utterly useless – if this is not in the manner of Dickens, nothing is. Unlike Oliver Twist, the entire big book is in the first person, so a grown-up Oliver is telling his own story, making the book a lot more like Great Expectations. A painting and a lot of stuff about fine art is in the novel, too, about as un-Dickensian a subject as there is.
I am picking this up from reviews, that of Prose and others. But as I paw through the book (a library copy), I come across bits like “The night was a dreamlike mangle of past and present: a childhood world miraculously intact in some respects, grievously altered in others, as if the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had joined to host the evening” (468) and
The other section of Honors English was reading Great Expectations. Mine was reading Walden; and I hid myself in the coolness and silence of the book, a refuge from the sheet-metal glare of the desert. (234)
Cute, right, the presence of the absence of Dickens. But I have not read the novel, so perhaps there are as many parallels with and references to Henry David Thoreau.
Neither of those fragments sounds the least bit like Dickens. Prose goes after Tartt for “sections that seem like the sort of passages a novelist employs as placeholders, hastily sketched-in paragraphs to which the writer intends to go back,” generic descriptive lists, and the frequency of clichés, although Prose is wrong about this point, since the character should actually be using far more clichés. This is, after all, his first book, and he is writing a memoir, not a novel. I assume this problem is explained away early in the novel. Perhaps Theo Decker murdered someone. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” The narrator’s name is, yes, Theodicy.
Near the end of the review Prose invokes Great Expectations herself, the paragraph describing Mrs. Havisham’s bridal banquet, which is cheating – of course The Goldfinch has no sentences that good – and a bit of Edward St. Aubyn’s druggy Bad News in order to highlight Tartt’s “careless and pedestrian language” and demonstrate “why I found it difficult to respond when strangers assumed I was ‘loving’ Tartt’s novel as much as they were… Reading The Goldfinch, I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’”
A cry from the heart after my own heart, since I care about little else, but why should everyone else care about what Francine Prose and I care about? I hope a book blogger who loves The Goldfinch is working on a five-part rebuttal to Prose right now – The Goldfinch in fact is well-written and ingeniously constructed, full of traps for unsuspectingly narrow readers like Francine Prose, and here is how Tartt did it. I would love to read that.