Sunday, May 04, 2014

Of "The Goldfinch," "Gossip Girl," and "Girls"

And now, the airplane reading: Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch." Click on the post title for spoilers and more.

It's a nearly 800-page novel about an orphan-turned-art-world-criminal, set in "Gossip Girl" New York - a version of the present where the great social divide is between the Anglo-Dutch aristocrats and the no-less-white, slightly-less-wealthy underdogs. I'd already mentioned this to my husband when, browsing Goodreads reviews after finishing the book, I saw one of the characters tongue-in-cheek referred to as "Andy Van Der Woodsen" and, more damningly, the protagonist compared with Dan Humphrey. Spot-on and half-ruins the book. OK, not half - it's clearly a Great Novel in that sense of, you'll read it and wonder how you yourself ever thought that maybe you'd write a novel one day. You might, but it won't be like that.

But back to the important "Gossip Girl" angle. How to put this? Whenever there's a "privilege" discussion - see the many entries under the YPIS tag here, but also Miss Self-Important's recent post - I think of the many families I knew in private school that were by all accounts majorly privileged (super-rich, white, well-connected), but who'd met with unusual amounts of really horrific family tragedy. Maybe this was particular to my year - so much tragedy - but in any case, it taught me that where someone fits within various privilege categories is only an all-things-equal assessment of how easy they've had it. And all things? Not equal.

So the fact that our protagonist, Theo Decker, is the WASPy son of a model, one who lives on Sutton Place and is chummy with the doormen in such a cringe-inducing Upper East Side way that we're meant to find charming, albeit one without much family money and thus on scholarship, doesn't make him first-world-problems, really. It's one disaster after the next: his alcoholic father leaves the family, no contact address, no child support. His mother dies in a terrorist attack while with 13-year-old Theo at a museum. Then he nearly ends up in foster care, and winds up living with his once-estranged father in Las Vegas, a man whose low-life tendencies only go deeper than we'd first imagined. What follows is a mix of PTSD from the terrorist attack, drug addiction, and more. We at one point learn that another character thinks Theo is "spoiled" because, relative to some others in the book (the child of a prostitute, a kid who'd been a kind of street urchin in Ukraine) he'd had it easy, and it's kind of like, yeah, maybe not.

The issue, then, isn't that Theo is privileged, or comes across as privileged, but that the book is very - how to avoid the "Girls" critique? - white. Everyone who's even a little bit ethnic - Russian, Irish, Jewish - is this foreigner, while Theo, the thing he is, is normal, the default. And so, too, in terms of class, sexual orientation, the other much-discussed axes of privilege. Also intellect, social ease. Yes, Theo's the narrator, so we're getting his perspective, but there's still something about it that doesn't sit right. It just seems so dated, I suppose - and this was the problem with "Gossip Girl" as well - the way the book places Theo as if at the lower socioeconomic end of things because he's relatively poor for a rich white kid who lives uptown. It just seems to miss the rest of the city. The doormen, the social workers, these are not people but background noise for the real story, which involves only the unhyphenated. In other words, it's not that Theo himself is somehow less tragic for being well-connected in preppy circles. It's that the New York of the novel is inaccurate in an unoriginal and somewhat irritating way.

Assorted other thoughts:

-The first thing that struck me about the book, and that was never quite mitigated, was that all the characters were either all-good or all-evil.

-Unlike some Goodreads reviewers, I didn't find it at all unconvincing that a) teenage boys would philosophize and read Great Russian Literature, nor that b) these same boys might also use a bunch of drugs. If I had a better memory of high school, I could probably summon a dozen names of boys who met that precise description.

-But I do agree with those who said that the drug-description passages a) could have been edited down a bit, and b) didn't add much new. Also that the details don't particularly ring true to what a 20-something man would remember from childhood, all kinds of age-inappropriate knowledge of what things are, what they cost, etc. Not even things a clever, perceptive kid might have once known but forgotten - things he'd have never noticed in the first place. (This struck me most, I suppose, when he mentions the bottles of Kiehl's, Kératase, etc., shampoo in the bathroom, this list of high-end shampoo brands his mother used to use, but I feel like there were even better examples I'm forgetting. So maybe it's just my memory that's the issue.) And, as the New Yorker review (also) said, the Britishisms! Why do all these Americans with no ties to the UK use British expressions?

-My own Great Books knowledge is tilted towards things other than fiction and French literature. Or, I've watched a lot of television in my day. What I'm saying is, I've somehow never read any Dickens, so I can't join the conversation about just how Dickensian this novel is - a lot, apparently. I'm also an art ignoramus - not entirely, and Flemish art from a bit earlier than the titular painting is among my favorites - but I'd never heard of this painting and, had there not been an image of it, had I not Googled, I might well have thought it was made up. There's a very specific highbrow (or just informed? how did I miss Dickens?), analytical response one is basically invited to have to this novel, but it's not the response I can provide.

-After reading "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.," I of course thought about the female author/male perspective question. With a book along these lines, you're sort of unavoidably evaluating it partially on whether an author of one gender has successfully gotten into the head of a character of the other. But if Adelle Waldman maybe overdid the hetero male lust-for-the-ladies, Tartt swings far in the other direction. Theo has a chaste-but-passionate love for his late mother, and for a girl named Pippa (a complicated part of the plot it would take too long to get into). We know enough about his love life to surmise that he's straight (he's the one to set boundaries in a homoerotic friendship, and there are various sort-of girlfriends), but he comes across as... neither gay nor asexual, just kind of unrealistically innocent and dreamy for someone quite so otherwise debauched. But it also sort of works - maybe it is somehow female to overestimate the amount of time men spend thinking about women (not, of course, that men don't, in turn, overestimate how much women think about them).


Nicholas said...

Maybe it's just the lit critical circles I started out in, but Dickens was never a part of the highbrow: not avant garde, not realist, not invested in any deeper philosophical or artistic project: lesser than Flaubert, Zola, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. (The cattier will point out he wrote like he was getting paid by the word, which he was.) How he became a shorthand for high literature I'll never understand. Which is to say the constant invocations of Dickens in support of The Goldfinch have made me suspect it's not that good. But if it still seems good even in spite of that...

Phoebe said...

If something's old, famous, and one seems learned if one knows when to reference it, it becomes highbrow. And any contemporary work that references in this way gets seriousness points - more, though, if the new work is also a book, and not, say, a teen movie. (Clueless referenced Emma, but starred Alicia Silverstone.)