Thursday, March 13, 2014

A little bird told me


Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is unquestionably a tour de force -- bordering on showing off -– but I can't say that I liked it. Tartt is a powerful writer, and I wish her all the success she will undoubtedly have, but I closed the book at the end feeling sullied and dispirited. The novel is as drug-addled as many of her characters, few of whom are likable. The protagonist/narrator, in particular, has few (any?) admirable qualities, and although he finds redemption of a sort in the end, I resented being lectured in the final pages on the meaning of life by someone I had reluctantly endured for 771 pages.

The meaning of life? "Better never born, than born into this cesspool…No way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death." Thanks, Theo.

OK, so there's a lot of nastiness in the world, and even sleezebags have redeeming qualities; I learned that from the Russian novelists. The Russians in The Goldfinch are thugs, creatures of the gutter. I looked unsuccessfully for hints of Tolstoyvian grace.

But that's just me. You may love the book.

And what of "The Goldfinch," that exquisite little real-life painting, around which the novel is cleverly constructed? Beautiful! The novel may not be filled with beautiful people, but it is jammed to the gills with beautiful things. "And isn't the whole point of things -– beautiful things -– that they connect you to some larger beauty?" asks Hobie, one of the few likable characters in the book. And that is a thought worth coming away with.

Can we be redeemed by art? Can the beauty of a little bird chained to its feed box lift us out of the "cesspool" into something ennobling and worth living for? Perhaps. But let's not forget that the Nazi overlords stole beautiful art to adorn their homes, and crusades and jihads were preached in exquisite cathedrals and mosques. Beauty is not in itself a tonic for morality.