strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

Month: September, 2018

the goldfinch, by donna tartt–a strangely overrated and underrated book

The Goldfinch came out a couple years ago, so I’m late to the party, but Donna Tartt spent eleven years writing it. If she can take her time, so can I. I picked it up not knowing anything about the book proper, or even that that’s supposed to be a painting of a bird on the cover. All I knew was that there was a huge controversy over its winning the Pulitzer. Half of the literary establishment thought it was amazing, the new Dickens–a definite black mark, as I am a Dickens-hater–but the other half thought it was horrible, that it was a children’s book posing as literature and a sign of the decay of the modern reader. That sounded like the kind of snobby sentiment I could sympathize with, but the hater half included Francine Prose, who I hate as much as I hate Dickens. How to balance these two heuristics? So I was very excited about this book. I thought my reaction would reveal something important about who I was as a reader, as if the discovery of my feelings about it was a literary version of the Sorting Hat.

So how disappointing was it when I fell smack in the middle? I neither loved the book nor hated it. While I was reading it, I was engaged and entertained, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about either way. Some of it, I suppose, is that my heart thrills to the tropes of bad fantasy fiction most of all–if I’d been raised on books that weren’t Dungeons and Dragons manuals, maybe I would have loved this book more.

One criticism I’ve seen of The Goldfinch is that it is a book full of ridiculous, implausible coincidences, starting with the very premise itself. The book begins with the narrator losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, an old man, who in his dying throes regresses back to his life in WWII Europe, rescuing priceless works of art from invaders, encourages our hero Theo Decker to steal the titular painting, “The Goldfinch,” to keep it safe from said hallucinated invaders.

Having read the book, I do not think that the psychology of the old man seems implausible. I don’t see why the combination of the shock of a large explosion, and a failing mind from mortal injury, might not scramble his brains. The old man was an art-lover who knew that works of art were under threat, he sought assistance in rescuing it–is more required? Perhaps it wouldn’t ever happen that particular way in real life, but this is what artistic license is all about. No real-life situation survives the novelist’s transcription, and to quibble too strongly about implausible coincidences would mean throwing out all of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre. (Not that I would be personally opposed to this, but a lot of the Tartt-haters really like Dickens and seem offended she’s compared to him, so presumably this argument is a gotcha for them.)

But probably the premise would have seemed more plausible, had the rest of the book been more emotionally sound. The very best part of the book is the middle, where a teenaged Theo, still deeply traumatized from his mother’s death, bonds with another damaged boy, a Russian with an abusive father named Boris. If I had to guess, Tartt was the kind of goody two shoes in school who was a bookworm after school, but she puts on a convincing and fun display of juvenile larceny and dissipation. Boris introduces Theo to vodka and worse drugs, and eggs him on in all sorts of petty theft, but nevertheless, he becomes the best friend and brother Theo could have ever wanted. It is here, in the friendship between Boris and Theo, that the true heart of The Goldfinch beats.

But then Tartt ruins it with a strange and snobbish fixation on the glory of antique furniture, and Renaissance-era painting techniques. I finished the book feeling rather cheated–the book so clearly wants to be about art, its ability to link the far past with the far future, and the possibility for grace and redemption that loving and protecting great art can offer–but the book is really about trauma, and attempting to process it. Theo spends a great deal of money self-medicating on any pill he can get his hands on, for instance, and his endless misadventures with drugs play a far greater role in his character development than keeping the painting does. I read the last thirty pages or so, a sophomoric disquisition on the beauty of The Goldfinch, the painting, and on the power of great art in general, that felt like a high-schooler’s thoughts on art–and I kept thinking, surely this is Theo being an unreliable narrator, surely this is some postmodernist trick, and there will be hints that all is not well, Theo is deluded about the role of art in helping him to heal? But no, evidently it was entirely sincere.

And that, I think, is the truth behind the accusations of “implausibility”–Tartt wrote a book about one thing, and then insisted at you that it was really about another. Much as I don’t like Dickens, his books hang together better than that, and he never had the bad manners to lecture at you.

So there you have it, I suppose. The critic James Wood accused Tartt of writing on a level fit only for children, thus infantilizing adult literature, but I suspect he felt a need to push back against the enthusiastic overreaction this book received. The truth is, The Goldfinch is a deeply flawed book, but it’s still a good, readable book, which puts it on par with most every other good book that is still bad enough that it will be quietly forgotten.

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swing time, by zadie smith–a negative review

Like many others, I often worry about the effect of digital devices on the human attention span.  Swing Time is the culmination of my worst fear–that the modern world is now so full of distractions, nobody can write a decent novel any more.

This is not to say that the book is a disjointed series of tweets. Smith has a fine eye for characterization, though the protagonist is yet another one of those passive, socially awkward introverts that is so clearly inspired by the writer’s own personality. The prose is unquestionably good–at times aphoristic, it is always fresh and amusing. The problem is that Swing Time is the product of a mind that is intelligent but not wise–an observant mind, but one that is not particularly good at making connections, elaborations, or drawing implications. Just the kind of mind I’d expect to result from an age of truncated attention spans.

The central relationship of Swing Time, if it can be called that, is a My Brilliant Friend-esque frenemy-ship between the nameless protagonist, and her childhood friend, Tracey, who is a dance prodigy. Both girls are black, and grow up in council housing (that’s affordable housing for us Americans–like Section 8 but a great deal nicer, I gather). Our loathsome blank of a protagonist, while as interested in dance as Tracey, possesses only modest gifts. Regardless, their life paths diverge since the protagonist’s mother insists that she go to college, while Tracey’s mother is negligent, and poor Tracey never manages to get out of the ghetto, despite her superior talents.

You know, though, I err in saying that it’s the central relationship. Smith is one of those writers who abuses the use of broken narrative threads as a cheap shortcut to establishing verisimilitude.

This is an example of what I mean by “abuse.” Tracey and the Nameless One end up parting ways about a third of the way into the book, and we see only rare glimpses of her afterwards, mostly secondhand. Tracey is darker-skinned than Miss Nameless One, and comes from a broken home. It makes sense Tracey would remain in poverty, while the lighter-skinned narrator, with her intact family and educated mother, would escape. It makes complete sense that they would lose contact. But this consequence of racism and poverty doesn’t go anywhere–the tragic divergence in socioeconomic circumstances just happens, and there are no further implications, no emotional heft. Later, in the novel, they do reunite once for an incredibly awkward and strained conversation, but nothing happens. It’s awkward, as one might realistically expect, and that’s it.

That’s the problem with drawing too much inspiration from real life–when you part ways with a childhood friend, that generally means the end of learning anything from that relationship. You move on, you forget, it fails to affect you further. Such a development can be inevitable in real life, but it is a fatal flaw in a book. Real life is noise, books are about signal. It’s good to fuzz your book a little bit to make it more convincing, but too much, and any signal is lost. The point of a book is to unfold a story, and so, letting a character drop off the face of the earth is a waste of the time spent developing that character.

This would be excusable had Tracey’s friendship left some sort of notable impact on the narrator, but as I said earlier, the narrator is one of those passive low-reactors who feels nothing, and carries emotion about as well as a colander carries water.

What infuriates me the most, though, is that the book is trying to say something about race, but it never manages to say anything interesting. It’s like reading a series of superficially glib blog posts, instead of an actual book. We don’t need any more books on race that have no more insight than, “hurp durr, it sure is complicated!” Nor do we need any books that regard that message with no more emotion than one might feel for a funny tweet.

Crazy Rich Asians: Some cultural context for non-Asians

I don’t have a lot of thoughts about this movie, so this is going to be short. Fundamentally, it’s a rom-com, and the demands of that formula soften the keenness of whatever social commentary was buried in there. But I do want to clarify one thing for any non-Asians watching this movie. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that the movie hinges on the difficulties Asian-Americans have navigating the filial duties demanded by more traditional Asians, and that the resolution is ultimately positive and uplifting. I want to explain why, given the realities of East Asian culture, the happy ending is psychologically unrealistic.

It’s common for Western leftists to discuss these axes of oppression: gender, race, and class. Disability, fortunately, is also achieving more recognition. I’ve often thought that the discourse ought to include age as well. Because very roughly speaking, Chinese families are run as gerontocracies, and age-based oppression, where the youth are firmly under the thumb of the old, is one of the organizing principles of Chinese culture, and East Asian cultures in general. (And probably many Indian cultures too, though I intend to stay in my lane.) Any good leftist worthy of the name should want to abolish age-based oppression as well.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that children are property, in the way that enslaved humans were treated as property, and to my knowledge, there aren’t explicit laws enshrining younger people as second-class citizens. As far as I know, it’s a matter of informal custom. Regardless, older people are at the top, and people at the top have little incentive to develop empathy for their lessers, and even less reason to develop any respect for them. Imagine a white person listening to a black person’s concerns about police violence, and imagine that white person telling the black person to get over it. Or imagine a man telling a woman that she’s silly to be afraid of walking alone at night. Get on Facebook, and see all the abled people who don’t know a single disabled person, confidently expound that disabled people don’t need plastic straws and the straw ban should go full speed ahead. Take that breezy, unconscious, even unintended, contempt, take that inability to admit that the other person might know something you don’t, or have different feelings that are as valid as your own–now imagine a country full of old people doing that to their children, and any younger person within striking distance.

A happy ending for Crazy Rich Asians is even more impossible when you apply some intersectionality and account for the fact that the main antagonist, the potential mother-in-law, is a woman. Chinese culture is pretty sexist, and when I think about it, I’m quite surprised that the story of Mulan is as popular as it is. When you’re a Chinese woman, doomed to being a second-class citizen your whole life, you really, really look forward to being the mother-in-law and getting to boss around your daughter-in-law. Who else are you going to boss? Up until your own mother-in-law kicks the bucket, you’re the bottom of the totem pole. When your mother-in-law isn’t even dead yet, are you going to put up with any guff from your potential daughter-in-law? Oh hell no. At the very least, you will make her suffer. And you will believe that you deserve to do so. It’s your reward for putting up with so much crap in your own life. This is somewhat analogous to the psychological wages of whiteness, as first explained by WEB Du Bois.

Is it a bad thing that the movie didn’t address these nuances of East Asian culture? Well, Roger Ebert had a delightful sentence in his review of Shaolin Soccer that I’ll never forget–“It is piffle, yes, but superior piffle.” Meaning, that one ought not compare apples to oranges, or in this case, a rom-com to the output of an Asian Spike Lee. For what it is, Crazy Rich Asians is superior. But I don’t want anyone to mistake it for something more than piffle.