In the 1980s, a group of kids from Bennington College emerged as the so-called “literary brat pack.” These privileged kids from the East Coast, with their booze and drug-filled delusions, were deemed “cool” and their literary talents highly praised. They were pompous and arrogant, while at the same time intentionally esoteric to create an air of mystery about them. The Bennington College atmosphere, the drugs and alcohol, the privilege and wealth, and the entire coke-laden 1980s molded these writers into who they ultimately became.
Bret Easton Ellis was a member, and I loathe his writing with a passion. I’ve read AMERICAN PYSCHO and LESS THAN ZERO and I hated them both. I wanted to like them – I really did. And Ellis is good at weaving a story – I just hate his drug-addled characters of privilege and excess.
“If you like Ellis, you’ll love Donna Tartt. They went to school together. She’s a woman.”
I remember the way I cocked my head at the speaker of that statement. I hadn’t liked Ellis. And the reason I hadn’t liked Ellis hadn’t been because he was a man. (Years later, I realized the speaker of that statement tried to live his life as if he stepped from the boarding school pages of an Ellis novel, coke included. We all make mistakes.)
Donna Tartt was also a member of the literary brat pack, and one of Ellis’s good friends. They’re still friends. Her rise to fame was a bit more of a slow burn than the others of the “pack.” Her first novel and one that created a cult following for her was THE SECRET HISTORY, published in 1992. The advance for that novel? $450,000. I don’t even know what that would be in today’s money. She was indeed a literary darling from the brat pack. It took her over a decade to finish her second novel, THE LITTLE FRIEND. Over a decade later, THE GOLDFINCH was published, and it won her the coveted Pulitzer. I finally picked it up, determined to give Tartt a fair chance.
It is 771 pages of drug-addled, booze-soaked poor decisions. Her characters are not likeable and have few, if any, redeeming qualities. A bildungsroman is supposed to show growth of the main character, but Theo Decker doesn’t grow except to become even more of an obsessive, self-absorbed addict.
This novel heightened my anxiety, and I was so tense when reading it, I thought I needed a Xanax. I didn’t care about Theo. (I felt bad about that because of how the novel opens, but he was a jerk before the bombs went off and his mother died.) I spent over 700 pages in a state over that blasted painting (and quite a few worried about a little Maltese named Popper). Even when Theo conveniently forgot about the painting for pages upon pages despite it being his alleged obsession, it was my focus.
His obsession with the painting gives rise to what I see as one of the many flaws. He talks about how much he knew that painting, especially its weight in his hands. How did he not notice it had been replaced with a schoolbook? The likelihood the schoolbook and The Goldfinch weighed the same is slim to none. Theo even discusses the weight with a “collector,” – pleased that someone else had noted the heft of it. How did he not know it had been switched? Drugs? I suppose it’s possible.
Making Boris a caricature was also a problem for me, especially his dialogue. And the “boys will be boys” rough housing while drunk and/or high leading to a sexual encounter between the two that is never properly addressed made me shake my head. Boris deserved better. And the reader, who is painfully addressed at the end, also deserved better.
The idea is great – a young boy has gotten in trouble at school and must go for a parent/teacher meeting. Because they’re running early, they stop at the museum. His mother, beautiful and animated by art, tells him about her favorites, including The Goldfinch – a beautiful songbird tethered to a perch by a short chain. An act of domestic terrorism leaves the museum in rubble and the beautiful mother dead. The boy, suffering from shock and a head injury, has a discussion with a dying old man and he takes the painting. What happens to the boy and the painting and the redheaded girl he’d seen just before the explosion could have been something heartbreaking yet beautiful and full of light. Instead, Tartt made each page more tragic than the one before it.
It may be pretty writing, pretty like a songbird, but it’s tethered by a short chain to a tragic existence.