Woe is me!
When Theo Decker and his mother are caught up in a random act of terrorism, Theo’s life is ripped apart. The mother he idolised is dead, his father had abandoned them a year or so earlier and Theo is left at the mercy of the social welfare system. Fortunately he is taken in by the rich parents of his school friend, until his father turns up to reclaim him. This is the story of Theo’s growth into adulthood and simultaneous descent into a drink and drug fuelled world of cold-hearted socialites and East European criminals.
There’s about enough plot in this book to make a decent short story, or possibly it could stretch to a novella. Unfortunately Tartt has decided to drag it out for 771 pages, filled primarily with unremarkable prose and repetitive descriptions of drink and drugs binges, vomiting and hangovers, occasionally interspersed with a bit of random and unlikely violence. Sadly, I got the image in my head fairly early on that Tartt had popped into the local word shop and bought a couple of the huge economy bags rather than going for the more expensive select boxes – fewer words but more highly polished. Having bought them, she then seemed determined to use them – again and again and again.
…it was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dogwalkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.
The title of the book would lead an unwary reader to assume that the plot might have something to do with Fabritius’ picture of the Goldfinch – well, it starts there and ends there, but the five or six hundred extremely tedious pages in the middle have little to do with it. In fact, there’s very little about anything in the book other than Theo’s depressed and depressing descent into his cycle of self-destruction – and unfortunately written so pedestrianly that it failed to move this reader with any emotion other than irritation and boredom.
Then there’s Boris, who becomes Theo’s friend in his teen years, introduces him to the wonders of drink and drugs and then…disappears for hundreds of pages, before suddenly re-appearing to help tie the thing up all nice and neatly; because that’s how life really works, isn’t it? Neat solutions and happy ever after – even if as in this case happiness consists of an acceptance of dull depression and hopelessness as the human condition. Tartt’s depiction of Boris is so badly done it’s almost (but unfortunately not quite) laughable. He goes beyond caricature to cartoon – think of every cliché you know about Eastern Europeans, add the old chestnut of the good-hearted villain and tack on a mock accent that’s about as convincing as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney. I’d love to know why, though he lived in Australia and then the US from an early point of childhood, Boris never properly mastered the language.
But then that’s not the only inconsistency. Given that Tartt spent ten years writing this, I’d have hoped she could have spared an hour or two to google some of her ‘facts’. For example, Theo apparently has an iPod in 1999 – amazing, since it didn’t go on the market till 2001. But his mother is even more amazing – apparently she was able to text when Theo was 10 – 1996, by my reckoning, at least 4 years before it began to be a real possibility for ordinary people. Theo worries about the ‘shoe bomber’ at least a year before that event actually happened – psychic as well as technologically advanced. And finally, would a young man in his early twenties in the US of around 2010 really say that his girlfriend looks like Carole Lombard? Who, for those of you who are too young to remember, was a film star who died in 1942. I googled these little factlets – what a shame Tartt didn’t. It might have meant the book, or at least Theo’s voice, would have had a little more authenticity.
“I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present.”
(Quote from two-thirds of the way through, and a great description of how I felt by that stage…and I hadn’t taken any drink or drugs at the time.)
But I could probably have overlooked these inconsistencies had the plot been more interesting, or the writing less prosaic, or the whole thing about 75% shorter. There are undoubtedly some good passages here, and occasionally the writing rises to a high standard, but these positives are completely swamped by the sheer weight of nothingness that fills most of the book. Since Ms Tartt is not afraid to deal in clichés, my advice to her – less is more. I’ve seen this book compared to Dickens – while Tartt has undoubtedly tried to take some elements of Great Expectations and work them into her plot, I find the comparison not just facile but vaguely insulting. As you’ll have gathered, this one emphatically does not get my recommendation.