Goldfinch

If you’ve been to New York, there’s a resonating sound that perpetuates across the island. All the cars and movement reverberate against the orthogonal architecture, a low echo, like the inside of a sea shell. And when you’re there, despite all the movement, energy and money, the sound penetrates, and with it a sort of existential fear. If you’ve watched 9/11 videos, you can hear the sound, between the screams and the crumbling of the towers.

The opening of The Goldfinch is probably the best approximation of that yawning maw I’ve read. It’s a blockbuster start, and no doubt what propelled the book forward into reader’s hands. The premise is top notch: thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a terror attack in a museum that kills his mother, and in the chaos, smuggles out a priceless work of art – The Goldfinch.

But where do you go from there? Donna Tartt follows through with a prosaic bildungsroman, at least for 500 pages or so. First New York city and the workings of teenage angst, apprenticing with a lumbering antique furniture dealer named Hobie. Young friendships and loss, occasionally taking peeks at exquisite brushstrokes of the legendary painting. Later, in scalding Las Vegas, he lives with his drunk, gambling father, and a Ukrainian artful dodger named Boris.

The narrative world Tartt builds is exquisite. Her prose is populated with uncanny verisimilitude, from the songs playing on character’s iPods to the specific make of early Americana armoirs. The sentence by sentence structure flows easily, and the pages swiftly turn. Theo – only occasionally distorted by drugs or drink – is for the most part a thoughtful observer. There’s a dose of timidity and shyness in his interactions. He’s rarely vulnerable with his feelings. These are all acceptable, accurate character traits of one who was orphaned in a violent explosion in his youth.

And yet Theo’s passivity is the book’s weakness. In a way, its a core flaw in any first person tale. The dramatic irony that comes from a limited perspective is mostly wiped away in the direct telling. Since Theo spends hundreds of pages simply observing and describing his interactions with Boris, Hobie and Kitsey, instead of acting, his inner voice can become grating. Its the reason many readers find Catcher in the Rye irritating: hell is other people, and what worse to be stuck in the mind of another (even one as sympathetic as Theo Decker) for a thousand pages.

And while the journey Theo makes is fascinating – there’s a certain hygge to the passages in the old furniture shop, slanting afternoon sun cutting through the wafting dust – it’s cut deep by slightly off-kilter passages of Russian criminals, shootouts with gangsters, cliched high society snobs.

The novel itself is basically cut in half at 500 pages – Theo’s maturation. He returns to New York from Vegas, is accepted into school, then … fade to black. Eight years later, he’s a junkie and a conman. A number of characters are simply cut. Of course, Tartt isn’t so gauche and unsophisticated to drop these bombs in clumsily, and we receive them through the eyes of Theo, who’s properly animated enough so they fit into the world’s scaffolding. But underlying it all is the feeling that Tartt wrote herself into a corner and had to shake things up (a figurative explosion) in order to propel the book along.

After spending 900 pages in someones head, you’d think Theo would come to some sort of closure about his mother’s death, or the meaning of the painting. He doesn’t. There’s an info dump of existentialist purple prose, leaning nihilistic, pretty much every end left untied.

By the end, any passionate reader is a bit stunned. Is that it? What did it all mean? What was the significance of the painting, the drug addictions?

The closest analog, which many critics have pointed out, is Charles Dickens, who wrote coming of age tales in Victorian England, often populated with colorful characters (both rich and poor) from the bowels of industrial London. His writing were serialized, riveting as page turners. Yet who remembers intricacies or the catharsis of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist? The overall narrative arc and ultimate meaning of his stories was secondary to the thrill of living alongside fully-fleshed characters, through both the exhilarating and the drab.

It’s a fitting approach, mirroring the Goldfinch painting itself. Hyperreal, yet mundane. Perhaps even minimalist in its scope. Touches of darkness, absurdism. Maybe nihilism. A bird, chained to a perch, staring forth. Was the bird ever real? Is the painting capturing that reality, from some time in the 17th century? Or was it merely a notion in the mind’s eye of Carel Fabritius? Who knows what was his mind? All we have are his finite brush stroke, pigment and oil caught on canvas. It’s not art that stuns us, or changes our worldview. There’s no catharsis. We continue on with life. Yet there’s an enigma behind it, some shadow smudged on the wall. Did we miss something?

Lots of great art makes us feel like we’ve gained something, that we now possess a new experience. The Goldfinch (the painting, and the book), plays tricks on us, hinting at something grand. Yet when we open up the hidden cache, it’s empty. All that remains is a fading echo.

A Rose by any other name

On a dusty bookshelf tucked away in the corner of a nondescript brick building, it sat, yellowed paper and bent spine. Printed in the early 80s, jacket art and overblown font signifiers of the time, newly translated from the Italian. Before the Sean Connery Hollywood adaptation. The Name of the Rose.

On the first handful of pages, an unnamed narrator discovering a lost text in a dusty european enclave, the written testimony of a monk from the 1300s. It’s a theme Umberto Ecco has embraced and highlighted in most of his work – discovered texts, reinterpretation, what of the *thing itself* is lost and gained in transition.

The tale itself a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in a medieval monastery. Adso of Melk, the young protag, accompanies his mentor William of Baskerville across the Italian countryside to an ancient monastery nestled in the mountains. It’s the time of two Popes, split between Rome and Avignon, and church politics play heavily on the workings of the plot. Soon after their arrival, monks start showing up dead of mysterious circumstances.

William fits the Sherlockian mold (Adso the Watson) as close as possible, and there are great scenes where the former bends over a murder scene in his handcrafted spectacles, sniffing out clues. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to obscure theological debates among the monks over minutia, references to the titles of long forgotten books, chants and songs never translated from Latin. It makes the reading a bit of a fractured experience, incredibly dry and long passages leavened with vivid accounts of murders or vicious tactics of the inquisition.

Heresy figures predominantly. Entire sects of monks are labeled heretics due to minor emphasis on the original Biblical text, in this case – Christ’s poverty. What were Christ’s true thoughts on possessions? “Render to Caesar”, of course, but what if the church *is* Caesar? Of course, the rich pope and priests in Avignon would want to legitimize property, if only to maintain lavish lifestyles in gold laden cathedrals. One character even speaks at length of the holy properties of various gemstones. Following all this, the poor monks, who wish little more than to live a life of service and transcribing tomes, are labeled holy or heretic, depending on the political alliances of their order (and are thus burned at the stake).

All this political infighting and background noise brings a hint of conspiracy to the murders in the monastery. Is it a vengeful assassin, enacting the killings to send a message (which appear to mirror God’s judgement from John’s Revelation)? William and Adso are forced to consider both physical and logical facts of the deaths (who was in the vicinity, what time of day), and the tertiary details (a dead monk was transcribing a certain book, was this heresy for a certain sect)?

As is Ecco’s forte, the rabbit hole goes ever deeper, all the way to madness. William and Adso explore the forbidden library, constructed as a labyrinth, tricked out with psychedelic incense and false passageways. Near the conclusion, Adso has a breakdown from exhaustion, envisioning a hellish feast where the entire cast of characters, along with Christ, the apostles, infamous bandits, even the popes commit any and all permutations of heresy. Everything sacred is violated, from communion and baptism on.

The final act of the book wraps everything up nicely (from a plot standpoint), but the open questions persist. If ideology becomes enforced with the rule of law (and punished by the sword and the stake), then everything can become heresy, punished at the whims of a capricious tyrant. If information is incomplete, is deductive reasoning useful, or does it lead to faulty conclusions? Should certain knowledge be taboo, locked away in hidden libraries, accessible only to the select few?

Ecco himself saw many of these nightmares come to pass in Italy during the 30s. Mussolini and the cult of fascism swept through the country. The intellectual elites elevated an ideology and in turn designated what (and who) was heretical. Mob rule, societal peer pressure, government backed thugs forced the common man to march in line. After Ecco died earlier last year, a phenomenal essay was republished on his experiences as a boy and thoughts on fascism’s roots.

The monks, castles and inquisitors of 700 years ago are but dust and fragments of text in lost books. But the root of that nightmare – inflexible ideologies, heretical pronouncements – are as fresh as newly transcribed parchment, the ink yet to dry.

The Dark Tower

Note: There are spoilers from The Dark Tower in this review.  Don’t continue unless you’ve read the whole series.

Recently I’ve been getting this urge to go through stuff I wrote a while back, archived files in obscure directories buried deep.  To dust them off, read them through, see if they can be salvaged.  There’s almost a mystical sensation, as though some external force triggered a memory of the work in my brain.  It’s an itch you can’t scratch, these words you made at some time, and they’re rotting somewhere in the dark, and you have to bring them to light.

The Dark Tower

There’s a scene in the Dark Tower when Stephen King encounters the characters from a novel he’s shelved.  Roland Deschain and Eddie Dean, perfect doppelgangers for Clint Eastwood and John Cusack, standing real as day, decked out in gunslinger gear.  They confront him on his laziness, his inability to focus and complete the tale.  They threaten and hypnotize him.  He promises to write, but fails.  Years later, in the book’s 1999, he pays the price for neglecting the urge – getting struck by an inebriated driver, potentially letting the thread of the universe crumble.

This is a continuation of the biggest twist from Song of Susannah – King writing himself in as a character.

For those who approach fantasy from the Tolkien worldview, where the world must be self-consistent, this feels like blasphemy.  But blending the worlds – joining the reader with the world on the other side of the door – has a pretty strong tradition in fantasy writing.  CS Lewis, The Neverending Story, Harry Potter, even Peter Pan, exhorting the audience to clap Tinkerbell back to life.

But wasn’t it narcissistic to make himself a central pillar of the book’s universe?  To write in a fictionalization of his own accident, which brought him close to death, rendering him nearly crippled and unable to write for years?

It comes back to the fact that the Dark Tower story took him thirty years to write.  In the book, he can only explain the delay from his usual prolific pace as some flavor of fear. Some part of him knew this tale had a deeper thread than the other pulp airplane novels of killer dogs and haunted hotels.  There was something more than just cheap thrills and horror.  There was a deeper existential meaning, beneath the assembled geek-culture detritus (Star Wars droids, Wild West gunmen, New York gangsters, etc).  And yet he was stuck, fearful of committing those dreams and visions to paper.  Then a van struck him on a rural road in Maine, and he looked his own death in the face.  It felt fated, Roland and Jake come from another world.  Ka.

King himself admits the tale gets off track, and it isn’t perfect.  There are weak moments, when the dramatic tension isn’t finely honed, and the tale staggers, or lacks any impression of symmetry.  The fifth and sixth books are the biggest sinners in this regard. Wolves of the Calla a regurgitation of the Seven Samurai motif from Wizard and Glass, re-imagined with Eddie and Jake and Susannah.  Song of Susannah simply moving pawns into place, time traveling to different spots in New York and Maine and engaging in minor gunfights with little at stake.

But The Dark tower, the final book, redeems the whole enterprise, and solidifies the series as one of the best fantasy heptalogies of all time.

The copy I got was a beautiful paperback from the shelves of a used book store, and entire case dedicated to King’s work, his name in that same bold white font all down the spines, the titles of the tomes in their blood red or poison green script evoking all the yummy genre horror on which he sits the throne.  And my book was a true door stopper, the size and heft of a brick, with a dozen full color illustrations scattered through the chapters, the key scenes of novel brought to an epic vision.  That was always one of the pleasures of reading fantasy pulp novels – the beautiful hyperrealist fantasy art on the cover, oil paintings in the vein of the Dutch masters, all bold colors and strong brush strokes.  The color of the earth, the texture of old stone, the horrific visages of Lovecraftian monsters once only imagined brought into some form.

And those set pieces in the Dark Tower are some of the best I’ve read in King’s work. The showdown in the New York Dixie Pig, the birth of Mordred, the raid on Algul Siento, the trek across the frozen wastes, the final showdown at the Dark Tower – moments that cry out for a movie (or HBO TV series adaptation).  And the writing itself is honed and streamlined, with just enough of the mid-world colloquialisms (do ya fine) and literary flourishes to keep a picky reader turning pages.

Near the end of the novel, there’s an artist character who can sketch intricate and detailed renderings of the world around him, and in doing so, bring them to life.  One can’t help but feel King sees himself such an artist, and this work possesses a similar sort of magic, at least for his own reality.

And he gets a little fancy with all his inter-textual references to his own writing and his inspirations.  There’s even a conversation Roland has with Susannah regarding King’s work (which they hypothesize is the root of their own reality), and King’s inspirations (the Robert Browning poem).  Which is the source?  How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go, or can you go?

King’s addiction is another deep allusion in the work.  Roland seeks the Dark Tower with an unyielding and often inhumane drive, destroying the lives of friends and innocents.  And his fate is something out of a Greek tragedy, forced to re-run the race, push the stone back up the hill, ouroboros.  Ka’s a wheel.  The only character with a truly happy ending is Susannah, who turns away from the Dark Tower, the potential for true knowledge of the universe, to live a sort of ignorant bliss in a pocket universe.  But she can see her friends, and drink hot cocoa mit schlag on a winter’s day in New York.

I started reading the Dark Tower series seven years ago.  I read roughly a book a year.  At first I was skeptical and dismissive, thinking the half hazard way King threw together a mishmash of genre elements was laziness, that he was scamming his readers.  But at the end of it all, with a long view, the whole thing has such a unique flavor that it stands alone, and stands strong.  In a way, I’ll miss the fact that the adventures of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah and Oy are done.  But in King’s reckoning, they’ll continue on for another recursive pass, possibly in another imagining (Film?  Video games?)

Or maybe years from now, a young writer, driven by the recollection of a pulp novel he picked up from the shelf of a garage sale, maybe a swig of cold beer, will lean over his keyboard and hack away, another quest for Roland.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

coma coma commala come

for now our tale is done

Time’s a Goon

I don’t keep up with mainstream literary fiction as much as I used to. But I do try to read one or two a year that has risen to the top of the zeitgeist wave. A Visit From the Goon Squad was absorbed through some form of cultural osmosis (perhaps an NPR Fresh Air interview with Egan; or rumors of an HBO spinoff series?)

A_Visit_From_the_Goon_Squad

Going in completely blind, I thought the book would be about totalitarian dictators, a heartfelt account of loss in some third world hell. Instead, the whole thing was a light, jaunty black comedy about aging and the rock music industry.

The book is composed of 13 loosely connected short stories, focusing on a cast of characters orbiting Bennie Salazar, a rock executive. The stories skip around in time and space: some are set in Africa in the 70s, California in the early 80s, New York in the modern day, even Arizona in the 2020s. We even get a short vignette of PR professional’s trip to remake the image of a dictator: dressing Gaddafi in Gucci, so to speak.

The big gimmick of the book is a chapter (written by the precocious daughter of Sasha, Bennie’s kleptomaniac assistant) composed in the form of a Power Point presentation. Instead of describing the nuanced relationships of her mother, father and brother, she illustrates them with big swooping arrows and Venn Diagrams.

The theme of the presentation is “Pauses in Rock Music”. A few theories are presented. Pauses emphasize whatever rock musicianship that is to follow; pauses give the song a sort of jolting rhythm; pauses lengthen the song as a whole; pauses are the sign of a song writer void of ideas.

A standard literary critical analysis “trope” is to map this theme onto the scope of the book. All the big plot points of Bennie and friend’s lives happen offscreen. The stories you read are essentially the pauses in between the big breaks, the platinum albums, the affairs, the divorces. Egan does this thing where we get a brief glimpse of a character (in their youth or whatever) and then jump ahead 50 years in the future, summing up the big events in their life in the span of a paragraph. This feels incredibly annoying, as though Egan is flaunting her omniscient narrator’s power with all the dexterity of a vengeful teenage god.

But it fits into the thesis that the book is deliberately breaking down the tropes of plot, and narrative character arcs. “Novel” stuff. These are the kind of gimmicks that literary critics love and latch onto (thus the Pulitzer).

But from a pure novelistic standpoint, the book feels half baked, airy, unfinished. In the scope of the short stories, we meet mildly interesting characters. But those narrators never experience any change, any big epiphanies. They’re simply disembodied voices. The thoughts that drift through their heads are usually along the lines of “how did I get so old?” or “where did my life go wrong?” Pretty clichéd stuff.

The moral vantage that Egan takes is pretty nihilistic: authenticity will die and get consumed by richer interests. People will get old and ugly. The vibrant luster of youth is a lie. Blah blah blah. And for a book about rock music, it’s strangely devoid of any energy alluding to rock and roll.

It is true that mainstream rock is pretty much dead. Even cool indie bands have their catchy songs jingle-fied to sell cars and tacos.

In the end, one of Egan’s characters says it best: “The answers were maddeningly absent – it was like trying to remember a song that you knew made you feel a certain way, without a title, artist, or even a few bars to bring it back.” That’s how the entire book feels – middlebrow rock-pop songs, half remembered, but mostly forgotten, fading into the background noise.