The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

18266071I’m not entirely sure what to think about this book. Parts I enjoyed, but mostly listening to this audiobook felt like a 32.5-hour slog. Well, slightly less than that because three-fourths of the way through I got a new phone with a different operating system and the new app let me speed up the playback. Boris’s accent sounds…interesting sped up.

Although I thought his description of existential depression was spot-on, I neither liked nor trusted Theo. There were odd inconsistencies in his story, like he has a memory of packing up the apartment, but there’s nothing in his story about going back to box everything up after the quick flight away, so where does this memory come from? And way back in the beginning, why the heck didn’t someone take this kid to a hospital right away? He talks about how he’s writing this at the intersection of fiction and truth. Is he admitting to lying? (I hope this is all vague enough not to spoil the plot, but I apologize if it’s not.)

Many times I wished I’d had a copy of the book-book to look at to see if I could clear up some of these confusing bits. Did he really skip that major detail, or did I just space out while listening to the audiobook? And I remember him saying something about how no one is going to be listening to this story “for obvious reasons,” but they’re not obvious to me because I have no idea what that means. Did he really say that or did I nod off and mix up what was happening with whatever weird dream I was falling into?

But while the book irritated me, this morning I found myself feeling a little sad that I wasn’t going to be listening to it again today and actually kind of missing some of the characters (not Theo so much, but other characters). Apparently the novel grew on me in spite of itself. And I did like the idea that sometimes bad things happen when we do the right thing and sometimes good things happen out of very bad things. So, three stars instead of the one or two I was thinking of giving it. But I’m still glad to be done with it.


Update, after two days of rumination:

(This part might be a little more spoilery in a nonspecific way. If you’re particularly sensitive to spoilers, you might want to skip it)

After doing some more online looking and discovering many other inconsistencies in Theo’s stories that other readers picked up on (and I didn’t), I’m convinced that these were intentional on Tartt’s part rather than oversights. So, knowing that Theo is intentionally a liar, I’m left with a couple of questions:

1) What’s the use of reading a story written by someone who lies?

I think that each of us constructs our own narratives about our lives, the stories that make sense of what happens to us. In this sense, we are all “liars” in that we remember things as makes sense to us and is perhaps not always as things actually happened. So, if we accept this premise, then reading Theo’s story teaches us about ourselves, both as individuals and as members of a culture that values story above fact. This does not, however, mean that this story is enjoyable to read. That gets into whether fiction’s primary purpose is to entertain, and that is another discussion.

2) Does Theo know he’s a liar or is this really how he believes things happened?

I have an aunt who tells real whoppers. Like, she insists that she was sent to the Netherlands (or maybe Switzerland) with the Navy, even though there are eyewitnesses to attest to the fact that she spent her entire military career in California. Is she actively lying or does she really believe this? Has her mind constructed memories of canals and cobblestone streets to fit this story she’s told herself? For that matter, was my high school government teacher really in the CIA as he claims he was? I always suspected that former CIA members wouldn’t identify themselves as such, but who am I to say? But it seems, when one is inside someone else’s mind as we are when we read first-person fiction, that it matters whether a person is intentionally telling a falsehood or if he really believes his own story. I really don’t know which is the case for Theo. I could see it either way, and I really don’t think it matters much to him. It’s quite possible that the reason that “for obvious reasons” no one can read his story is that he’s in some institution or prison or something and writing a personal journal that he’s not actually sharing with anyone. The story about traveling the world is just his hallucination or lie or whatever. It’s all possible because his story is so implausible anyway. What is the difference between a hallucination and a lie? I would have thought it would be that with a lie, the person knows it’s false, but I’ve come to understand that sometimes people hallucinate and are trapped in that hallucination even though they know it’s untrue, which suggests that knowing the difference between “true” and “false” does not distinguish between an hallucination and an actual memory.

Now I’ve gotten all turned around, so I’m going to abandon this line of reasoning. Regardless, I can still say that while this interpretation perhaps inspires more appreciation for what Tartt has done in this novel, it doesn’t really increase my enjoyment of it. But darned if I don’t want to go back through and read the thing again more closely, not because I think it will be enjoyable, but because I think I would read it differently with this new insight. It’s the same reason I watched Mulholland Drive three times in a row—but Mullholland Drive didn’t take 32.5 hours for each viewing.

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