The Dim-Post

April 15, 2014

On what really annoyed me about ‘The Goldfinch’

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 12:07 pm

Donna Tartt’s new book won the Pulitzer Prize today. Lots of people loved this book – and if you’re into beautiful prose there is a lot to love. But the story-telling really bugged me, and the event of it winning a major literary award seemed like a good time to whine about it. (Warning: contains spoilers that spoil the entire plot).

First let me talk about great story-telling. There’s a scene I love in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s in the first third: John Travolta and Uma Thurman have just finished their date, won their dance contest and gone back to Uma’s place where they share a romantic moment. Then John Travolta goes into the bathroom.

Because we’ve all seen a thousand genre movies the audience thinks they know what’s about to happen. Travolta will come out of the bathroom and he and Uma will have sex. Travolta and Thurman will fall in love. Thurman’s boss, a vicious, jealous crime lord will find out, and the rest of the movie will be about how this drama plays itself out, presumably involving the mysterious glowing contents of the suitcase we saw at the beginning of the movie. Everything that’s happened in the movie so-far seems to have set up this narrative.

But all the audience’s expectations are completely wrong. Instead Thurman helps herself to drugs she find’s in Travolta’s jacket, overdoses and Travolta takes her to his drug-dealers house and injects her heart with adrenaline. One of the reasons this scene plays out so well is that we’re off the road-map. The viewer has no idea what’s going to happen. And all of this – the drugs, the drug dealer etc – has also been set up previously in the movie, but done so slyly that we never suspected they were plot devices.

Tartt tries to do something similar in The Goldfinch. The main character Theo has stolen a priceless painting and hidden it in a storage facility, and we assume that the book will be about him escaping the police and the other unsavory characters who want to take it off him. But two-thirds of the way through the book we find out that Theo does not, in fact, have his stolen painting hidden in a secure storage facility. It was stolen by his friend Boris years ago and went missing in a drug deal. But instead of putting all the clues out there and just letting the reader form their own false conclusions, Tartt tricks us: both of the main characters act totally against character in order to set up her big dramatic reveal. Theo tells the reader he never told anyone about the painting – turns out he did but was drunk so he forgot. Boris took the painting and can’t really explain why, in a way that made it look like it was still in Theo’s possession and can’t really explain why, and didn’t give it back when Theo left and can’t really explain why, and Theo never once actually looked at his priceless painting for eight(?) years. None of that makes any sense. And I think Tartt knows that, because she does quite a bit of hard work trying to justify, say, Theo never once looking at his painting; the plot of the book picks up quickly at that point and she introduces sinister gangsters and other interesting distractions.

(The Goldfinch also falls down awfully at the end, I think – Theo spends about eighty pages in a hotel drinking and vomiting while Boris runs around and ties up all the plot problems. But at least that’s a legitimate choice Tartt made about how to tell her story instead of a scam she runs on the reader.)

Tartt references Dostoevsky a lot in this book and all the critics praise it as ‘Dickensian’ but I think the main influence was Patricia Highsmith. Disturbed protagonist, art; forgery. Psychological thriller. But Highsmith lets her characters drive the story. Tartt’s characters seem to drink and act erratically because that lets the writer get away with plot developments that wouldn’t make sense if the characters were rational.  Aspiring writers like myself always get lectured about having our characters ‘make choices’ because that ‘defines character’. I’m not sure the main character in this Pulitzer Prize winner makes a single meaningful choice in the entire book.


  1. “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
    Donna Tartt, prologue to The Secret History.

    Comment by Joe W — April 15, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

  2. I haven’t read the book, but your comments make it sound like the kind of plot development that is typically seen in movies.

    Comment by wtl — April 15, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

  3. nd all the critics praise it as ‘Dickensian’

    I can never take this phrase seriously since the last series of The Wire – I just assume someone is making a reference to banal, sensationalist journalism when I hear it.

    Which in this case, may be oddly appropriate.

    Comment by Gregor W — April 15, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

  4. I loved it. About a millions times better than The Luminaries. What about the little dog Popper and Boris and the section set in Las Vegas?

    Comment by Maureen — April 15, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  5. Cool- now I don’t have to read it 🙂

    Comment by Robinson Stowell — April 15, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

  6. It took me a while to finish this book, and even wanted to leave it behind. Struggled but eventually I finished reading it. The character Boris I like. I will wait for the movie and see how it goes. Cheers! 😁

    Comment by sniprevs — April 15, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

  7. Why spend four paragraphs explaining the plot of a movie we’ve all seen, that’s what I want to know.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — April 15, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

  8. oh, no. You *completely* overlooked the characters’ ages. The book was about children having to make their way in the adult world *having been robbed of a childhood*. The fact that her characters were relatable-to by adults is testament to her skill. Did you read The Secret History? Gah!!!!!!

    Sorry. I hate badly-done teenagers in literature so when I come across the good ones I get really defensive of their wrtiers.

    Comment by R — April 15, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

  9. Did you read The Secret History? Gah!!!!!!

    Yeah. I really loved The Secret History. And if you think about the big reveal in that book – the motive for Bunny’s murder – it is amazingly well earned.

    And I don’t think these were very convincing teenagers. We hear about how Theo loves videogames – because Tartt has heard somewhere that these modern kids love something called videogames – but none of the characters ever use technology: email, Facebook, cellphones to keep in contact or communicate when they need to because – again – that would mess up the plot.

    Comment by danylmc — April 16, 2014 @ 8:50 am

  10. I see your point. There were also plenty of times when I wanted to slap Theo and tell him to pull himself together. Also, particularly when Donna Tartt goes into microscopic detail about the extravagant gourmet splurges in Las Vegas I couldn’t help thinking “This is NOT something a teenage boy would care about.”
    But I loved this book. The writing is straight-out awesome in places, particularly when she deals with the dark stuff. On drugs, depression, loneliness, unrequited love Tartt definitely knows what she is talking about and gets it down on the page in a way that just takes your breath away. Also Boris was just such an out-there character, starkly contrasting with Theo’s insipid and introverted wishy-washiness.
    A well deserved Pulitzer, in my eyes.

    Comment by Neil — April 18, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

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