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.