Thursday, October 23, 2014

Quotes from The Goldfinch

Fabulous graphic from the NYT:

I didn't want to post these quotes with my review (because we would then be looking at ~2,000 words), but here are my favourite passages from Donna's Tartt's The Goldfinch.

"To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I'd felt drowned and extinguished by vastness -- not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassible distances between people even when they were within arm's reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I'd been and all the places I hadn't, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea."
Weren't we, as sentient beings, put upon the earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us?
“For humans-trapped in biology-there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. Time destroyed us all soon enough. But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing-to break bonds stronger than the temporal-was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.”
“The world is much stranger than we know or can say. And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do.”
“Because--isn't it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture--? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it's a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what's right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: "Be yourself." "Follow your heart."
Only here's what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted--? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?...If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?
If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see and think and feel, you don't think, 'oh I love this painting because it's universal' 'I love this painting because it speaks to mankind'. That's not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you. An individual heart shock. . . .A really great painting is fluid enought to work its way into the mind and heart through all different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby: Him


When I first heard about the genius of an idea that is Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby, my first thought was: wow, lucrative. Indeed, Benson tells the same story of a married couple three times in three films: once from the perspective of "him," once from the perspective of "her" and once from the perspective of "them."

Him opens at the peak of Connor and Eleanor's relationship. They're about to leave a diner but neither of them can pay for the meal. So, they make a run for it - laughing, breathless and in love. We absorb all of this, of course, but there is one more thing we should keep in mind while watching this scene - Eleanor is the one who gets up from her seat and leaves first.

In The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby, we learn through snatches of conversation that the reason for Eleanor's depression is the death of her two-month-old baby. So, there are two disappearances in the film: Eleanor's and her child's. In this way, the film focuses on how we deal with the unsaid. "Why does it feel like I had to go through all of it on my own?" Eleanor asks Connor early on in the film. Indeed, Connor looks distressed at the beginning of the film (short-tempered at work, wearing black), but it is Eleanor who - bed-ridden and pale - is truly suffering.

The cast of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby is one of its greatest selling points, and for good reason. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain (especially her!!) are stellar. Ciarán Hinds is brilliant as the hesitant, counselling father, and Billy Hader is effortlessly amusing.

We quickly arrive at conclusions about the characters the first time they appear, but Benson does a wonderful job at changing the way we think about them. When we first meet Connor's father, he seems thoroughly unimpressive while sitting on the couch and battling short-term memory. The next time he reappears, however, he is all decked out in suit and tie, owner of a highly successful bar in New York. Our impression of Eleanor certainly shifts as well, as we - from Connor's perspective - spot her new hairdo and wonder, both relieved and puzzled, about her seemingly impulsive decisions. Eleanor is, without a doubt, the "star" of Connor's life. Like Connor, our whole movie-watching experience revolves around her disappearances and sudden reappearances.

Yet Him left something to be desired. At one point in the film, Alexis, the waitress at Connor's restaurant, says that it is "indecent to have things so worked out." Even so, things sort of do patch themselves together by the end of the film. For example, Connor eventually becomes the successor of his father's restaurant albeit having staunchly refused his offer many times. Even the subdued ending shot of Eleanor walking behind Connor seems too "perfect." While romantic, it lacks the depth I had expected to find in the film.

Yet one cannot judge The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby solely through the lens of Him. When Connor follows Eleanor to one of her classes, we can hear the professor in the background giving a lecture on Descarte's concept of "subject and subjectivity." Indeed, subjectivity is what Benson addresses through these three films. He presents us with one relationship yet reminds us that it is subject to three different perspectives. So, even though Him was a mild let-down, I'll still be heading to the cinemas to watch Her and Them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life."

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I needed Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch the same way I needed Steven Toltz's A Fraction of a Whole. Please give me a considerably-sized work of literature, my body had been begging for weeks, and preferably a bildungsroman.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt traces young Theo Decker's journey from childhood to adulthood. In this whirlwind of an adventure, Theo's life is turned topsy-turvy. After his mother is killed by an explosion at an art museum, from which he escapes, he sojourns at the home of his wealthy childhood friend, Andy Barbour. Then, the sudden reappearance of his alcoholic father - whom he detests - sends him to Las Vegas, where he meets his best friend for life: the reckless, fearless and foul-mouthed Russian emigrant, Boris. The death of Theo's father, however, prompts Theo to return to New York and once more into the antique-filled, homey shop of James "Hobie" Hobart, the furniture restorer who was once business partners with Welton "Welty" Blackwell. Welty is the elderly man who, in the wreckage of the museum, had given Theo not only a ring that sent him to Hobart, but also instructions that - in the eyes of 13-year-old Theo - had urged him to seize and salvage the most precious painting in the room: The Goldfinch.

No matter where Theo is, be it in the Barbours' pristine dining room or the god-forsaken Las Vegas desert, The Goldfinch is the undercurrent that anchors him to his childhood, to his beloved mother and to the lovely red-haired girl who had wandered through the museum with Welty and lives in his antique shop: Pippa. The Goldfinch, beautiful and impenetrable (as all age-old paintings are), makes Theo feel "less mortal" and "less ordinary." As he says, it "was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am. And it's there: in my notebooks, every page, even though it's not." Because of The Goldfinch, however, Theo's whole life is "balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow apart." Indeed, he lives in perpetual fear of someone discovering his well-kept secret and jailing him for art theft. Although Theo keeps the painting well hidden and is initially protected from this fate, his arrest becomes increasingly plausible when he discovers, years later in New York, that Boris had taken advantage of one of his hangovers to steal The Goldfinch and trade it in underground black markets for cash (nasty surprise).

So, page ~750 onwards is dedicated to Boris and Theo's (mostly Boris’s) hunt for the precious painting. How did Boris even end up living the gangster life? How did Theo manage to run into him in New York? Indeed, one of the most significant themes in this novel is chance. Channeling Dickens in plot twist after plot twist, Tartt creates a level of suspense that leaves readers attributing all the near-impossible yet somehow explainable happenings in the novel to the machinery of fate. The idea of ‘if’ is introduced to readers early on in the novel, as poor Theo torments himself with the ‘ifs’ that may have saved his mother—what if they had gone to eat lunch first? What if they had left the museum earlier?
Chance also strikes the reader through the other deaths in the novel: the death of Theo’s father (and the fact that he even turned up to begin with), the death of Mr. Barbour and Andy (the absolutely innocent!), the death of a gangster at the unwitting hands of Theo…
The authority of chance is also hammered into Theo as his gambling, astrology-trusting father tells him, “there’s always more to things, a hidden level.” Theo’s father, "waiting to make the big bets when Mercury was in retrograde, reaching for a knowledge just beyond the known,” had always insisted that “there’s a pattern and we’re part of it.” Yet Tartt also alludes to the cruelty of such chance in saying that you would “hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light,” if you “scratched very deep at that idea of pattern.” It does seem merciless that Theo is inevitably driven to adulthood by chance, so much that is not in his favour.

Perhaps the one silver lining in Theo’s world of arbitrariness is that chance also sends him back to The Goldfinch (albeit temporarily):
I was different, but it wasn’t. As the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.
What also strikes me about The Goldfinch is how ‘true’ it is – not that anything close to Theo’s unique adventure could ever happen in real life (ah, fiction!), but Theo’s decline into the world of booze and meth is certainly plausible and perhaps even predictable given the unmentioned, yet definite, post-traumatic stress order he battles after his mother’s death.

For instance,
“Sometimes even a bad movie or a gruesome dinner party cold trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen, desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, my mother dead on a marble floor, stop it stop it, muttering aloud to myself in elevators, in cabs, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had – more than once – driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happen to have on hand.”

The novel seems even more “realistic” because the painting itself is indeed real – not fictional – and was painted by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654. What also keeps Theo’s story grounded in modern-day life are the 21st century allusions consistent throughout the novel. For example, Boris insists on nicknaming Theo “Potter,” a reference that is so deeply familiar to me that I was often thrown off whenever anyone yelled, “Hey, Potter.” Tartt also references Lady Gaga and – I’m sure of it – Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter.
Although Boris calling Theo “Potter” was hilarious, I’ve always found that fiction loses some element of its magic when brought to the surface of “real life,” and The Goldfinch is unfortunately no exception.

Speaking of reality, The Goldfinch revolves around the theme of illusion. At the beginning of the novel, Theo’s mother suddenly has the sensation of a “time warp” as she makes her way down Park Avenue. It’s a “way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.” Similarly, Theo himself is tricked countless times throughout the novel – by the absolutely unreliable Boris, by his father who pretends to be interested in setting up a bank account for him (only to use his social security number to try and leech his savings) and by Kitsey Barbour, who – alas – cheats on him. Even the painting itself is a trompe-l'œil that creates the illusion of distance. Indeed, Theo (in one of his more pessimistic moods) considers life a nasty illusion in general:

“Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. ... But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.”
Yet Theo also experiences a sweeter kind of illusion in childhood with Pippa (whom he calls his “morphine lollipop”—so childishly tender):

“And the flavor of Pippa's kiss [on my cheek]—bittersweet and strange—stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”
Of course, it is tragic that Pippa eventually settles for the mediocre Everett while Theo is lovelessly engaged to Pippa’s polar opposite, the cool and upper class Kitsey Barbour. Here, Theo’s illusions are crushed by reality as Pippa reminds him that they, both vulnerably PTSD victims, wouldn’t be good for each other.

So, what makes The Goldfinch so irresistible? So worth staying up late and getting up early for? On the one hand, it’s most certainly the plot. Tartt teases the picture of the painting on the cover of the novel, names the novel The Goldfinch, yet hides the painting away for 7/10 of the book. Where is it, we wonder, as we maddeningly read on.
Apart from plot, there is no doubt that Tartt’s style is next in line as the most significant element that sustains your read. Fabulously long run-on sentences propel you through Theo’s story; Boris’s long-winded rambles are infectiously entertaining; Tartt’s frequent use of parenthesis (almost exorbitantly so, at the end) are your windows into Theo’s anxiety and frustration; as long as someone is speaking, which is often the case, the book refuses to be put down. Watching Tartt’s interviews, I realize that she speaks as she writes – quickly, keenly and clearly.

At times strenuous, repetitive and factually dubitable, however, The Goldfinch was not always an easy read. There are certainly passages in the novel that demand a “cut to the chase” response (especially during one of Boris’s self-indulgent rants), just as the plausibility of a great number of incidents deserves to be questioned (so much simply left to chance!). The Goldfinch is a rollercoaster ride. It’s exhilarating, but too many repetitive loops and turns do leave you feeling a bit light-headed.

Nonetheless, The Goldfinch deserves the Pulitzer because what we hear in Theo’s voice is the magic that keeps us turning the pages. We hear Theo’s longing for his mother, a childish anxiety and naivety that drive him to hide the painting, an adolescent frustration that sends him into the hallucinatory world of drug and drink, an omnipresent terror of being discovered and arrested, and a growing sense of mature understanding that emerges most profoundly at the end of the novel.

I recently read the first chapter of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which won the Pulitzer in 2005. The Goldfinch is probably its polar opposite in terms of style and pace. In the former, a pastor speaks to us throughout the novel in a slow, steady voice; in the latter, everything seems to tumble out of the pages in a magnificent storytelling way. The Luminaries (another huge novel), which won the Man Booker Prize last year, also has this effect. But regardless of whatever ‘kind’ of novel now sits on the crest of literary acclaim,
“I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
Theo does this for The Goldfinch, and I certainly hope to do it for books.

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