“There’s A Shape To This Thing, A Larger Pattern”: Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch:

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI found The Goldfinch a decidedly odd experience: for starters, it is fairly explicitly written in the Dickensian mode (the viewpoint character is ballsy enough to read Great Expectations and tell us all about it), and one of my literary blindspots, dear reader, is good old Uncle Chuck; so this book may indeed not be For Me, and therefore my reaction to its odd mixture of farce, thriller, bildungsroman and romance should be taken with a pinch of NaCl. What Donna Tartt has written, however, will, I wager, discombobulate reviewers other than me.

The novel starts as it means to go on: within thirty pages, our narrator Theo’s beloved mother has been killed in a terrorist attack on an art museum, and a mysterious old man has, with his dying breath, instructed our hero to rescue – or steal, depending on your perspective – one of the gallery’s priceless exhibits. All this, of course, powers the rest of the novel’s plot – or it would were the narrative not so attenuated and discursive, and rather uninterested in its own increasingly hyperactive resolution.

The book’s first part begins with an epigram from Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” There is very much a sense that The Goldfinch does not take place in our world, that it is at one troubling remove from our own experiences. On the first page, we read that Amsterdam “gave
a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury”. Is this really Amsterdam? And doesn’t Fabritius’s eponymous canvas hang in a city other than New York? And why does Tartt pretend it’s such a mystery why Fabritius painted a goldfinch, when it was a well-used symbol for the soul and salvation during his lifetime?

Putting aside the softness in the novel’s philosophy that this might suggest, I’m not sure how happy I am about such inexactness in a novel which makes such a virtue of its peripatetic plot: events move from New York to Las Vegas and back again, from Istanbul to Amsterdam. Some places are captured better than others – “What do people do?” Theo asks of a Las Vegas native, receiving the accurate response, “They drive?” – but none of them really stand out. The same is true of the novel’s characters: although there are many, none move beyond their starting Cliff notes. Boris, the Russian friend of Theo’s tearaway teen self, is a bit shady and a bit impulsive; the granddaughter of that doomed old man is a bit flighty and a bit unattainable; our narrator himself is a bit reflective and a tad passive. Repeat for 800 pages.

In this context, even Tartt’s telling asides – those loquacious details which in a narrative such as this aim for richness and depth – turn out apparently irrelevant and lightweight. At one point, we learn about the narrator’s childhood cleaner, Cinzia, who, when threatened with redundancy, “cried, and offered to stay and work for free; but my mother had found her a part time job in the building, working for a couple with a baby; once a week or so, she stopped in to visit my mother for a cup of coffee, still in the smock she wore over her clothes when she cleaned.” Other than emphasising the remembered characteristics of the narrator’s improbably nice mom (a bit saintly, a bit boho), how does this additional story help any? There’s no centre around which it can orbit, no mass towards which it can gravitate.

My negativity is not the response of this book’s average reviewer. Many have called it a great achievement, and in a sense it is: the novel abides, it perseveres, it does not collapse under its own considerable weight. Its sheer array of details works to inspire in the reader something of the archivist, of the collector – and in a novel about loss, about the irretrievability of things, this is clever. (“I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle,” says the narrator’s mother moments before her death.) In this, then, The Goldfinch seems arch and deterministic, rather than flabby and random. When in its second half the book descends into a prolonged chase drama, there’s a sense that Tartt is poking fun at narrative itself, that its apparently split personality is in fact a satire of extremes held in opposition, of the false pleasures of popular authors like JK Rowling (Boris nicknames Theo ‘Potter’), but also of the sort of fractal authors Adichie refers to in Americanah as packing their novels with “with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons”. The old man’s dying words might set things in motion, but they’re not where the story is – the satisfaction is not in being barrelled along or forced into a particular pattern, but in experiencing whatever we can sift from whichever of all those extraneous details we can recall.

Towards the end of this compendious book, the narrator confesses that it is compiled from capacious notes he has made since he was thirteen. This entirely artificial note strikes exactly the right tone for Tarrt’s unlikely novel, equal parts postmodern pun and earnest explanation. “The historical significance deadens it,” the narrator says of Fabritius’s painting, and here is a novel which asks us to give up on getting from point A to point B and finding any satisfaction in the resolution; it asks us to enjoy its single moments, its grace notes and individual scenes. They don’t even make much sense when placed together, or move in any particular direction. Those fragments of the past we save are just that: moments, cast in amber.

Whether or not the novel works in this way will be down to personal taste: I didn’t feel its fusion of the nineteenth- and twenty-first-century novels did much for either form. Others will disagree, even find its layer-caking profound. Whatever your judgement, however, the novel feels rather harder to describe than the Baileys shortlist, which by and large is straightforward enough, rewarding novels already noted elsewhere. Lahiri, McBride, Tartt, Adichie and Kent have all been garlanded and promoted already. In that sense alone, part of me rather hopes that Magee wins the prize for the discipline and emotional depth of her rather less heralded effort, though it’s the slimmest and simplest of the lot.

I think, though, that on this safest of shortlists the previous winner might have an advantage, and Americanah is an important, fully-realised and well-written novel that on an aggregate basis bats off its competition with ease. McBride’s is the other novel I would be pleased to see take the prize: it may even beat the Adichie on invention and score-draws it on boldness, yet at the same time it has a warmth and energy absent in the Lahiri, Tartt and Kent. Those latter three novels in one way or another seem lumpy even where they are, in each case, in spots and often long passages rather wonderfully written. This, then, is a very strong first shortlist for the Baileys, one which rather deserves more press than it has got. Perhaps reviewers have already written enough about its six much-noted contenders; perhaps next year the Baileys should cast its net further. But, for 2014, this is a strong stable of novels, all six of which, it seems to me, have a credible chance of winning. (Compare that with this year’s Clarke award, and one can see David Hebblethwaite’s point: “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight.”)

My hemming and hawing is over: the winner is chosen shortly.

“We Are Cannon Fodder”: Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking”

Iimage‘m sitting in a coffee shop with time to spare, and writing about Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Here’s the catch: I left my copy of the novel packed neatly in one corner of Anna’s parents’ home, where we stayed last night. That’s bad news in terms of direct quotes in this piece, but it’s good news for Anna’s mom and dad, who have just scored a pretty excellent novel. Indeed, The Undertaking is written with such clarity, economy and depth that many of its scenes and passages are even now emerging from my memory. I don’t need my copy of the book; it’s in my head already.

The Undertaking begins outside of Kiev, where Peter Faber, a soldier in the German army, is getting married to Katharina Spinell, a young woman with an ambitious set of parents. The odd thing about all this is that there is no bride – or rather, the bride is hundreds of miles away in Berlin. Two priests, with synchronised pocket watches, are prompting Faber and his new wife to say their vows at the right time, but in different spaces. They have photographs of each other, Faber picked from a catalogue by a good Nazi family eager to reproduce for the glory of the Reich. Faber, meanwhile, gets leave as soon as he is wed. Russia, as we now all know, is only going to get worse.

Indeed, almost everything gets worse in this novel, as you might imagine of a novel that begins with optimistic Nazis and ends at the same moment as the war. When Faber arrives at the Spinells’ apartment in east Berlin, he receives a lecture from Katharina’s father about all the wonderful things that will happen once Germany has won the war: farming will be better, schooling will be better, marriage will be better. There is a sense already that Herr Spinell knows the Reich is a never-never land, but that he must continue to believe in it for want of any other option. His family’s benefactor, the shadowy Dr Weinart, expects and accepts nothing other than wide-eyed enthusiasm. Whilst on his conjugal furlough, Faber, too, takes part in assaults on Jewish property.

It is here that the novel finds its teeth: Faber is no Nazi, indeed when we briefly meet his father we find a resolutely free-thinking provincial schoolteacher, a man who knows hokum when he sees it. His son begins the novel in much the same mould – a reluctant soldier deeply sceptical of the war. With a wife and in-laws to protect and impress however, he quickly shifts his own ideological goalposts. At the same time, when their shell-shocked son is sent back to the Eastern Front to die – Weinart cheerleading all the way – Katharina’s mother moves away from the commitment to Nazism which sees them swap their east Berlin flat for a grand central apartment. Increasingly, Faber’s new-found enthusiasm for the war once he returns to fight at Stalingrad peels away from the narrative back in Berlin.

In this way, The Undertaking is a fascinating study in moral relativism. Magee answers that occasionally spiteful old question, “Where did all the Nazis go?”, with a simple shrug. They shifted and they changed. One of Faber’s army buddies is a Russian-speaking German of Slavic descent, whom he suspects of Communism: not only do Faber’s accusations drive the soldier to kill two Russian women in order to prove his loyalty; in the depths of the Russian winter, with the Germans surrounded by Russian forces and slowly starving, he comes to believe in deliverance by the Fuhrer more than Faber – in so grim a context, he feels he has no choice.

Ideology is plastic, in other words. When Katharina is caught in East Berlin at the end of the war, she accepts the new Stalinism of the state which provides her with bread and medicine. The only character who does not adopt this pragmatism, Katharina’s father, is a monster, failing to protest when his son is sent to die, and when his daughter is taken away by Russian soldiers. He is treated with some sympathy – he is a scared man with no choice but to bow to the powerful – but the consequence of his terrified inflexibility is a sequence of catastrophes. Faber, too, survives only by again abandoning his values and embracing the role of traitor. This venal lack of character is no more laudable than Spinell’s Nazism, of course: we end the novel with characters as bankrupt as the Reich, pulled apart by a history they did not or could not stand against.

No character avoids the horror of their comeuppance, though there is no pat moralism in the grim fates of Magee’s characters. The Undertaking is sparsely written – there is a good deal of well-captured, differentiated dialogue – but its depth of feeling is borne from precisely the discipline with which it depicts a man ruined by a mine, a woman’s slow descent into madness, or a shell-shocked soldier cowering in a hole in the ground. Magee writes with such unflinching precision that her details need no filigree or elaboration; they simply are, all the more dreadful for their lack of adornment. In this the novel possesses some of the blankness of Peter and Katharina’s moral vacuity (the Jews of Berlin or the women of Russia have no voice, and do not survive), but in inhabiting the inner life of its central characters The Undertaking somehow captures evil with memorable venom.

At the heart and in the title of the novel, however, is something rather purer: the undertaking between Peter and Katharina, which the latter keeps all the while he is gone, even when the Sixth Army is presumed entirely lost. There is, of course, no great romance in this story – but there is a sense that, in a different, less violent time, these characters might have lived better lives. This makes The Undertaking a subtle, careful book, never descending into relativism yet attempting to understand, withholding forgiveness but offering wisdom. It is not the most experimental, original or even expansive novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist. But it may be the most purely moving.

“It Makes Me Feel Dispensable”: Chimamanda Adichie’s “Americanah”

americanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel, Americanah, is vital in every sense of the word: it is full of life, teeming with a range of experience and character quite dazzling in its proliferation; it is itself a beating, pulsing thing, with supple and endlessly refreshing prose; and it feels important, the result of and response to a range of literary and extra-literary stimuli which demand – but all too often go without – this kind of elegant reply. Americanah is a book to admire, and one that we should be glad exists. Here is a wise, witty, heavily promoted novel by a woman of colour and talent that is acutely relevant, unapologetically romantic and undeniably complicated. Americanah is a good thing.

It is also baggy, potted and occasionally mean-spirited. I hesitate to point out any of that, if for no other reason than previous critiques of Adichie’s work have been of a poor and disingenuous quality. In the New Inquiry, Aaron Bady has already and with some aplomb filleted the tone of many of these agenda-peddling knee-jerks:

as she becomes a big deal, she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.

That is, Adichie has mountains enough to climb without my adding further to them. Indeed, it is in many ways churlish and tone-deaf to criticise a novel as expansive as Americanah for the imbalances in its wheeling structures. The story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two middle-class childhood friends in Nigeria who first become lovers and then emigrants – in Ifemelu’s case to the USA and in Obinze’s to Britain – Adichie’s novel struggles to square its migrant politics with its central love story. This isn’t to say that its romance is corny or unsuited to the issues of race, gender and identity which are its thematic focus; rather, it is that Ifemelu’s increasingly prominent role in America as a blogger on race – she writes the much talked-about and trenchat Racteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black – gives her part of the novel a clearer utility than Obinze’s strand of illegal immigrant poverty in London. Ifemelu dominates the novel, her voice and thorough imperfection flavouring and focusing the narrative. In this way, one half of a love story about which we are meant to care deeply – the novel’s final climactic pages deal with it, not with blogging – fades away.

This is in many ways small beer, however. I’m inclined, as always but in this case even more so, to put a lot of store by the words of Aishwarya Subramaniam: “While reading this book I mentioned on twitter that it was like being among brown friends. The book itself seems to get that, and get how comforting, and how important it can be.” In large part, this is the feeling that Americanah is most interested in evoking. It wants, like Ifemelu’s blog but without the reactionary posing, to show us Western civilisation from an angle different to that taken in most middle-brow, middle-class novels about star-crossed lovers going to university. In this, it is both more or less successful, for instance, than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a campus novel which focused on race in America from the inside. On Beauty is minutely structured, very evenly written, and at times integrates its themes more organically with its form: characters discuss race more subtly, have conversations less avowedly About It. This renders Smith’s novel a better crafted novel in most of the usual senses, but Adichie has an answer to this argument: one of Adichie’s writing friends (herself not entirely likeable, but at the same time someone with whom it is hard always to disagree) groans about the literary fetish of subtlety. “‘Nuance’ means keep people comfortable so everyone is free to think of themselves as individuals and everyone got where they are because of their achievement.”  That is, Adichie is writing a different kind of novel – and she is doing so deliberately to rub prim Western noses in it.

Ifemelu herself becomes rather prim within months of arriving in America – she dates white boys, straightens her hair – but by the time we meet her, and indeed for her around half the novel, she is sitting in an African hairdresser having her ‘do painfully braided. Ifemelu’s hair is “black-black, so thick it drank two containers of relaxer at the salon”, and for her it is a political act to allow it to grow and be dressed in ways natural to it. At the same time, however, she is disparaging of her hairdresser, a woman who says she is from ‘Africa’ rather than from a particular country and to whom Ifemelu condescends about her own Princeton fellowship: “the sort of place Aisha could only imagine, the sort of place that would never have signs that said QUICK TAX REFUND”. Indeed, Ifemelu is prickly about and defensive of her achievements, and for the reader this does not always come across well. Adichie successfully ensures, however, that we understand – indeed, share – those experiences which have led Ifemelu to adopt this stance as the best available to her. “You know it was love at first sight for both of us,” gloats her professor boyfriend. “For both of us?” Ifemelu retorts. “Is it by force? Why are you speaking for me?” If Ifemelu’s blog is at times the over-generalised victim of its own need to declaim, we understand the ways in which Ifemelu must fight for her voice.

This is Americanah‘s great project: to refocus the novel reader’s sympathies. Early on, Ifemelu disparages the novels of “youngish men … packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” It’s hard not to think of Chabon or Lethem. Likewise, and as Aishwarya also points out, when Ifemelu joins the Nigerpolitan Club – “a bunch of people who have recently moved back, some from England, but mostly from the U.S.” – we notice the nod to Taiye Selasi’s concept of the Afropolitan, a privileged set of African internationalists whose foibles Americanah seems particularly intent on highlighting. For Selasi, “Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa”; for Adichie, they are cereal bar-chewing, organic food-eating dilettantes who are no more or less suited to pulling their country up by its boot-straps than anyone else. Americanah is a romance, but it isn’t always romantic. Obinze returns to Nigeria and does not help improve it; he is instead enmeshed in the corruption Adichie suggests is endemic. America is no paradise, either, of course: as in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Nigerians in the US refer to themselves in ways different than they did before, sit with other children and laugh about things they do not necessarily understand, and limit their public pronouncements, all in a bid to fit in:

During her talks [to corporations and schols] she said: “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” In her blog she wrote: Racism should never have happened and you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.

Ifemelu was not black before she reached the US, she says; Obinze was a scion of the comfortable bourgeoisie before he was reduced to cleaning toilets in London. Americanah is not a story of culture clash, but of culture change; its trick is in seeking to do to the novel what is done to her characters, but in reverse: adapt it, change it, make it talk to and about different constituencies. “To be a child of the Third World is to be aware of the many different constituencies you have and how honesty and truth must always depend on context,” says that writer friend at one point. Like every other character in Americanah she is seen occasionally to wear feet of clay; but she is also shown occasionally to be right, and in this her emphasis on context is demonstrably important. No one person, no one country, no one form or style or mode of representation should be seen always to be the best, the most appropriate, the default. Ifemelu is sometimes awful, but she is sometimes worth emulating; Adichie’s structure is sometimes disciplined, and it is sometimes baggy. So what? That is rather the point, and I can’t imagine any other book on the Women’s Prize shortlist being this scattershot ambitious, this intermittently expansive and this imperfectly precise. It is not for nothing that another synonym for vital is necessary.

 

“She’s Nothing Like Us”: Hannah Kent’s “Burial Rites”

burial-rites-hannah-kentAt what stage did Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites muscle out Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries from the Baileys Prize’s shortlist? The Booker-winning New Zealander was present and correct in the Baileys longlist, but those final six books, it seems, had room for only one murder mystery set in a remote nineteenth-century wilderness. That this slot went to Kent’s competent novel rather than Catton’s baggily inventive effort might say something about the new Orange.

I’ve already written about two of the Baileys contenders: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, also featured on the last Booker shortlist, was a sometimes moving, sometimes lumpy, always classy family saga potboiler; Eimear McBridge’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, meanwhile, is astonishingly bold, a work both estranging and engaging which captures a voice and holds it in a unique, rarely writerly way. Kent’s entry feels to me to slip behind both these efforts, and yet it has already won several prizes and been shortlisted for many more. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Burial Rites packs a punch: it has an unerring sense of place and of atmosphere, and its Icelandic setting is convincingly, memorably rendered. It also has at its centre a potent figure: Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a woman convicted of the 1828 murder of a man named Nathan Ketilsson. She spends the entirety of the novel awaiting her execution, and it is in her voice that the novel comes so effectively alive.

Indeed, this is also the source of the novel’s greatest weakness: it is imbalanced. Agnes only narrates roughly a half of the novel; the rest of the story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator who skips between the supporting cast. Some of these characters – such as Margrét, the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess – are relatively full-blooded, capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; and others, such as Thorvadur Jónsson, the priest assigned to Agnes as her confessor, tread a relatively bloodless and predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant. There is a sense that Kent’s inexperience – this is her first novel – has led to a hedging of the bets, and Burial Rites suffers every time she steps back from Agnes’s fiery, but not entirely inviting, voice. It’s hard not to compare this caution with McBride’s courage, and find for the latter: a single, uninterrupted, compelling voice, consistently and unsparingly rendered, might have made Burial Rites more of an invigorating prospect.

On the other hand, the deep winter of Iceland freezes the action – several times there are concerned conversations about the practical implications of the weather for the date of Agnes’s execution – and there is a cold calmness to an awful lot of Burial Rites which might not have been best-served by focusing on Agnes. Here, for instance, is the convicted murderer on her personal eschatology:

You will be lost. There is no final home, there is no burial, there is only a constant suffering, a thwarted journey that takes you everywhere with offering you a way home, for there is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you, suck your life down into its black waters and churn out stars that might remember you, but if they do they will not say, they will not say, and if no one will say your name you are forgotten I am forgotten. [pg. 321]

Here, meanwhile, is the confessor, rendered by that omniscient narrator, huddling in the Icelandic terrain, his thoughts reported to us:

Hunched against the smattering of rain and wind, Tóti inwardly chastised himself. What sort of man are you if you want to run at the sigh of damaged flesh? What sort of priest will you be if you cannot withstand the appearance of suffering? It had been a particularly vivid bruise upon her chin that had disturbed him the most. A ripe, yellow colour, like a dried egg yolk. Tóti wondered at the force that might have birthed it. [pg. 49]

You’ll hopefully perceive the differences here: the relative thinness, the sudden reliance on cliché, the more measured, familiar prosody of the third-person sections. Much of these parts of the novel pass by in extended dialogues, direct speech which whilst fairly well differentiated is also – again, dictated by that rigorous attachment to environment – mean and bitten-out. Here’s Margrét in conversation with a friend about the more wayward of her two daughters: “Is Steina making up stories again?” “Only the good Lord knows. I don’t remember. Actually, I’m a bit worried about her. She smiles at Agnes.” [pg. 117]   This sort of thing does the job, but it doesn’t set pulses racing.

What it does do, however, is emphasise the centrality of Agnes: how people react to her, how she sparks questions in their minds, how the force of her charisma knocks widely accepted verities out of joint. Margrét begins the novel entirely hostile to her guest – “What sort of woman kills men?” she asks, on behalf of her entire community [p. 51]. By the end of the novel, inevitably, she is telling Agnes that, “You are not a monster” [pg. 323]. Agnes is aware what people will think when they hear her story: “They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt” [pg. 29]. Over the length of the work, however, Kent naturally paints a more complicated picture – a woman abandoned by her family, sent working as an itinerant house-servant, falling in with Ketilsson, a man who abuses her and all the women around him, and who becomes the focus of a plot by others to exact revenge upon him. Kent has protested against suggestions that she is anachronistically crafting a proto-feminist icon out of Agnes; I think she does so fairly, since Agnes has none of the agency associated with those kinds of effort – she is trapped by the system, literally her fate is sealed by it from the moment we first meet her. Nevertheless, Burial Rites is a story of understanding, an exercise in excavation: “I am a woman,” Agnes tells us, “not a book”, and Kent is engaged in imagining a life for a woman who is often simply a name on a commemorative plaque.

Thus again we come to the difficult issue of why, then, Agnes does not narrate the whole novel: in part, perhaps, so that her effect on others can be demonstrated (“how other people think of you determines who you are” [pg. 108]). In this case, however, why third-person omniscient and not several other first-persons? It is not as if the environment of Iceland could not be painted in the same way: “Autumn fell upon the valley like a gasp” [pg. 198] might be the kind of literary bon mot that pokes out of Kent’s prose a little too sharply, but it could be fashioned into Tóti’s voice just as well. I am criticising a novelist here for not writing the book I wanted to read, and in that I walk over – ho ho – thin ice. But I’m trying to indicate the way in which Burial Rites is simultaneously exciting and familiar, vivid and pedestrian. It captures the imagination, but doesn’t do a great deal with its hostage. It might be optioned as a film to star Jennifer Lawrence, but never once extends the effect of Agnes on those who surround her to its readers – by altering our conceptions of what a novel might look like. In eschewing Catton for Kent, then, the Baileys Prize has, like Burial Rites itself, played things safe.