Donna Tartt’s Unfinished Symphony

In Brightness Falls, his novel about art and commerce, Jay McInerney introduces us to reclusive novelist Victor Propp. Propp made his name with a brilliant and acclaimed debut and his fans have waited twenty years for the great man’s second novel. An shrewd and eccentric author, twitching with petty vanities and jealousies, Propp capitalises on the anticipation, and has ‘outperformed every literary salesman in the business. In 1966, Propp had received a modest advance for this second novel. After five years, Corbin, Dern became impatient for delivery, at which point Propp published a piece of the novel in Esquire and let it be known to other publishers that he was available for lunch and dinner; under threat of losing the novelist, whose cult was growing, the young Harold Stone had revised the contract and enlarged the advance. This process had been repeated periodically over the years; to date Propp had collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the unfinished masterpiece.’

I have just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s been twenty-one years since Tartt’s seminal The Secret History: twelve since her second novel The Little Friend. For a talented author, this low productivity seems odd, almost infuriating: Stephen King, who loved the new novel, told Emma Brockes that ‘Donna Tartt is an amazingly good writer. She’s dense, she’s allusive. She’s a gorgeous storyteller. But three books in 30 years? That makes me want to go to that person and grab her by the shoulders and look into her face and say, ‘Do you realise how little time you have in the scheme of things?” Others have been less impressed: Julie Myerson’s verdict in the Observer was ‘Remember the suicidally long, dope-fuelled follow-up novel that Grady Tripp is writing in Chabon’s Wonder Boys? Well, guys, here it is.’

Having just got to the end of The Goldfinch (without dropping it on my foot) I can understand both the raves and the hatchet jobs. Forget the length: people should be able to write long books if they have the nerve and skill to carry them off. Forget also the length between books. Tartt strikes me as a writer like E I Lonoff, who will happily spend an afternoon rewriting the same paragraph fifty times. What strikes you first is the presentation. For all its grandeur and allusion, The Secret History is a compulsive pulp novel. You can devour it in a day. Two decades on, Tartt is clearly taken more seriously. The Goldfinch comes with a laboured dust jacket, chapters in Roman numerals, spatterings of epigrams. It also has that compulsive quality, but in this case, you’re rushing on towards a conclusion that never in fact arrives.

The Goldfinch is both overwhelming and underwhelming. In terms of quality of prose, Tartt is magical. For all that today’s literati deride the midcentury American novelists as dead white drunk males, they still strive for the ability of Cheever and Bellow to capture the texture of life as lived – you feel that yearning in Zadie Smith’s epic novels, and in her essays, which engage without actually telling you anything. That Augie March thing – Tartt nails it. There’s not a dud or filler line in the book: every sentence is original and of the moment. One of The Secret History’s many strengths was that it was a great novel about the American class system. Tartt is a pitiless analyst of both the Yankee blueblood dynasties and the Vegas hustler lowlife, and her protagonist Theo’s adventures in both worlds throw up some delightful and hilarious suspects for Tartt’s rogues’ gallery – including a Bostonian socialite called ‘Mr. Abernathy – my dad’s age, with some ill-articulated scandal or disgrace in his past’.

There are other resonances. Too many. Theo Decker is basically a turbocharged Richard Papen: with his spiralling anxieties, his furtive opportunism, his chiselling and cutting of corners, his risky affinity for prescription drugs, his unrequited love, he is the epitome of the cliche ‘callow youth’. His best friend, manic Russian caper man Boris, is worth the hardback price alone, the Amsterdam and California scenes lush and marvellous and strange – but, bottom line, there’s no real story here. The Goldfinch is a sophisticated and beguiling electronica symphony from which no tune can be discerned. A party with all the beautiful people in which nothing much happens.

What conclusions there are, seem pat and forced. At the end of the novel, Theo laments in bildungsroman style: ‘Because – here’s the truth – life is catastrophe… For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool.’ Well, up to a point, son. Also: ‘We don’t get to choose the people we are’ – but surely we do, to some extent, at least. ‘And as much as I’d like to believe there’s truth beyond illusion,’ Theo says, ‘I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion.’ In her strange way, Donna Tartt has written an entire novel to illustrate this assertion.

(Image: Telegraph)

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