by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Héctor Tobar: Before The Goldfinch arrived in my mailbox, I was not among the millions of readers who’d fallen under the sway of Donna Tartt. Her previous novels, including the ultra-mega-bestselling The Secret History, were unknown to me. (I’m usually allergic to bestselling anything). Once it was in my hands, the most notable thing about The Goldfinch was its heft: At nearly 800 pages in hardcover, it’s a massive object that will come in handy if LA ever breaks into rioting again and I’m in a looting mood.
By comparison, Kiese Laymon’s “paperback original” Long Division is svelte and unassuming. Laymon’s work was also unknown to me, but that’s more understandable: Long Division is his first novel.
I approached Tartt and Laymon like a man using his remote to switch between two TV football games, reading a chapter or two of one before turning to the other. This turned out to be a somewhat disorienting experience, given the wildly different parts of America on display in these two books from two very different natives of Mississippi. With The Goldfinch I was transported inside the kind of soft-focus vision of affluent, near-affluent, and cultured Manhattan that New York publishing peddles again and again to the 98 percent of us who are not Manhattanites. Then, with Long Division, I joyfully lost myself inside an exceedingly original vision of current-day, small-town Mississippi, listening to two African-American teens exchanging erudite insults in an imagined contest of wits that’s a hybrid of poetry slam and a spelling bee.
In Long Division, a young man named City is preparing to compete in The Fifth Annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition. Crafting long, grammatically correct and viciously cutting sentences is a natural gift to City, and he can’t stop using it, even when he’s not on stage. On the schoolyard he flails sentences at his rival sentence-maker and nemesis, Lavander, who has the annoying habit of beginning his own sentences with the clause, “All things considered…”
“Look, I don’t have to consider all things to know you ain’t special because you know ‘plagiarize’ is spelled with two a’s, two i’s, and a z, not an s,” City begins in one astonishing run-on sentence and putdown of Lavander, “especially since if you train them XXL cockroaches in your locker, the ones that be the cousins of the ones chilling in prison with your old thieving-ass brother, Kwame, they could spell plagiarize with…the crumbs of a Popeye’s buttermilk biscuit, which are white buttery crumbs, that stay falling out of your halitosis-having daddy’s mouth when he tells you every morning, ‘Lavander, that boy, City, with all those wonderful waves in his hair, is everything me and your dead mama wished you and your incarcerated brother could be.’”
The writing in Long Division is a tour de force of colloquialisms and street slang put to intellectual good use. Laymon is undoubtedly a bright new voice in American fiction. But Donna Tartt ain’t no slouch either.
In the opening chapters of The Goldfinch, Tartt literally sets off an explosion to get the action going—and in the iconic Metropolitan Museum of Art, no less. Assorted other melodramatic turns follow, involving nefarious Russians, a soft-hearted furniture restorer, and various vacuous denizens of Las Vegas. But The Goldfinch is really a coming-of-age story with 13-year-old Theo Decker as its protagonist. The moment at which Theo becomes an orphan is also the moment at which his mother introduces him to the storied object of beauty around which The Goldfinch revolves: a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Carel Fabritius. The work (which exists in real life) is one the few Fabritius paintings to have survived a 1654 explosion that destroyed his studio and much of the city in which he lived.
“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” Theo’s mother tells him as they stand before the painting. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them—that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from.”
Tartt’s account of the life of Fabritius and of the adventure his painting takes up but a few pages: but all alone it makes the first 100 pages of The Goldfinch well worth the price of admission. Tartt’s novel is a celebration of the creative spirit, and of the innocence of those who seek out beauty in an otherwise crass and greedy world. Tartt is a practiced professional, and she manages to keep the story moving and the pages turning, even though The Goldfinch is one of those books that makes me wish I were a book editor: Too often its domestic scenes drift aimlessly, and Theo’s many foils verge perilously close to stereotype.
As Long Division moves forward, City’s story takes several turns that are not quite predictable, but that aren’t especially surprising either. On stage at his big, nationally televised contest, City confronts bald racism from the white people in charge: He’s asked to craft a sentence using a synonym for stingy that sounds a lot like a vile ethnic slur. Even if I used that word right, I’d lose, City protests. The humor gets broader, and Laymon’s satire loses its edge. At the same time, City’s principal has given him a book to read, and this becomes a novella within the larger novel. I found this secondary story confusing and not especially compelling, given that its cast of characters resemble the sketches of historical figures you might find in a high-school history textbook. Overall, Long Division is a wonderful debut effort from Laymon; if we’re lucky enough to get a second novel from him, he’s certain to take on the big themes of history and justice with more textured characters and scenes.
Tartt’s narrative strategy in The Goldfinch is simple but effective: She creates non-threatening worlds that are familiar to the reader, and then introduces the odd threat to this domestic tranquility: terrorists, mobsters, self-involved parents. It’s not quite my cup of tea, frankly, but she never fails to show off her mastery of the many settings into which her story wanders: a little Ukrainian slang here, a bit of Amsterdam moodiness there. And for that reason, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is my winner.
John: Long Division had my favorite first page of any novel I encountered this year. As I made my way down, I found myself cackling with increasing intensity. The character of City had me at “hello,” or in this case that opening tour-de-force sentence. I was pleased to champion the book for the Tournament because I think Kiese Laymon is a major, major talent, as evidenced in his companion release of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
The energy I got from Long Division reminded me of reading Colson Whitehead’s first novel The Intuitionist. It has an “I don’t give a shit” quality and is rooted in City’s particular version of the American experience in a way that just felt fresh and illuminating. I don’t see enough Citys in the novels that come across my radar. This is probably my fault, but I think it’s also maybe a problem with publishers not recognizing the universality of voices like his. I was also taken with some of the weirdness of the novel, like the embedded novella. Again, it reminded me of Whitehead, whose work in turn reminds me of Don DeLillo, but warmer. He doesn’t ignore the postmodern, but he doesn’t wallow in it.
But, as a reading experience, I’m with Tobar on City’s side trip. It just isn’t as compelling as the main push of the story, and the plot has a bit of an “and then” quality that I also ascribed to The Signature of All Things. City managed to carry me home more than satisfactorily, but I also felt there were maybe some missed opportunities.
Kevin: First novels often receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the literary media. I suppose this is because a person writing his first novel is more newsworthy than a person writing his fifth (even if the veteran author is more likely to have written a better book). Every debut novelist can be the new John Irving, while any author releasing her second book is just herself.
But there is also something special about a first novel. We’ll go over some of this territory again on Monday when The People in the Trees goes up against Life After Life, but a first novel contains a lifetime of aspiration and hope, as well as sentences and characters that often have been turning on a spit in the author’s head for years. There is this quality of both naiveté and invention in a first novel that can be completely charming (The Intuitionist, a book I really love, is a great example). I think back to some of the debut novels that we’ve had in past ToBs—Open City, The Art of Fielding, Then We Came to the End, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as others. There was something a little bit magical about each of them.
John: Of course, even John Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, wasn’t a John Irving novel. The World According to Garp is his fourth novel, and it wasn’t until then that we see the all the strands of his writerly DNA come together. While a lot of excitement comes with a first novel, we’ve probably swung too far its way. Of course, I say this as someone whose first novel made a very small ripple, a fact that will make it considerably tougher to publish a second novel. (This is an observation, not a complaint.)
When Long Division was paired with The Goldfinch, I sighed because I knew it was an uphill battle for the underdog, and one I’m not sure I even wanted it to win. I imagine we’re going to have some commentariat discussion about length and certain flaws in the structuring, but it’s hard not to admire Tartt’s achievement. A book feels "lived in" when an author has the luxury—if that's the right word—to write over a long period of time. While that can create problems like scenes that might go on a bit too long, its benefits far outweigh the deficits.
The length too means that the book is going to take the reader over (provided they’re put under its spell) for a significant period of time. I’m a reasonably fast reader and I took close to a month with it. I think one of the commenters in an earlier matchup noted that the design makes it actually a fair bit shorter than it could have been, in terms of page count. I agree. As the kind of reader who often carries what I’m reading around with me in my head even when I’m not reading, a big, immersive text makes the experience of a novel like The Goldfinch rare and special.
That said, I don’t think it’s a juggernaut in the Tournament. It’s a little quirky. There are nits to pick that aren’t really nits but something bigger. Still, I didn’t care. It’s one of my favorite books of the year.
Kevin: I loved The Goldfinch probably as much as any other book I read in 2013. We return time and again to Lorrie Moore’s assertion that the noblest purpose of a novel is simply to be “good company” and that’s what The Goldfinch was for me. I found the very heft of it in my hands to be comforting. As you say, it is not a perfectly faceted jewel of a book, but I could have read it for 800 more pages. I really didn’t care where it was headed, I was just always present inside it. I’m also a sucker for novels explicitly about art, and Theo’s thoroughly irrational attempt at being sole caretaker for this priceless painting was thrilling to me. I know that kind of spell is intensely personal, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to fall under it, but when I was reading The Goldfinch I felt strongly like it was a book that could win the Rooster.
Do I still feel that way? Yeah, I do, especially if it makes it to the championship and you have a jury rendering a verdict. I like its chances in a fair election. If you look at the bracket, however, some of its potential opponents in later rounds—novels like Life After Life and The Son—are probably stories that are going to appeal to the same reader. If it winds up against those books it could end up facing a series of coin tosses. And length could work against it. While I would have happily let this book go on and on, not everyone will feel that way. I couldn’t begin to make a prediction.
The Goldfinch advances to the quarterfinals, where it will meet the winner of Monday’s match in which bestselling author (and 2013 Rooster finalist) John Green will choose between Life After Life and The People in the Trees.
We also want to mention an event coming up on March 24—that’s one week from Monday. The host of the Tournament of Books, The Morning News, is throwing a Rooster party at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City. There will be special readings from past and present ToB judges, free drinks courtesy of our media partner, Tumblr, and no doubt plenty of prizes and surprises (involving hot sauce). I wish John and I could be there, but if you are a Rooster fan in the New York City area, we’d love you to come out and help us celebrate 10 years of literary bloodsport.