by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Jane Hu: Disclosure: It’s my opinion that there is no way to hold a non-subjective book competition. This is why literary awards are fraught with political questions of taste, race, class, and gender. Spoiler alert. And so I love how the Tournament of Books introduces a different judge for each book pairing as this seemingly both mitigates and exacerbates the personal vagaries of each individual reader. Having a range of judges gives an appearance of fairness, but it is also a giant FU to the very idea that these competitions could be anything but. If none of this really means anything, however, why not just pack up our books now and go home, where we can read in private and arrive at our own conclusions in our own time?
Hahaha, I’m joking, welcome to the Zombie Round!!!!
Ever since I started following the ToB, I’ve loved the Zombie Round—it goes against everything I’ve just said. A Zombie Round invites the fantasy that the judges’ decisions here do matter, that it is possible to have misjudged a book. The Zombie introduces doubt among the living, and allows us not only to revisit, but to potentially even change, the past. The Zombie Round is hope, which is why I, irrespective of my opening paragraph, take it seriously.
(How does one kill a zombie? Shoot it in its head, not its heart.)
For this match, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has returned from the dead. I know, I know. The hugely anticipated, once-in-a-decade, galley-brag-ful Goldfinch is the underdog here. Tartt’s novel lost to Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees last week, but it’s baaaaack. Appropriately so too, for Tartt’s novel takes the possibility of resurrection and restoration as its theme. The novel is meta as all get-out, and its meta-ness layers itself around the idea of returning, again and again, to that crucial moment where things might have happened differently. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Theodore Decker, protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, loses his beloved mother in the first chapter. A bomb goes off just when they are separated in different rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Boom—the space of cultural preservation is suddenly littered with messy death. When Theo emerges from the wreckage, he leaves the museum not with his mother, but with a 17th-century eponymous painting by Carel Fabritius that becomes metonymic not just of the loss of his mother, but also of all her imaged futures. That is, the painting becomes a huge motherfucking deal to Theo.
As Tartt’s novel goes on to follow the next decade and so of Theo’s turbulent life—shuffled from caretaker to caretaker—Fabritius’s painting becomes the one consistent object of what is a rather unpredictable world. (It also functions as a centerpiece for Tartt’s rather unpredictable narrative.) Theo carries the painting with him throughout his travels, clinging to it almost desperately, as though it were a talisman or perhaps a portkey back to when his mother (who loved the painting) still lived. Even as it dawns on Theo that he has in fact committed an egregious act of art theft, what can he do but to continue to keep it close? The novel doesn’t criminalize Theo’s decision to keep The Goldfinch either. Even as Theo’s illegitimate possession of the painting comes to threaten his very life, we must also remember that the painting has, for so long, sustained Theo’s (rather tenuous) will to live.
Theo’s modes of survival don’t always make sense, and part of the pleasure of reading The Goldfinch might be our vicarious experience of what amounts to a lot of violent self-destructive behavior counterbalanced with moments of reparative tenderness and deep musings. Theo is another one of Tartt’s notorious masculine protagonists, and he contains multitudes. A specimen of profoundly reticent and repressed male sorrow, Theo’s coping methods are by no means original: sex, booze, and an array of hard drugs. Meanwhile, Tartt’s female characters leave less to be desired. Theo’s two main love interests, Pippa and Kitsy, never really emerge as more than projections or idealizations. While this is partly the point (further evidence of Theo’s self-absorption), even Kitsy’s acknowledged performance of flightiness comes pretty close to caricature. Inversely, Theo’s exploration of his own interiority, while not entirely not un-self-aware, gets recuperated as the complex core of the novel.
The Goldfinch has been compared to other bulky orphan narratives—Charles Dickens’s and Harry Potter—but one important distinguishing point about The Goldfinch is that it isn’t one of present narration or even, I’d argue, forward propulsion. In between the pages of what is an incredibly jaunty page-turner is a novel that is fundamentally conservative in structure and subject matter. Theo never gets far from the cliques of New York art dealers and tastemakers, which is partly overdetermined from the start: Theo’s mother, who used to be an art student, had really good taste. Upon her death, Theo embarks on a journey that is ultimately an attempt to get close to everything she loved. It is Are You My Mother? for grown-ups.
Insofar as The Goldfinch is Dickensian (and for what it’s worth, I don’t really think it is all that much), it might lie in Tartt’s unabashed faith in melodrama. I love that The Goldfinch does not flinch from sentimentality; nor does it seem to suggest that the label is, in 2013, even necessarily bad. Respect. Tartt’s gendering of melodrama and pathos, however, is where the resemblances start to come apart. Some of Dickens’s most moving characters weren’t naughty boys, but orphaned girls.
James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is as irreverent as Tartt is sincere. I’m not sure what the two books would do if they met on the street, but reading them alongside one another, it became quickly clear that they weren’t really speaking the same language. In a way, this makes it both easy and difficult to judge them. Aside from both referencing a bird in their title, both being orphan narratives, and both being retrospective narrations, there remain few congruences.
The Good Lord Bird is a historical novel that retells abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to raid Harper’s Ferry in 1859. (No spoilers here: The raid was a failure, people died, Brown was imprisoned, tried, and then hanged. But what came shortly afterward was the Civil War!) John Brown might be the ostensible protagonist of The Good Lord Bird, but we encounter him through Henry Shackleford, a mixed-raced boy who Brown “rescues” after accidentally killing his father in a bar raid. As with historical novels, what often counts more than plot is character, and McBride has generated one of the most delightful narrative voices I’ve yet to encounter in young Henry. Brown quickly renames him “Little Onion” after Henry, in a moment of panic and confusion, eats what turns out to be Brown’s good-luck charm: a rotten onion. Emphatic that Onion is now his new good-luck charm, Brown insists on bringing him—that is, her, for Brown also mistakes Henry’s gender—along for the ride. Consequently, Henry Shackleford is in drag for most of The Good Lord Bird. Like much of McBride’s novel, this scene of misidentification and borderline appropriation (John Brown literally makes a young black boy his lucky charm??) is told with great humor and levity, but the underlying tragedy of the situation never feels far from all the effervescent surface of McBride’s playful language. Whereas Tartt lays out pathos in unshrinking generosity, the more melancholy moments of McBride’s novel appear between what is largely a rollicking picaresque. The Good Lord Bird is shot through with moments of startling clarity from Onion that are all the more devastating due to his quiet acceptance of the absurd world as such:
Some things in this world just ain’t meant to be, not in the times we want ‘em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that’s to come. There’s a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that’s a heavy load to bear.
In a way, McBride rejects grandiose language as a way to downplay rhetoric itself. And while the novel does not come down firmly on one side, there is a sense that its repudiation of rhetoric is a way of acknowledging John Brown, whose integrity lies in the ability to say something and then actually act upon it. In The Good Lord Bird, our words matter. As Brown tells Onion in a moment that winks back at W.E.B. Du Bois: “Talk, talk, talk. That’s all they do. The Negro has heard talk for two hundred years.” When we meet Frederick Douglass, McBride takes pains to ridicule the “speeching parlor man.” In one particularly sacrilegious scene, we see a boozed-up Douglass turn from putting the moves on Onion to talk talk talk:
The more stupefied he got, the more he forgot about the hanky-panky he had in mind and instead germinated on what he knowed—orating. First he orated on the plight of the Negro. He just about wore the Negro out. When he was done orating on them, he orated about the fowl, the fishes, the poultry, the white man, the red man, the aunties, uncles, cousins, the second cousins, his cousin Clementine, the bees, the flies, and by the time he worked down to the ants, the butterflies, and the crickets, he was stone-cold, sloppy, clouded-up, sweet-blind drunk, whereas yours truly was simply buzzing.
Indeed, The Good Lord Bird might be the first and last time we see Douglass represented primarily as a lecherous pedophile who gets black-out drunk.
Despite such sacrilegious treatment of its historical characters, The Good Lord Bird is nonetheless fervently indebted to what we might think of its literary past. McBride’s acknowledgment of the narratives underpinning his contemporary (and novelistic!) retelling of John Brown’s legacy is manifested more often through form rather than plot. Even as McBride pokes fun at Douglass’s speeches, many of Onion’s thoughts nod to an oratory, list-like rhetoric. Irving Washington’s and Herman Melville’s “found document” introductions reappear in the preface of The Good Lord Bird. And even as the novel maintains a generally light and satirical register, McBride’s chapter endings are almost always framed as moments of retrospective observation: “The Old Man never saw him again” or “You get stretched out wrong to ruination, and that would cost me down the road.” (Huck Finn’s closing “I can’t stand it. I been there before,” anyone?) Above all, McBride’s style mashes the high with the low, the comedic with the sentimental. Comedy in The Good Lord Bird often emerges from failed communication, but we know well by now that this is often the same cause of regrettable tragedy. At one point, Onion goes to visit the lower-ranked slaves outside in the “slave pen.” One of them approaches him and says, “Every nigger got the same job. Their job is to tell a story the white man likes. What’s your story?” To which Onion responds, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course, McBride’s novel is Onion’s story. I think you’ll like it.
I’m shooting the Zombie in the head. I went for the heart first, but I just couldn’t find it.
John: Judge Hu’s judgement reminded me that I should’ve hated The Goldfinch.
In a couple of past Tournaments I’ve gone on record professing my anti-New York novel bias. Once I went so far as to declare that I’d rather read a novel about foot fungus than Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which was billed as a “novel about Manhattan intellectuals searching for validation and love.”
This is the same reason I did not read the ToB-longlisted The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. despite its fine notices and a couple of specific recommendations from trusted friends and advisors. Even though it purportedly skewers some of the pretensions of the Brooklyn literary hipster, I’m so uninterested in the species that I couldn’t imagine reading even a satire of the scene.
My anti-New York novel stance is, of course, rooted in my own provincialism. I hail from flyover country and have lived south of the Mason-Dixon for over a decade. It’s hard to not let a little resentment of the East Coast establishment seep in from time to time. That MFA vs NYC essay collection is fine and dandy, but forgets that the reality isn’t MFA versus NYC, but MFA versus NYC versus Every Other Fucking Person on the Planet.
Nonetheless, The Goldfinch got me good. For sure, the novel breaks out of NYC for its Las Vegas and European jaunts, but Theo, despite his mother’s late-life money troubles, is a child of privilege through and through. I should not give a crap about what happens to him or the people around him, I really shouldn’t care about the fate of that little painting, and I definitely shouldn’t care about the little bird with the little chain around its leg in that little painting, but I did.
Maybe it’s because Tartt is a southerner and that perspective colors the picture in ways my subconscious finds pleasing. One of my favorite novels, period, is a New York novel: a little something called The Great Gatsby. Of course, it’s written by and from the point of view of a midwesterner.
Still, if faced with the same choice as Judge Hu, I would’ve gone the same way. The Good Lord Bird is fully in my personal wheelhouse. The adventure tale, the humor, and Henry’s storytelling voice are a collective “yes” echoing around my brain.
Kevin: Yeah, I really can’t argue with it. The Good Lord Bird is terrific. Both it and The Goldfinch were in my top five reads of the year. And although The Goldfinch hit me in just the right spot (the right book and the right person at the right time, I guess) I’m not really surprised when people tell me they didn’t like it. I don’t feel like I have to convince the world of its greatness.
As for the “New York novel,” it’s symptomatic of the real problem, to my mind, which is that too many young people move to New York to become writers. New York is a company town when it comes to publishing, and there are a lot of reasons it might be good for a writer to live there. It’s just that writing isn’t necessarily one of them. New York is one of the most exciting places on the planet, but a disproportionate number of young novelists are all having more or less the same experiences there. And so I often have the same feeling as you when I pick up another (especially first) novel in which the main character is a young aspiring writer who moves to New York and has difficulty falling in love while trying to get his manuscript published. You can only read so many books about a kid who wants a tour of the chocolate factory. The Goldfinch isn’t that.
By the way, Scott McClanahan resurfaced over the weekend to add further comments to the other comments he’s made in reference to his original Facebook comments in the form of an interview with Ivyland author (and former ToB competitor) Miles Klee. McClanahan spoke to Klee over his Doctor Who superphone from the year 1998, where people are still surprised that newspapers have blogs and report on things that happen on the internet. I’m quite glad that McClanahan found a way to get some extra ink out of his ToB appearance (and the Rooster got some bonus attention, too, for which we’re grateful). I hope it means more people read Hill William. It deserves to be read. As for his now infamous contempt for adult women whose children are modestly fútbol proficient, he says: “I only want to apologize to soccer, not moms. I could have said dentists, or chiropractors, and it would have meant the same thing.”
So that makes sense now.
Still, McClanahan didn’t move to New York, and I think his fiction is better for it.
John: Indeed. And it’s hard to begrudge writers operating on the outside of the machinery making use of the tools at hand to draw attention to their work.
Coincidentally, Jason Diamond from Flavorwire declared that the “middle of the country” is the future of literature. He means it as a corrective to the phenomenon we’re talking about, that anything literature-related happening outside that company town is an anomaly or a flash in the pan. I always sound defensive about this stuff (and, as a writer bound and determined to work from outside NYC, it’s a form of special pleading for my own cause to boot) but it’s nice to hear from Diamond that I’m not so alone.
Kevin: The Good Lord Bird takes the first slot in the final match. Tomorrow, Jeff Martin will decide whether Life After Life or The People in the Trees will meet it on the championship pitch.