by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Roxane Gay: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees are unexpectedly similar. Both novels are sweeping in scope, covering decades of intrigue and tumult. In both novels, men are seeking something elusive, something that will, ultimately, lead to their downfall. In both books, the narrators are not terribly reliable, with each man seeing the world in ways that suit his purposes and each man giving over to some kind of vice. Despite these similarities, one of these novels succeeds grandly, while the other fails—though to be fair, it fails grandly.
Donna Tartt is, undoubtedly, a brilliant writer. She is coolly in command of her craft. As I read The Goldfinch I found myself admiring her talent as much as I loathed the experience of reading this novel. I couldn’t help but think of the judge who recently sentenced a woman to reading Malcolm Gladwell. I, too, had been sentenced.
The Goldfinch is one of those books where the writer is so passionately absorbed in her words she forgets about the reader. Tartt’s prose offers up exacting details of how Theo Decker sees the world as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man haunted by the trauma of his past. Throughout, the description is baroquely ornate. Even rain is rendered excessively, as “raindrops dancing and prickling on the sidewalks, a smashing rain that seemed to amplify all the noise on the streets.”
Tartt offers details, more details, and more details yet while completely ignoring things like explaining the museum bombing that is a catalyst for most of the novel’s intrigue. When she describes Mrs. Barbour, the matriarch of the family who takes Theo in for a time after his mother dies, Tartt writes:
Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty—a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room.
The acrobatic arrogance of this writing is nearly commendable. Here we have high definition prose—exquisitely clear, but showing us, perhaps, more than we need or want to see.
Tartt also gives over to excess when detailing Theo’s anxieties, which, particularly as he gets older, seem wildly disproportionate. It’s as if she knows that Theo’s worry over the painting he took, as a mere boy, from the museum when it was bombed is sort of strange, given the context in which it happened, so she tries to make us forget that strangeness by relentlessly amplifying Theo’s anxiety until we forget what originally caused it. And then there is the odd preoccupation with iPods, as if she is saying, “Here, I am acknowledging the modern world.” There are 17 references to the device, most of them jarring in their specificity. (I counted.)
Still, I kept reading. I wanted to see what would happen to Theo. He goes with his father from New York to the economically ravaged outskirts of Vegas, then his father dies and Theo is back in New York with Hobie, the furniture restorer and kindly man who takes him in. It becomes rather striking that there’s a way middle class white men suffer, and the way everyone else suffers. There is unrequited love and international intrigue and oh-so-much lamentation. The cast of characters is quirky and richly drawn. The plot becomes increasingly preposterous as it unfolds, but Tartt is so composed and confident you simply go along. She knows what she’s doing and she doesn’t give a damn what you think about that.
As the novel ends and we realize Theo has spent most of his life protecting something that was not in his possession, Tartt offers a line so exquisite, it manages to stand out from the overbearing prose around it: “And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I’d been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart.” To find this elegant prose amidst so much unnecessary prose is what made The Goldfinch infuriating. We are constantly reminded of how good this book could have been.
Where this novel ultimately fails is in the ending. After nearly every plot thread has been neatly resolved (or nearly so), Tartt offers up a tidy and overwrought philosophy that forces the reader from the confines of her baroque prose into a cold and lonely place. Whatever brilliance Tartt created, she very nearly destroys it with her unwillingness to simply end the novel. She writes, “And that’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velázquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick—but, step closer? It falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether.” In these few lines, Tartt manages to encapsulate what she has done with The Goldfinch: There is illusion and there are tricks and the writer has amused herself, but eventually, albeit grandly, it falls apart.
The People in the Trees is not a novel that reveals its brilliance easily. This is Yanagihara’s debut novel and there is an intriguing rawness to her novel’s composition. The premise is so convincing, so immersive, that Yanagihara wills you to love what she has done. Norton Perina’s fictional memoirs are written so adeptly that you come to believe he is a real person who has lived in the world. The novel begins with an AP article about Perina facing charges of sexual abuse, so we know something will go terribly wrong, but the wrongness is revealed subtly. Even though we know how Perina’s story will end from the beginning, we nearly forget because Yanagihara so thoroughly pulls us into his mind and his adventures and his misdeeds.
The prose is sly when we see how Perina is a man who is far too charitable in how he understands himself and how he moves through the world. He is deeply unlikable but compelling; his utter lack of self-awareness is hypnotic. In his memoirs, for example, Perina criticizes Esme Duff, a colleague he resents, for omitting details of the a’ina’ina ceremony on the island of Ivu’ivu, where young boys are sodomized by village elders. “However, I considered her omission the worst sort of intellectual hypocrisy: when documenting a culture, one cannot simply leave out details that one finds distasteful or shocking or that do not fit into the tidy narrative one has constructed.” He cannot acknowledge his own intellectual hypocrisy but is more than willing to identify that hypocrisy in others.
Observing the same village, Perina writes:
I found myself admiring the village, even its simplicity. Yes, it was a crude sort of life, but there was a cozy sense of bounty here, of everything having its place, of every need of life—food, shelter, weaponry—being well considered and provided for, of life stripped to its essence and yet comfortably fulfilled. How many societies can say this, that they have recognized all they need and have made provisions for it all?
Perina is very comfortable in his condescension, and that comfort only increases as he gets closer and closer to his great discovery. That condescension and the callous decisions he makes in pursuit of “science” ultimately lead to the downfall of the people of Ivu’ivu as well as his own downfall. What comes to pass is devastating, though he is the one who pays the smallest price.
Like Tartt, Yanagihara is baroque in her descriptions. A slab of meat is described as “a large swaying apron of red meat, extravagantly quilted with white threads of fat.” Toward the end of the novel, Perina describes an infection plaguing his recently adopted son Victor as “furrows of hot, bubbling welts, each capped with a snowy peak of pus, how they had moved across the whites of his eyes, leaving them as yellow as fat and secreting a mysterious slime that was as thick as wax.” The details are so visceral, so cinematic, that they often made my skin crawl. I wanted more, always more from this book.
What really elevates The People in the Trees is its audacity. Yanagihara exemplifies what a writer can do with imagination. She creates an entire people and establishes their customs with unwavering confidence. The geography she maps of Ivu’ivu, with the oppressive heat and wet air, the exotic fruit and unknown terrains, is utterly convincing. As Perina’s fame grows and he wins the Nobel, we can see the consequences of his success even if he cannot. There is even foreshadowing when Perina notes, “I liked to watch the children most. They were smaller than the children I had seen in America and, unexpectedly, more handsome: the features that looked odd on their parents…were charming on them, and they wore their nakedness well.” Though we don’t know quite how telling this observation is, it is easily recalled when we realize the extent of Perina’s depravity.
Perina develops a compulsion of sorts, adopting more than 40 children from Ivu’ivu. He brings them into his home even though he seems to be more enamored with the idea of fatherhood than the reality of it. The children are accessories, petty nuisances, and, we eventually learn, something much darker—something, like the island from which he took them, to be plundered for his personal satisfaction. Yanagihara brings this novel to a somewhat shocking close but she does so with tenderness. She makes it possible for me to pity Perina as much as I loathe him. That is a grand thing in a novel, allowing the reader to hold such complex feelings about something that is, at its core, quite simple and easy to condemn.
The winner of this round is, without a doubt, The People in the Trees.
John: This judgment is painful for me on a number of levels.
The first is that I took another shot at The People in the Trees, starting over from the beginning, keeping in mind the beguilement to which other readers have testified. I got kicked out of the narrative again by a disinterest/annoyance combo platter just shy of page 120. Twice now, the book has found me wanting. I just do not dig it.
The second is that it would be hard to find a working writer/editor/critic who I respect more than Roxane Gay. I’ve been recommending her as a judge for a couple of years. PANK, the journal/small press she co-edits, puts out fantastic issues and books (and even had the good taste to publish a story of mine). Her essays ranging across all aspects of our culture are sharp and thought-provoking. It was also her review of Long Division that put it on my radar. Her Twitter feed is one of my go-to spots for book recommendations, and her novel, An Untamed State, should be a contender for ToBXI.
The third is that I can’t really find anything “wrong” with her criticism of The Goldfinch. For each point, I felt like a jury foreperson presented with evidence pronouncing “guilty, guilty, guilty.”
Except that I don’t agree with any of it. Or rather, my intellectual agreement can’t override the emotional experience I had in reading the novel. That sentence of excessive description of rain struck me as delightful in context. I remember the iPod mentions, and it didn’t occur to me to count them or care, even though it does seem awfully odd once Judge Gay points them out.
The Goldfinch couldn’t manage to sustain the illusion for Gay once she got behind the curtain and found all kinds of unpleasant things. For me, Oz still reigns.
Kevin: I would have chosen the other way, as well—I’ve already proclaimed my love for The Goldfinch. At the same time, I’m kind of thrilled about this. The People in the Trees felt like an odd and surprising magical object to me from the moment I opened it. It got a little bit of review attention, but before the ToB, I didn’t know anyone else who had read it. And now I’ve seen some great discussion and admiration of it in the comments (as well as some well-articulated criticism of it) and it has knocked off not just two of the most-hyped and critically acclaimed novels of 2013, but a pair of bestselling phenomenons, back-to-back. That’s cool, man.
I felt a little stung by Judge Gay’s criticisms of The Goldfinch: When you love something, you want other people to love it, too. Still, all the things that she didn’t like about it were things that I really enjoyed. Is the book excessive? Probably, but my son never comes home on Halloween night and complains that he got an excessive amount of Reese’s.
And the ending? OK, she makes a pretty fair point about the ending, but by page 800 my peanut butter had already got in Donna Tartt’s chocolate.
On the other hand, I think her experience of the Yanagihara was exactly like mine. “What really elevates The People in the Trees is its audacity.” That’s exactly how I felt. It seemed gutsy and guileless and uncalculating. And this, too: “She makes it possible for me to pity Perina as much as I loathe him. That is a grand thing in a novel, allowing the reader to hold such complex feelings about something that is, at its core, quite simple and easy to condemn.” I am still nodding my head as I copy and paste that.
John: I think inclusion of The People in the Trees in this year’s Tournament is a kind of microcosm of the almost literal randomness that goes into a book being brought to the attention of the larger reading audience. While the novel is published by a leading literary press—I think it was even backed up by a decently large advance—it didn’t make that big a splash on its release.
But it got in the hands of the “right” reader in this case, the kind of reader who can nudge a book toward others, toward you. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it wouldn’t be in the Tournament without your bringing it to our notice. It didn’t get any love in the reader poll, and hadn’t been nominated for any big awards. And here it is marching on, possibly to a ToB title that, I have to believe, has at least some positive impact on sales. I often think of books entering the marketplace as little ships negotiating an almost impossibly dense minefield where they can be blown up by a single negative event, like a bad review in a trade publication, lack of enthusiasm in the marketing department, or just bad timing (like what happened to Alex Shakar’s novel The Savage Girl, released the week after the Sept. 11 attacks).
But some books survive, and it’s almost always thanks to individual readers taking up the cause. It’s a mystery, though. Another novel called The Corrections was also released in the week following Sept. 11, and it seemed to do pretty well for its author. I don’t want to think that publishing is necessarily capricious, it’s just that all of the available evidence seems to point that way.
That’s one of the reasons I’m proud to be associated with this effort. Our readers have testified many times in the comments already that thanks to the tourney, they’re checking out books they otherwise wouldn’t have. I just wish we had room to rescue all the orphans, but that’s not how publishing works.
All of which is to say, seriously, publishers, I’ve got some juice. Send me your books. Contact me on Twitter: @biblioracle.
Kevin: Let’s not give the title to Yanagihara just yet. When the brackets were announced, I thought this was the tougher of the two sides. The People in the Trees has already gutted a good chunk of the most formidable competition, but next up it has The Son, which has made similar short work of its opponents. Perhaps in the end the biggest benefactor of these two upsets will be Philipp Meyer.
Like you, I am proud to have been associated with the ToB. After 10 years, the Tournament of Books has had an influence on a number of other literarily minded projects, and perhaps the most notable of these is The Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. It’s a brilliant execution of the idea and the judges are always awesome, from famous chefs to celebrities. This year they had gold medalist Brian Boitano and Sports Night/West Wing/Scandal actor Josh Malina. Last year they had Bryant Gumbel and Stanley Tucci. Big Night! Oh my god, I love that movie. My wife and I once had a bunch of friends over and we watched that film while she made the timpano that they were making in the movie. That was awesome. Oh, sorry. I’m way off track here.
(Another cool thing the Piglet has is a party. You have missed theirs this year, but if you are going to be in New York City on Monday, you do not have to miss ours.)
Also, someone at a librarian conference this winter clearly did a presentation on holding a YA tournament of books at your local branch or school library because there has been an explosion of them all across the country this year. We are all for this. More, please. Yay, kids reading!
Of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except when it’s a form of trademark infringement. In the past several weeks, a number of you have asked us if we are associated with the new Rooster reading app for your phones, pads, and tabs. The answer is no, not at all. Could it be a coincidence that two reading-centric projects, one 10 years older than the other, would both call themselves “Rooster” and have as their logo a live cock inside of a circle (a ring, if you will)? Of course! Roosters go together with reading like shrimp boats and golfing.
But seriously, guys. Can you put a little disclaimer in there somewhere that explains how your obsession with the Tournament of Books is so incapacitating that the only way to stop the nightly voices and twitching was to give your app not only the same name but virtually the same logo as us, and how yet, nevertheless, we have nothing to do with it? Thanks. That would be appreciated.
On to business! It will probably surprise no one that The Goldfinch picked up enough Zombie votes to put it in the top two so far. If the Zombie Round were held today, our brain-eating rebound books would be the very two put down by The People in the Trees: The Goldfinch and Life After Life. So we say a final goodbye to Eleanor & Park. We’re all hoping you make it, you crazy kids!