January 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
I don’t have goals or resolutions, which probably explains a lot about my life, but I do have an idea of what I want to do more of in 2017, and part of that is more writing here and less opinions on Twitter. So far I’ve managed to stay off Twitter but I can’t get back into the rhythm of blogging, for some reason. But we’ll see how it goes. I’ve been very bad about updating the blog with reviews and writings I’ve done elsewhere, and for the last year or so I’ve done a lot of reviews but I haven’t really highlighted it here. I’ll try to get back on track with that, just because I do spend a lot of time working on the reviews, and even if the world is ending I still like engaging with the thoughts and ideas of another mind that one can encounter in books. So here’s an excerpt of a review of Virginie Despentes’s Bye Bye Blondie which you can read in full at Full Stop:
Virginie Despentes’ 2010 feminist polemic, King Kong Theory, was a bit like drinking a bitter, black potion steeped in rage and fury concocted by a kind but brutally frank fairy witchmother. “I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones: the old hags, the dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckables, the neurotics, the psychos, for all those girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick,” Despentes wrote, delivering a manifesto for women who felt alienated and cast-out from the rhetoric of liberal feminism and its framing of gender equality via the spectacle of consumer and celebrity culture. The female protagonist in Despentes’ most recent novel to be translated into English, Bye Bye Blondie, is also one of the girls who don’t get a look in the universal market of the consumable chick. Gloria is getting older and angrier, and the novel is a narrative of that rage and its specificity rooted in Gloria’s position as a working-class woman in France. Published by The Feminist Press and translated from French by Siân Reynolds, Bye Bye Blondie is a blistering account of a woman’s attempt to exist as a person in a capitalist, spectacle-driven, misogynist society while also trying to honor her love for a man and the deep connection she shares with him. Like Chris Kraus in I Love Dick, in this book Despentes too seems to have set out to solve the problem of heterosexuality.
May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
Empty happiness. I spent the day reading poems. Trying to learn the technique, in a miserly and premeditated manner. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic to think of children, for whom every action is play. For me, to read poems is work, a great effort. To manage to focus my attention on other people’s words and feelings is a battle against myself. I made two poems. And yesterday another two. I think I won’t ever be able to make a novel, because I’ve nothing to tell in many pages, and even if I had something to tell, but no, I’ve nothing to tell.
Translated excerpt from Alejandra Pizarnik’s diaries in Music & Literature no. 6 (trans. Cecilia Rossi)
April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I managed to get an ARC of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice and thought I’d review it for a local paper. It seems like fun, I thought. It would be nice to review a “light” book for a change, I thought. I don’t know much about Sittenfeld; I do remember reading Prep in a haze while living at Winnipeg, because going from Malaysia to Canada there was not a day that went by when I didn’t marvel at the existence of this grand thing called a library and so I tried to read every book available, and Prep was one of them. It was ok, I guess? Entertaining? I can’t remember much. But I decided to give this a go because how bad can a retelling of Pride and Prejudice be? Additionally, I was curious. Why update what was already very good? “The Austen Project” intrigued me. Who are the writers who willingly offered themselves up to be compared to Austen? Why? Fascinating.
The problem so far is that I’m only about 1/4 of a way through Eligible and I’m bored out of my mind. But I must slog on, because I promised to write a review and this one actually pays (quite well, in fact). It’s not that Sittenfeld is a terrible writer, but that’s a whole other story. She can … write. I’m sure of it. I think. It’s just that this whole world I’m supposed to willingly enter into for pages and pages on end is so devoid of enchantment — everything and everyone is so petty, crude, tedious, and dull-witted, even Mr. Bennet and Liz, whose verbal sparring or conversations are meant to energising. In this update, it’s as limp as an afternoon in KL during the heat wave.
The story of Pride and Prejudice has been updated, so to speak, and so now Liz Bennet is a liberal feminist who writes for a magazine called Mascara and tries to lean in but is hampered by both a not-quite-going-anywhere writing career and love life. So far, so tedious. Jane is now a yoga instructor in New York, which … I mean, I could never really warm to Jane (could any of us warm to such a paragon of virtue, to begin with?) in the original, but in this book she’s just a walking, talking, jogging robot. And when Sittenfeld describes the WASPy Bennets’ decaying Tudor mansion thus, from Liz’s POV — “her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could no longer see, touch or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible” — I flinched. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited?
Charlotte Lucas too, has been updated to become nice but fat. Mary, with whom I’ve always had a problem, or rather, I’ve always had a problem with Austen’s gaze when it comes to Mary — so judgmental and, dare I say it, bitchy — fares no better, unsurprisingly. When I read P&P, I try not to think about Mary too much so I could revel in Austen’s sparkling prose, etc., but Sittenfeld’s update has led me to consider if it was a conscious attempt to highlight Austen’s latent uncharitable and mean-spirited perspective, which was at its most obvious when directed at a poor young lady who possessed neither socially-approved looks nor charm. In Sittenfeld’s update, Liz thoughts about Mary are painful: “Mary was proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant”. Was Austen ever this small-minded and mean-spirited? Maybe … yes? She could be?
When I read Austen, especially of late, I’m under no illusions about Austen’s disdain for and simultaneous acquiescence to the bourgeois values of her time. She both mocks it and strives to reach it; or rather, her characters do. Poor Mary; she was noted for being both unattractive and lacking in charm both in looks and in personality, and then dispensed with. Who cares what happens to Mary? I’ve always wondered. In the 21st-century, Mary suffers even more so in a society where social interactions are mediated by images. As does Charlotte Lucas, who for all intents and purposes in this update is not hampered by an inability to support herself independently — in this update she seems like a perfectly decent and functional person, but is fat, and therefore alone. (Until she “settles”, presumably, like the original Charlotte.)
I’ve never resolved the problem of Charlotte and Mary and I do wonder if Eligible’s obtuse characters and inane conversations and utterly horrifying, shallow perspectives on love and marriage and a person’s worth are so bleak not only because it reveals the crass emptiness at the core of the bourgeoisie and upper classes in the times we live in, but also because it reveals something fundamentally — nasty? — about Austen’s conception of femininity and female worth. As a “fan” of Austen, this leaves me more than a little disturbed.
But anyway. There’s still MANY MORE PAGES TO GO before I sleep. I might have a different view by the end of it, and back to loving Austen without having to think too much about it.
September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Not quite sure how or why I can’t seem to get back to blogging in the way I used to. I don’t think this matters at all to anyone except me but for people who still read this blog, thank you. I wish I could offer something more other than recycled or half-baked thoughts.
But in keeping with tradition I’m still putting up reviews from Pop Matters that I keep forgetting to put up sooner. This one is almost … a year old. Almost. This is on Ronald Frame’s Havisham, not quite a retelling of Charles Dickens as it is the story of Miss Havisham, or how Miss Havisham came to be Miss Havisham. I haven’t really thought about this book constantly since reading it but almost a year later I do remember the poignancy of it, the immeasurable sadness of a single woman’s life. Right now I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me and it also features sad women who are alone and it some ways reminds of Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque. I’m tired of this specific female form of sadness — not because sad women are tiresome but because the story of the sad woman is all too familiar — but I keep gravitating towards books and films that seem to want to live within this sadness, probably because I sense it all around me in life as well.
A wealthy old spinster who lives in a crumbling mansion named Satis House, jilted at the altar and still wearing her wedding dress, hell bent on revenge on all men. When Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations meets Miss Havisham, she has an entire reputation to live up to. The village gossip has made her larger than life; a witch of outsized proportions who is not just mad, but mad in a particularly female way.
All we know of Miss Havisham we see through Pip’s eyes—what hangs over her is the spectre of soured sexuality, ruined before its prime. No self-respecting nubile young girl would want to be her. Heterosexual manly-men, who should like their women soft, yielding, and accommodating, must run from her or gawk from afar. Dickens, being Dickens, was able to write a brutal yet tender representation of a scorned, damaged woman that seemed like both of an indictment of the patriarchal culture that made her that way while simultaneously indulging in the misogyny that sees her as aberrant, even abject.
Miss Havishams abound in a heterosexist culture. In our present lives, however, we might be hard-pressed to find a woman who stops all the clocks because she’s been hurt in love and betrayed by the man she trusted completely. Modern-day Miss Havishams would be given a stern talking to on television by Dr. Phil, encouraged to hit the gym again, work on their self-confidence, enjoy the finer things in life that their wealth is able to buy them, “lean in” and hang on to a career ladder—any ladder—for dear life. Dickens’s Miss Havisham kept her wedding feast rotting with maggots for all to see, wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life, and never let the sunlight in. In modern parlance, she “let herself go”, leaned so far back she disappeared from the public eye.
The madwoman, whether in the attic or the ancestral house, is always a spectacle. I find Miss Havisham to be a troubling enigma. I wanted to know more about her, but Dickens was content to let her manipulate her adoptive daughter Estella’s charms in order wreak havoc on men’s lives, but there is a price to pay for even that. Vengeful women find that anger is no way out, eventually.
The world finds a way to put Miss Havisham in place, and the same goes for Estella—who, trained to be a potent weapon against male power, finally finds herself susceptible to the charms of an abusive asshole and marries him. Scottish writer Ronald Frame, in Havisham, traces Miss Havisham’s back story in an elegant, stylised novel that gives us more of Catherine Havisham without giving us too much. The result is odd and alluring, imperfect and unforgettable.
Havisham takes us from Catherine Havisham’s younger days, just after her mother’s day, and her strange and silent upbringing in a brewer’s house. Her father secretly remarries the family cook, and Catherine learns of this marriage through a pared-down dialogue between father and daughter that occurs after this second wife dies. She also learns about her half-brother, Arthur, who will grow up to be a layabout who schemes with Charles Compeyson, the man Catherine loves and is about to marry, until Compeyson swindles her out of some money and leaves her stranded at the altar.
Catherine’s first love isn’t Compeyson, however, but her first (and only) female friend named Sally—who, being the daughter of an employee at the brewery, is below her in station. Frame’s careful drawing out of their young friendship hits a tender note with an undertone of menace, befitting a female friendship where one woman has all the power because of money and social position and the other does not. They play games with each other, games tinged with this imbalance; when Catherine playfully holds Sally’s wrists down and teases her, she thinks of Sally as “my captive”, prefiguring her future treatment of Estella.
Throughout Catherine’s growth, Frame presents a woman who is well-aware of her worth in terms of class position. He doesn’t sentimentalise Catherine by trying to make her insipidly likeable, or worse, cute. The Catherine of Havisham is proud and arrogant, and constantly thinking about the ways in which she must live up to it. She’s also sharp and intelligent and preternaturally self-aware:
But I’m not a face, or a body. I’m a Havisham. My appearance is wrapped around with an aura of wealth (provincial, not metropolitan; but money is money) and high living (vulgar rather than sophisticated; but time, between one generation and the next, is the best civiliser).
I don’t need to be a beauty. Yet no one, except some person ignorant of my name, would consider me less than handsome.
Perhaps this is why, when she’s older, Catherine would assume that bestowing Estella with the wealth of Havisham money, and its attendant name, would work together with Estella’s beauty to produce the perfect female weapon: one who would not be in need of a man or desperate for one, but one who would use them and discard them. The heart, however, continues to beat—and wants what it does not want.
Or does it? Frame is astute in depicting a Catherine who snubs the attention of a young male acquaintance who lacks not intelligence or virtue, only physical charms, in favour of the brighter, strong-jawed, more conventionally-handsome son of Lady Chadwyck, whose family estate Catherine resides in for a period of time in order to acquire an education of aristocratic manners and polish. That Catherine is susceptible to male beauty and wants the best for herself sets her apart from other girls who are trained to know their place, but much of it has to do—as Catherine has already told us—with her name and aura of wealth (“money is money”). She wants the best because her class position allows her to imagine she can have it.
When Compeyson arrives at the scene, the reader is already aware that Catherine is ripe for the plucking because she is susceptible—she craves attention and beauty, and all her intelligence and self-knowledge can’t protect her from herself. What’s also particularly jarring is how alone Catherine really is in the world; both her gender and her class position prevents her from being able to know others well, and the one friend whom she thought was true, Sally, turns out to have had other thoughts about the friendship. Frame neither indicts nor supports Catherine or Sally; one feels for Catherine, certainly, but one also feels for Sally—who wants to be a friend to a woman who is rich enough to keep you captive?
This aloneness, Frame suggests, is dangerous. We only know who we are when amongst others.
The tone of Frame’s writing recalls Jean Rhys’s in Wide Sargasso Sea, if more minimalist; both novels eschew the straightforward realism of the original novels in order to capture more vividly the psychic landscape and subsequent breakdown of its central characters. It works, for the most part, but the towards the last quarter of the book, when the timespan of Havisham merges with that of Great Expectations, Catherine starts becoming a caricature of herself.
At this point, having loved and lost and inherited her father’s brewery business, she does not morph into the kick-ass independent woman of liberal feminist dreams but wills herself into becoming a ghost. “Again and again I replayed my life, on a long continuum of time, where my future was nothing other than the past”, she says, after having asserted herself in front of our eyes: “Look at me, in my train and veil. Tell me what magic you see. This is awful damage that men do”.
Indeed, they do awful damage, but I’m also distressed about a retelling of Miss Havisham that only leaves her where she began—at the behest of men, be it powerful patriarchs or deceptive seducers. Perhaps there is no other outcome for Catherine, trapped as she is between one man’s desire and the next, between her father’s desire that she should be a proper young lady, and a potential husband’s desire for her name and money, and now, some might say, by a male novelist’s desire to tell her story. When Dickens wants you to think that Miss Havisham was a desperate, sad manipulator who was adept at pulling the strings of young people, trampling over the buds of young love like the loveless spinster everyone thinks she is, Frame shows us that she was not only acutely aware of Pip’s desire for her beloved Estella, but sensitive to it, slowly coming to regret and agonise over her actions.
What does it mean that a rich woman like Miss Havisham, used and abused by a man, enacts her revenge on a young boy from an impoverished background? What to make of these people, rich older women who think they can engineer whole lives—who ask, “Who am I to be kind?”—and bright-eyed young men, good-intentioned or not, who think female beauty is theirs for the taking?
Frame’s novel is an elegy for Miss Havisham and Estella, and also Pip, in a way, and it leaves us with no clear resolution. It shows us the implications of both the class and gender war: ruined lives and so many deferred dreams, circulating among the living as dread, guilt, and regret. Perhaps Catherine—Miss Havisham, in the end—was trying to do it right: when you’ve known love, even if it has killed you, it is still a thing worth commemorating. That’s the tragedy of Havisham; that the awful damage that men do is bound up with the love that women feel, and with every new (retold) story, you wonder if this is always to be a woman’s undoing.
June 24, 2014 § 53 Comments
Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).
Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.
Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.
To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.
Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.
A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—
Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.
Not everything, as it turns out.
I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:
In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.
I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.
Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?
We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:
There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.
What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.
June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
This is my review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for Pop Matters. I’m still steadily trying to post reviews up here and so this one is also several months old. Yes, we’re still in 2013. Today in my Twitter feed, Sridala linked to an article about the atrocious racial politics in the book, and I was so glad to read it, and so glad that this piece exists. Joy Castro, who wrote the article, makes some pertinent points. This was something that I picked up on while reading it — it’s hard not to — but was familiar enough with Tartt’s previous two books to know that she only cared about moneyed, slightly disgraced WASPs. That’s her Thing. By the time I got around to writing the review for The Goldfinch I was so tired. So tired of noticing and caring too much about how white people write about, and thus write off, people of colour in their highly-praised bestsellers. But Castro makes an important point about the depiction of racialised others in the book that fits in with the theme of the book at large: that of Art and Beauty and Great Literature. No room for anyone less-than-white (and rich, rich rich rich!) in that world. Castro emphasises how the working class non-white others in this book are willing to put themselves in service of these Great White People Living Their Fascinating Lives; willing to put their own (mediocre and unimportant, presumably) lives on hold so that whiteness can flourish. The labour of black and brown bodies for white ones is a story that must be told that way, as one of great willingness and good cheer. This view of the world is of a piece with the rest of the book. If great art must circulate (and this book does nothing in terms of deconstructing what great art is, how it’s made, or what it does), it must always return to white “culture”. For my part, by the time I got to the phrase “dead-eyed ethnic families”, I was ready to stab Tartt in the face with an expensive, beautiful, authentic fountain pen.
I read Donna Tartt’s impressive first novel, The Secret History, at an impressionable age and in a stage of my life I will politely refer to as Colonised Mind v. 1.0. Having grown up middle-class and Tamil in Malaysia—title of my forthcoming memoir, hahaha!—and fed Austen, Dickens, Christie (Agatha) and Blyton (Enid) throughout a very protected childhood, I was very susceptible to romantic Life of the Mind-type ideas and proclivities.
Besides, I had a tattered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that followed me everywhere. I—like about a zillion other young kids who came to learn about Greek mythology by way of Anglo-European classicists—loved Greek myth. Who doesn’t? Myths are great. Why would you not like stories? Stories are great.
So when I found a tattered copy of The Secret History in a used bookstore, an Ivy Books trade paperback with a lurid cover image comprising a mishmash of an imposing New England colonial building, a Doric column and a single stem rose, with various phrases like “Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured,” “a terrifying secret that bound them to one another”, “an incident in the woods in the dead of the night”, “an ancient rite that was brought to brutal life”, and “gruesome death” strewn across the back cover copy, it worked like a charm. I bought it, devoured it, and read it over and over again, before I even knew that Tartt was “a sensation” in that faraway place called the literary world.
This makes The Secret History sound almost flimsy, even silly, but it’s not. Despite its premise, Tartt is a writer who plays with excesses and extremes in the most delicate way. You don’t read Tartt for pared-down elegance, although there are moments when she does this, too. You read Tartt like you would watch Pretty Little Liars: for the unalloyed pleasure of surrendering to a familiar story that is, at turns, also new and menacing.
Tartt’s third and most recent novel, The Goldfinch, was hugely anticipated among industry types and fans because she’s only written three so far; ten years separated the publication of her second novel, The Little Friend, from her debut, and 11 years separates The Goldfinch from her second. I still pull The Secret History from the shelves every so often, skipping the parts that bore me, and going over the passages where the Greek scholars who so fascinated the novel’s protagonist, Richard Papen, are at their most knowing and obnoxious.
Now older, wiser and bitter, I’m tempted to throw copies of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena at their heads, then set off on a long lecture about the appropriation of Greek knowledge and thought by Eurocentric thinkers and writers. Still, the story remains tantalising. And, as reductive as this might probably sound, this is what Tartt does very well. She tells a good story.
The Goldfinch can be said to be an anti-bildungsroman, in that it traces the life of one Theo Decker from about 13years of age, where he survives a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that kills his mother, until his late 20s, where he reflects on this life while telling his story. It’s an anti-bildungsroman because Theo, much like Richard in The Secret History and Harriet Dufresnes in The Little Friend, has his head firmly turned back to the past, to that point in time where a singular event changed his life.
This isn’t a straightforward novel of growth and progression as it is a novel of regret, and for much of the book, Theo exists in a state of anguished perpetual adolescence. He’s always that 13-year-old boy on that fateful day at the Met.
The premise of the novel hinges on Theo’s possession of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch” following the museum bombing. When Theo and his mother first arrive at the Met, Theo is drawn to a young girl with red hair and her elderly male companion, and after the blast, Theo finds himself in the same space with the dying old man, and in a distinctly hazy, dream-like encounter, this man gives Theo a ring and encourages him to leave the museum with the painting.
Later, after learning about his mother’s death from a pair of social workers—his father having long since disappeared from their lives—and after having narrowly escaped a life in care by moving in with his friend Andy Barbour’s family, the ring will lead Theo to the old man’s business and home, an antique shop in the West End, and into the orbit of the lives of the man’s business partner and Theo’s future mentor and guardian and father-figure of sorts, Hobie, and the man’s young niece, Pippa, the redhead of the museum encounter. The painting stays with Theo until, of course, it doesn’t, which is a sort of plot progression the reader would have seen coming from the start.
Throughout the book we meet a cast of characters that includes the family members of the Barbour household, as well as Hobie, Pippa, and Theo’s estranged alcoholic father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo moves from the Barbour’s upper-class posh lifestyle in New York to Las Vegas with his father and Xandra and makes a life-changing new friend named Boris, and then moves back to New York again, with a fevered, nightmarish pit-stop in Amsterdam before the novel’s end.
Boris, as it turns out, is the novel’s most entertaining character probably because he’s Polish-Ukrainian and is made out to have both socialist and criminal tendencies, a perfect foil to the generally law-abiding and liberal Theo. Tartt’s liberal American imagination allows Boris to be the wild and fun and yet corrupting influence in Theo’s life—yes, he’s a good friend, in his own way, but in some ways Boris just an amalgam of how Americans view foreigners who have lived in countries with different political systems. Those insane Eastern Europeans and their dangerous political ideas and lax ways with the law! Crazy Boris even tried out being Muslim for awhile, which teenage Theo finds positively incomprehensible.
While The Goldfinch is set in a politically-charged landscape—the bombing at the museum is vaguely attributed to “terrorism”—Tartt is a writer of bourgeois psychological novels, and the large cast of characters in this book only serve to contextualise Theo’s interior life. This isn’t to say they aren’t well realised, even larger than life, as in Boris’ case—but this isn’t a novel that’s grappling with social and political issues surrounding the bombing in 21st-century New York. It’s about a boy and his painting, and how it both circumscribes and expands his relation to other people, and serves as a talisman that links him to his mother and to a gentrified world of art and beauty and stability—Hobie’s world—that he wants to be a part of, even while he realises he stands outside of it.
Tartt’s fascination with rich WASPs continues in this book, as seen in Theo’s perpetual amazement of the Barbours and their lifestyle, but equally unappealing for me is the casual othering of people of colour. Boris is larger than life because he’s a central character, but otherwise while criminal white Germans might each have a name, criminal Indonesians only appear inscrutable and are compared to anacondas, while criminal Chinese are inscrutable and wily and are in possession of a name that all the white people can’t be bothered to remember, or have “difficulty” remembering, because it sounds so strange. (Theo can’t even tell at one point, if this person is a man or a woman or a boy or a girl, and somehow this problem seems related to this person’s Asianness.)
When Theo arrives in Amsterdam and looks around at the airport and sees “dead-eyed ethnic families”, it’s hard not to flinch, though I was also curious about where one could obtain this all-purpose “ethnic family”—at the gift shop, presumably? Does the ethnic family come in all sizes and colours? Theo even exoticises his own mother’s appearance because she was part-Irish, part Cherokee, telling us that “in the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight”—the what and the what?, was my question—and that sometimes the exotic character of her facial features were too stark when her hair was pulled back, making her look “like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji”. Okay.
There’s a Dickensian aura running through The Goldfinch, most notably Great Expectations, and there are certain similarities between Pip and Theo as they navigate their orphan hood (Theo’s father is far from a father) and find parental figures in the unlikeliest of places, not to mention their inability to love anyone but the one woman they can’t have, though Theo’s spiritual twin appears to be The Secret History’s Richard. In all her novels, Tartt is particularly adept at conveying the banal hazards of estrangement and evoking sensations relating to place and space. Both Richard and Theo, for example, wish they were anyone but themselves, and are particularly gifted in losing themselves in copious quantities of alcohol and pills. “A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help,” as Theo puts it. And while The Secret History will always be reminiscent of frost and snow and ice and the chill of the unknown, this book is notable for the hot, barren, drug-infused Las Vegas suburban desertscape and its air-conditioned ennui.
In this novel, as with her previous two, Tartt seems to be circling around the same concerns about a person’s fatal flaw. “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, Richard begins in The Secret History—and the same is true for Theo. His longing for beauty, and his inability to let go or exist separately of “The Goldfinch”, once he’s set eyes on it, is his constant downfall. For one thing, it connects him to his mother, who loved Fabritius’s work before Theo even began to pay attention. But more alarming, for Theo, is how hard he fell for the painting, and the lengths he with which he destroyed little aspects of his life in order to keep it:
What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?
This is a thread that runs through all of Tartt’s novels, with protagonists floating in a sea of banal everyday life routines, desperately wishing for wings to fly out and touch the sun. Even in The Little Friend, Harriet was convinced of her difference—her fatal flaw being the morbid longing to find out the truth, at all costs. (And the price is steep, as she learns by the end.)
While the ending for The Secret History was rather exquisite, evoking the tragic in a way that was both sad and tender, The Goldfinch ends with what feels like a sermon from Theo, desperately trying to attribute meaning to everything that had happened thus far while still assuring us that the knows that “life is catastrophe”. It feels tacked-on and forced, and one wonders if Tartt felt compelled to drag the novel on for as long as close to 800 pages in order to give us A Lesson to make up for the dissatisfaction many felt with The Little Friend, which ended on a totally bizarre note, with no resolution of any sort for anyone—and which, I thought, was perfectly in keeping with the slow drip of menace that increased with every page.
While talking about how a novel is about one thing is a sure way to kill the experience of reading, the ending of The Goldfinch seems to want to reduce it to a meaning: about the magic that exists in that unfathomable place between illusion and reality, that lives on between people and things—in particular, things that are passed on from one hand to another. After some 700 pages of one catastrophic event after another, after repeated attempts at self-erasure, these words don’t seem true delivered in Theo’s voice, and the conclusion seems too tidy, too hopeful, too trite.
Tartt’s novels aren’t novels of ideas—there’s a reason why I compared reading a Tartt novel to watching a TV show, and it’s because it’s propelled by a forward-moving momentum; it’s about action and places and people. These are novels concerned with the psychology of its characters. The Goldfinch seems ripe for meditations on art commodities, and ideas and politics that are transmitted through works of art, as well as deep explorations about what cultural anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai have called the social life of things, but any asides or discussions on books or paintings and the exchange of and desire for commodities are tangential to the main story of Theo’s life. It’s only at the very end that Theo attempts to weave the history of this masterwork he’s kept, hoarded, and lost into the trajectory of his own life, but by then it’s all delivered in one big rush of a moral lesson, and the effect is one of vague disorientation at this newly-wise Theo.
The Secret History was a compelling modern tragedy because its effects were rooted in mimesis, in replicating the elements of the Greek plays in the catastrophes of Richard’s, and his friends’, modern American lives. The Goldfinch merely uses the central artwork as a prop for the plot, for the service of the protagonist’s inner life, even while Theo tries to convince us otherwise through occasional meandering and repetitive musings on art that are, unfortunately, superficial and uninteresting. Tartt’s novel is eminently readable and entertaining, even moving at times, but while I kept turning the pages I never wanted to linger over it like how Theo does when he looks at the painting and meets the eyes of Fabritius’s all-seeing goldfinch.