Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Goldfinch | Review

This is a difficult review to write because I feel that The Goldfinch was so far from either the book I expected from positive reviews, and so far from the book I expected from criticism. I found a book that was complex in my own response to it - I may have read it quickly and avidly and very... deeply, but I cannot claim that I liked the book. Overall, I distinctly didn't.

The problem with reviewing The Goldfinch so many months after its publication and sweeping adoration and imminent backlash is that it no longer feels relevant. Is Donna Tartt the "new Dickens"? Is The Goldfinch a stunning work of modern literature, or an overblown mess? Is this quality literature, or pedestrian writing neatly wrapped?

These honestly aren't questions that interest me.

I want instead to discuss how The Goldfinch is essentially four or so books in one. The first is my favorite, and one I actively liked: a novel of a young boy in the aftermath of his mother's death as he tries to maneuver his own emotional turmoil and that of the family who takes him in. This first novel is the story that opens The Goldfinch, and I really enjoyed it. We meet Theo, we get swept up in his drama and follow his lost narrative. It's not the most original story, but Tartt writes it well and I found myself truly feeling for Theo. I liked his agency and I liked the high-style language (which completely did not fit the voice of the narrator himself, of course, but there was something so deliberate about it that it  worked well). As a starter story, it's brilliant - it hooked me and kept up momentum for the rest of the (disappointing) book.

This book ends with little closure, and Theo is instead launched into another part of his life. And from that moment, I felt my dislike of the book settling and I felt myself growing more and more uncomfortable with the narrative.

Remember in my review of Americanah I mentioned that I found myself very disappointed by the use of a specific trope which I especially hate? So The Goldfinch takes another of my most hated storytelling pet peeves, and lives it in full: drug use. Now, to be clear: a lot of The Goldfinch deals directly with drug use. It doesn't show drug use as something without consequence or without hardship, and it doesn't just raise the topic without delving into it. Drug use is a recurring and persistent theme in the novel, one that is furthermore often linked to the artistic theme, if obliquely.

And so yes, Tartt does not merely raise drug use, Tartt seeps her novel in it. And truthfully, the loving tone with which Tartt refers to this copious drug use really disturbed me. If there's one thing that frustrates me in modern culture, it's the absolute normalization of drug use in society. Reading a novel in which drug use is so gently caressed made me wholly uncomfortable. Sue me, I have personal preferences. And these personal preferences colored much of my further appreciation of the novel.

But let me turn back to the separate books. So we have Theo's coming of age spread out across two different books, and then his strange "return to childhood" book (which I frankly found more interesting than his dull and frankly overwritten teenage years). But then the final book... is a total mess. Tartt switches gears quite abruptly at the novel's end, and it suddenly becomes something of a thriller. But it's a pretty poor thriller - I found myself skimming sections which were far too long and deeply descriptive without actually telling me anything new. The Goldfinch thus ends whimpering when it's trying to be bold and decisive, simply because it tries to make a shift into something that just doesn't work. Not that it really could have ended otherwise: the entire novel does feel like a build-up to something. I just didn't expect the something to be so dulled.

There's another thing I feel needs mentioning, as complex an issue as it may be: Tartt's treatment of women. This is something that I've struggled to put into words, but here it is: The Goldfinch writes women poorly, flatly, or not at all. As I was thinking about how to write this review, I found myself imagining words like "masculine" and "male-oriented". The "masculine" term is the more complex of the two (because it's harder to define), but it occurred to me that there is hardly any woman-to-woman interaction in the novel. The book centers around a young man, true, but it centers around him in a way that all but erases women into flat tropes: there's the obvious fridging of his mother, the later treatment of his one-time foster mother, the treatment of his father's girlfriend, the romanticization of Theo's "love", the descriptions of his fiancee as an ice-queen, who gets little agency to prove herself...

And suddenly I had the unpleasant (and frankly unfair) thought that The Goldfinch is so well-regarded because Donna Tartt has written the ultimate "white male novelist" book - full of disaffected men, one-dimensional women, drug use, cigarettes used as mood setters and a brooding young man (from New York, no less!) who is swept up in a story that's much larger than him.

That was when I realized the depths to which I was unhappy with The Goldfinch. Here's a novel that's been touted as this brilliant masterpiece by a woman, yet it's no different than dozens of other similar books (except perhaps in length, where it... trumps). The artistic angle that The Goldfinch claims to come from simply never materializes on the level it deserves. What's left is... meh. Maybe these are connections I'm not allowed to make, but that's where I am right now. I see a familiar novel in place of a revolutionary one, and it's not even a novel I particularly enjoy.

I do want to give Tartt credit where credit is due: I was rightly swept up in The Goldfinch, and the writing is largely top-notch. I'm quite curious now as to whether Tartt's previous works are actually worthwhile, or if they're similarly trapped in familiar tropes and stylings. I sort of understand why many readers enjoyed The Goldfinch as much as they did, and I absolutely understand why many award outlets flung their seal of approval at the book. But I didn't like the book. Not wholly, not as a complete novel. Aspects? Brilliant. Certain pages or observations or descriptive passages? Possibly even genius. A novel on the whole? Nope. Nope nope nope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Americanah | Review

I'll start by saying that until page, oh, 400 (out of 477), this review was going to be overwhelmingly positive. There's a lot, a lot, a lot to appreciate in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's most recent novel Americanah, particularly for someone like me who has shuffled between the US and the not-US my whole life. Questions of race, racial identity and cultural identity resonated with me quite strongly (racial aspects perhaps less so, but the concept of "race issues" not existing outside the US, or not existing the way many within the US assume it to exist is one I've discussed at length in recent years), as did the entire discussion of how to return to a home that is no longer a home.

I won't get into details as to what happened after page 400. It's not exactly a spoiler - the book leads very heavily towards this - but I really don't want to discuss it regardless. What I'll say is that Americanah careened into one of my all-time literary pet peeves, without critiquing it as it should have. And suddenly I was able to recognize that this issue had actually come up several times throughout the book. This made my appreciation of the end... not amazing. I was disappointed, I finished the book with a whimper and not a bang, and found myself wishing, desperately, that Adichie could have been as brave with this issue as she was with others.

But let's get back to what this review was supposed to be: a discussion of why Americanah is a brilliant book for foreigners and expats and others.

Most reviews I've read have discussed where Americanah is brave in its presentation of race. And I'll say... yes. It's a pretty audacious book, when you think about it. Adichie is a non-American-black (NAB, as she calls it) writing about Ifemelu, a NAB, who writes about what it's like to be black in a society that has a heck of a lot more racial issues than it's capable of recognizing. There are multiple levels of meta in Americanah, not least within the blog posts integrated throughout Ifemelu's narrative sections. Ifemelu's blogs deal largely with race and racial disparities between African American and, shall we say, American Africans, as well as general racial observations.

Ifemelu's writing will be fairly familiar to anyone who reads feminist blogs, or black-feminist blogs, or even just blogs about racial issues (though the feminist side comes through fairly strongly, which I obviously was thrilled about). Writing like this, by itself, in a clearly elevated status without further discussion, would have frustrated me, but Adichie is more intelligent than that: though Ifemelu is clearly our protagonist and our enlightened outside observer (the one constantly critiquing narrow-minded aspects of Anglo-American racial perspectives), there is enough of an understanding that Ifemelu too has her biases and observations. Ifemelu's blog posts aren't entirely good criticism, and they're not necessarily 100% right (her own ideas evolve enough throughout the book to make that abundantly clear), but they're the closest thing we get. In that sense, Americanah forces the reader (whoever it may be - white, black, Anglo, foreigner, other) to reach their own conclusions and read more deeply. It's a wonderfully complex and thought-provoking book.

But to be honest, I'd rather spend a few more moments talking about the "outsider effect", and why having a book written by a non-American written for an audience that is simultaneously American and non-American is so very important. As you'll all know by now, I'm a very big fan of the international approach to literature (duh). I don't believe that "literature in translation" guarantees true diversity, and I don't believe that one can truly read diversely within one language alone (whatever that language may be). When readers and reviewers and writers come at stories from the perspective that Anglo-American is the norm, the default, the everything... I get angry. Apparently Adichie agrees with me

I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that American/British English is the default (in the discussion of accents). I loved that Americanah so bluntly challenged the idea that Western melting-pot perceptions of race are the most progressive (in the discussion of the non-American black and that brilliant quote about not thinking about your race and racial identity until moving to the US). I loved that Americanah discussed the internal American discussion of African Americans and new African immigrants, and where the two groups are not entirely meshed. I loved that Americanah looked at the new immigrant experience from a place of warmth and acceptance, and didn't reject offhand the idea that someone might someday want to return, that the concept of home might trump.

I loved a lot of things in Americanah - the shift from casual blog-style writing to the larger discussion, the flow, the depth with which Adichie builds her side characters, the warmth with which Adichie delves into different sorts of love. But it's not a perfect book, and it was so close to being so much better that the disappointment stings so much more.

Before page 400, my biggest complaint would have been about the shift in tone between Ifemelu and Obinze. The book semi switches off between the two, but it's entirely unfair to present it as a balanced story - we spend significantly more time with Ifemelu than Obinze, and the story is built in such a way that I found it much easier to relate to Ifemelu than Obinze. Obinze's parts felt slower to me, and also less focused. While this is obviously a reflection of his character arc, it still managed to frustrate me as a reader. I'd have preferred for a more cohesive story told entirely from Ifemelu's perspective, but I suspect this is more about personal preference.

After page 400 (and to be clear, page 400 is an arbitrary approximation meant to symbolize my frustration with the general final arc), I found myself thinking over previous parts of the book and realizing that as talented as Adichie is (and goodness, she's talented - I'm without a doubt going back to read the rest of her books), she relied heavily on a number of tropes I absolutely hate. These tropes undermine so much of the strength of character that Adichie has built previously, and feels like sloppy storytelling to cover up the more intellectual aspects of the novel. It made me... angry. And it's something that unfortunately ruins too many good books.

Americanah wasn't ruined. It's not a bad book by any measure, and the fact that it personally fell into one of my personally most-hated traps does not for a moment mean that it's a worthless novel. Readers should absolutely read Americanah for its outsider perspective, for its blunt discussions of race and privilege and belonging and identity. Readers should absolutely read this book deeply, and wholly - it's a book to learn from, to a large degree. And in parts, it's also a wonderful feminist text (in other parts, I again note, I wanted to smash it against a wall). On the whole, it's an intelligent, thought-inducing, challenging (in that it challenges the reader to reassess much of their previous biases), engaging and readable book. You should read it.

...but I do so wish that it hadn't included that one thing.