Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt
It’s been so long since the last post in this series, you probably don’t even remember what we were supposed to be reading. In just a moment, I’ll blame all of that on Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. The other selection was Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella The Old Man and the Sea, winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize.
It seemed reasonable to me at the time of selection that it would be interesting to discover, although published more than 60 years apart, if there was a conclusion one could draw about Pulitzer Prize-winning novels by reading these two together. At the outset, it looked like I was heading way off course. It seemed as though these novels could not be more different — not the least of which being Hemingway’s spare 127 pages compared to Tartt’s dense stack of 771 pages. But, as we shall sea (lame pun intended), some small similarities did emerge.
I have heard it suggested that it’s wise to return to your favorite novels every five years to get a sense of how their resonance changes over time, as you get older. That has seemed, at times, like good advice. There’s only been a few books, however, that I’ve read cover-to-cover more than once, most of which I read for the first time in high school: The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cather in the Rye, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and maybe a few more. (I’ll let you guess which of those were part of my curriculum and which ones I picked out myself.) It has been about 12 or 13 years since I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I first encountered it, and Hemingway for that matter, while I was sitting in detention, and it just so happened to be one of the books available to keep troublemakers, such as myself, busy.
For some reason, which escapes me know, the story of the old fisherman in a small boat being tugged around the sea by a marlin made a great impression on me. That is, I remember being impressed, and that is all. I wish, for the life of me, I could recall what that impression was, because I certainly didn’t find it on this go-round. Even being so much shorter than Tartt’s novel, I found it laborious to get through. (Maybe there are more commonalities after all!)
The book simply did not work for me, now, at this point in my life. I think perhaps it wasn’t as powerful because I know how it ends (no spoilers!). Perhaps it’s like watching a magic trick, then seeing how it’s done, then seeing the trick again; the magic diminishes, if not disappears. But, I’ll try it again in five years to see if the book regains its powers. If you’re still with me at that time, I’ll let you know how it goes.
If Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a trick, it’s the long con — in that, it’s long. It took me longer to get through this book than I’d ever want to take to get through a single novel (again, I’d like to blame Tartt for my tardiness with this post; if anyone should require detention as a result, it should be her). It’s not only the word count or the number of pages; it’s something about the way Tartt has written this book that makes it feel even longer. Although Tartt’s dialog left something to be desired in terms of authenticity and depth, her prose is rich. Perhaps it’s like eating a chocolate on chocolate cake — one piece is delicious, but eating a whole pie may cause a diabetic coma. This book put me into a similar kind of reader’s coma.
However, there was always something hidden in the plot line that wouldn’t let me put it down for good, most of which can be credited to the central question: What’s going to happen with the old, beloved painting of the goldfinch that the protagonist, Theo Decker, stole from a museum in his youth? I simply had to find out.
One thing I appreciate about Tartt’s book is her illustration of how singular events can be unexpectedly life-changing, how lives can be set in motion, for better or worse, by one sudden change in wind direction. As Robert Frost, in the poem “The Road Not Take,” famously wrote, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”
As Theo prepares to go sailing with his foster family for the summer, a father-figure type character, Hobie, tells him, “Moral of the story is, who knows where it all will take you? […] Your sailing holiday […] might be the decisive moment. It takes some people that way, the sea.” And, “Maybe you’ll get fascinated by hermit crabs and study marine biology. Or decide you want to build boats, or be a marine painter, or write the definitive book about the Lusitania” (p. 182). I won’t spoil it for you, but it doesn’t pan out that way for Theo.
Another aspect of that theme, which Tartt demonstrates, is that only occasionally do you know which moments are going to turn out to be the decisive ones. Moreover, only occasionally do you know which people, however chance your first encounter may have been, end up participating in and influencing the rest of your life. For that, I’ll concede it might’ve required some narrative breadth in order to bear out, unless of course you’re Robert Frost.
In conclusion, for some reason, I’m reminded of Kate Winslet’s cameo in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ TV series Extras, in which Winslet plays an actress playing a nun in a WWII movie in a desperate attempt to win an Oscar.
I guess the moral of this story is, if there’s any worthwhile comparison we can draw for you aspiring Pulitzer Prize winners out there from this admittedly limited sample size, perhaps, like Winslet, you should go out of your way to include some sort of tragedy by way of the sea in your novel. That should do. I know I’m going to try it. After all, who wouldn’t want a Pulitzer?
Books Read: 7 (Change: +2)
Books Given Away: 13 (Change +6, -1)
Pounds Lost: 8 (Change +3.5)
Since the last time we cyber-met, I conducted a giveaway on Goodreads to folks who expressed interest in reading my novel Odd Man Outlaw. With copies of my book, based on the winners’ past reading habits, I also sent along the following selections from my personal library:
- A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006) by Ken Kalfus
- The Bone People (1984) by Keri Hulme
- Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell
- The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham
- Next (2010) by James Hynes
But, a weekend trip to Schuler Books in East Lansing resulted in an unplanned acquisition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), resulting in an overall “Books Given Away” change of +5.
And for that infamous final metric, it probably looks better that it should. Since it’s taken me so long to read The Goldfinch, I had nearly two months to make progress, which has resulted in an average change of 1.75 pounds lost per month — not as a impressive as I’d hoped.
Until next time, folks…