The Goldfinch, Time Travel, and Me, with Many, Many Spoilers

I should probably let you know right now, spoilers loom ahead: consider yourself forewarned.

Here's what happened. First, I read this.

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I'd heard people talking, you know? And it was pretty wonderful. Time and Again is a novel about time travel, and its theory of time travel is (more or less): all of time coexists (they're attributing this to Albert Einstein, to which I say, I don't thinks so, but go on). The metaphor? A river. We may be ahead in the river; we can't see the "past" because of the way the river bends, but the past is still there, right "now" (or whatever passes for now).

So. If all of time is available to us, we have the option of moving from one time to another. The method? Surround yourself with the trappings of another time in the same physical space, and allow yourself to become more fluid through self-hypnosis (there's a lot of groovy 1960s vibes in the book, along with casual happy sexism/racism sprinkled around). Then you can pass freely through the bends and be in another time.

Why am I talking about this, you wonder? Because after I read that, I read this:

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Full disclosure: I am not pure. I cannot say that I view Donna Tartt with an easy and open heart. I am too envious, too bitter. That must be said. Also? I did really enjoy The Little Friend; I did not really enjoy The Secret History.

Here is my problem: Time. Let me explain.

The Goldfinch begins with our hero thinking back on his past. This reminiscence is set in the present time, coming up on Christmas. So. In the most insistent possible way of time, that would be, say, now: this month, December 2013. That is our most generous possibility.

I'm already starting to sound crazy, right? A little conspiracy theorist? Alas.

We hurtle back in time to when the hero's mother was alive. They are on their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrible explosion will set things going. The hero? He tells us straight out: "It happened April 10th, fourteen years ago." We can do the math, yes? This puts us at 1999. Again, at our most generous calculation.

Here's the thing: things have changed a lot in poor old New York City between 1999 and 2013. They've changed a lot everywhere. And…and it's just not there. The whole novel is set in an ever-present present (if that makes sense): everyone always has cell phones, they always text, they are always—well, they're like they are now.

And I know I shouldn't mind. Right? I mean, what's a bit of fudging? Why am I looking to a novel, of all things, to tell the truth? Except I am, and I do. And somehow this sleight of hand makes me queasy. I stopped and stopped and stopped, thinking: NO. This doesn't make sense! Upper east side ladies were not texting in 1999. People were not talking about MetroCards like that was just normal—MetroCards were weird! Tokens weren't phased out until 2003! (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In the explosion, he passes cell phones strewn across the floor! Don't you remember? We didn't all have cell phones in 1999. A few people did—not everyone at all. Most people didn't. He finds one with a collapsible nylon shopping bag in some woman's purse. He passes a woman with a spray tan. But calling it spray tan? People carrying around shopping bags? Not in 1999. And when he goes outside to view the disaster from the street, he passes what we all pass now, many people holding their cell phones up to take pictures. Except this wasn't how it was in 1999—it's how it is now. So just: No.

And with that no, I lost my way. It was like looking at an Escher, except that it never acknowledged it was an Escher—you just kept walking off the stairway and ended up near the top instead of the bottom, or…or maybe this is an unextendable metaphor? Still, it's true.

Later in the book, a character says, "I only understand it, as I get older. How funny time is. How many tricks and surprises." So maybe, she is playing? Perhaps she is shooting for the timeless, for the idea of a book that transcends the specifics of when exactly it is set, and is somehow through this more universal?

Except it is only through specificity, somehow, that fiction is universal.

Except maybe I am wrong about that?

I don't know, I don't know. I might not have noticed any of this if I hadn't read these two books in just this order. But I did, and now The Goldfinch is off-kilter for me, an ambitious, masterful thing that ends up feeling (it must be said) like a fraud, like a glittering bauble with a core of bullshit.

But in all likelihood I am being too hard on it. I mean, Patrick O'Brian said he always had people write him after each book saying, "You got this wrong! They didn't have that type of watch that year! That sort of bird doesn't live at that longitude" and so on. And he is a truly wonderful writer.

But while he may have made mistakes, at least he tried to get it right. With this, it feels…otherwise, somehow. More wily. As though she just doesn't want us to think about where or when we are, we're in story-time! The magical time of novels that exist outside of reality. To me, that makes it feel like a con job. But I know that is ungenerous.

Oh help me, readers. What am I to think? Reality and fiction have interscected—or rather they haven't—and I am unmoored.

8 thoughts on “The Goldfinch, Time Travel, and Me, with Many, Many Spoilers

  1. I didn’t read past the sentence where you were reading The Goldfinch because I am going to start it when I’m finished reading what I’m reading right now. That being said, Time and Again was one of my very favorite books last century — I think I had the very same copy. I adored it. I, too, have always been a bit irritated about Donna Tartt and confess to NEVER HAVING READ A BOOK OF HERS until now. I’ll keep you posted.

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  2. Hmm. Haven’t read it, so I don’t know if there’s a reason this couldn’t be, but could the “now” of The Goldfinch be several years in the future? So that the 14-years-ago is now, or close to now? I mean, to do this right, the 14-years-later part would have to be slightly futuristic, and it sounds like it’s not. So, yeah, maybe cheating either way.

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  3. For me, I can suspend disbelief about big magical stuff, but only if the everyday detail is right.
    So The Goldfinch would annoy me constantly and I’d never be able to get to whether it was good in other ways, because I would be too busy being pissed off with all the inaccuracies.

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  4. Thanks for writing this post. I was prepared to love The Goldfinch, but am finding it so frustrating. There are many beautiful sentences, but overall I am so distracted by the sense of an author self-consciously building something that does not work. I noticed the spray tan and cell phones too, and wondered about them. The bigger problem was that I did not believe any of Theo’s reactions to the carnage he would have encountered in that scene. I kept feeling like the author was trying to imagine what Theo would have thought or felt or seen or heard or tasted, and write about that in pretty prose, but she was failing. All day I’ve been thinking about why it fails, and how, and comparing it to the genius of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows. I think that book works so well partly because Rebecca West lived through all of the things she then describes so beautifully and with such wisdom. Donna Tartt has a big imagination and writes wonderful sentences, but she’s faking both the small details and larger emotional truths in her scenes, and it really shows.

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  5. It’s SO ANNOYING. I feel like she write this book 11 years ago and then when publishing it, went back and tried to stick in some details. Theo used his iphone to call his dealer on his beeper. Really?

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