Monday, February 10, 2014

The Goldfinch (and the Crow): "Sometimes it's about playing a poor hand well."

It’s a funny thing about this book. Despite several people I know and trust speaking well of it, I couldn’t muster much excitement to read it, and the length was an extra deterrent there (who writes an 800-page non-fantasy book nowadays, I mean really?). But I’ve found that waiting on the library hold list for several months is pretty good incentive to read just about anything.

And I’m glad I read it. The writing is gorgeous. The descriptions are often heartbreaking, and the prose is impeccable without seeming to try. I didn’t take any notes. I wasn’t reading critically or looking for themes or seizing on any particularly gorgeous turns of phrase. I just wallowed in it. And as a direct result of that immersive reading experience, when the guest speaker at church a couple of weeks ago was talking about pain and how we will generally do just about anything to avoid it, instead of scrutinizing my own dealings with pain, I thought about Theo.

Oh, was I . . . supposed to be examining
my OWN heart just then?

Theo is just 13 years old when his mother is killed in a museum bombing. He escapes with minor injuries, but in his disorientation from the effects of the bomb and because of some other reasons, he picks up a petite painting called The Goldfinch (one of his mother’s favorites) and leaves the museum with it unnoticed. The book is essentially, and quite simply, about how he deals after that—with the loss of the most important relationship in his young life, with his guilt over being the reason they were in the museum that day, with his anxiety about possessing a piece of stolen art (and, coincidentally, being the stealer of that art), with forming new relationships, with growing up in general. Basically, it’s a struggle for Theo from then on out.

Probably just about anyone who reads this book will come away with a different idea of what its pivotal theme is, and that's one of the reasons it deserves all the praise it gets. For me, The Goldfinch is about pain. Even the minor characters are defined by their struggle, and the story is in how they each choose to respond to their own special brand of pain. Some characters run “head first and laughing into the holy rage calling [their] name” (Boris); others will do just about anything to escape it (Theo).

And maybe it’s a bit dense of me to be realizing this just now, because this:
That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.
And all this talk of pain makes me think of an altogether different bird.

I came of age in the ’90s, so OBVIOUSLY I had seen the movie adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow, starring Brandon Lee. And it was with the background of that movie and its lead actor’s tragic, on-set death that I picked up the graphic novel on which it was based.

Lightning synopsis: Eric Draven and his fiancée, Shelly, are accosted on the road by a group of meth heads who, because they are senseless people who commit senseless crimes, shoot Eric multiple times (including in the head at such close range that his hair catches fire) and then repeatedly rape and murder Shelly. Eric is allowed to come back from the dead and take his vengeance, one by one, on the miscreants who murdered him and his one true love. It's a simple supernatural revenge story. Short and bittersweet.

And tragically HANDSOME.

And this is a bit of the introduction to the graphic novel:
James did this book because he died inside. But found he was still breathing. The Crow comes from some lonely void far beyond pain, sorrow, and words. This book you are holding was a place for James to put all the rage and anger he felt at having someone he loved torn away . . . and it is an attempt to find order and justice where there is none . . . for some things there is no forgiveness . . . absolutely none. That hard fact is impossible to learn to live with. The event—the split second of time that brought you to this lonely place—cannot be forgiven. No matter how inevitable it was. It took away the future and it ended everything. Except for this: the emotional inertia of a relationship. That is forever and it is all that you have left. Learn to live with that. Influence it. Access it.
And that’s kind of exactly what Theo had to do. I’m not saying Theo is Eric Draven . . . but they both have a bird fixation and I’ve never seen them in the same room together. Have you?


  1. "800 page non fantasy" sounds pretty daunting to me! I see this book pop up everywhere and I KNOW that I'll end up reading it, so props for writing up this review and not spoiling everything :)
    (A+ label/tag usage)

  2. Damnit, Megs, you're so spiffy. I can totally see The Goldfinch being about pain. Because...yeah. Basically all the characters. Dang. ALSO, I kind of want to watch The Crow for the first time ever, but I can't handle rape scenes. Sooo there's that. ALSO how amazing was the chapter with the bombing. Because sooooooo amazing.

  3. I was literally SHAKEN by the bombing chapter. It was like, "Well now I know what being in a bombing feels like."

    The rape is really just IMPLIED in The Crow movie, through foggy flashbacks. I don't think it would be an issue for you at all. But they're doing a remake of The Crow...sometime soon, and THAT one will probably be more graphic because everything nowadays is, naturally.

  4. The length ends up being kind of nice because you spend so much time with the characters that you can't help but feel that you know them. You are FORCED to know them in detail.

  5. P.S. I enjoy being called spiffy.

  6. I just downloaded the audiobook version of The Goldfinch. I'm not sure it's going to be a great book for audio but I decided it's the only way I'd get to it otherwise. Because 800 pages is A LOT of pages, even if they're really good pages.

    I am looking forward to it though - I'm yet to see a bad or middling review and any connection to The Crow is another reason to get to it asap.

  7. This book sound so difficult, both in length (800 pages, whaaaa?) and the subject matter. That said, so many of you with good taste like it so much so I really should get on this. Excellent review, lady!

  8. The Goldfinch is totally about pain. And lots of other things, but yeah, pain. I mainly came away with the grief part of the pain because of when I read it in my life, but pain, yeah.

    But damn. It's some good book.

  9. Oh, honey. *hugs you*

    *still hugging you* *not letting go* *making it awkward* *doesn't care* *keeps hugging you*

  10. It MIGHT be a good book for audio, because it's sure as hell not pleasant to hold all 5 pounds of it while you read it forever.

  11. It's difficult. It's totally difficult. But you are brave and strong!