Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"A Morbid Longing for the Picturesque": The Novels of Donna Tartt

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"A Morbid Longing for the Picturesque": The Novels of Donna Tartt

Article excerpt

Assessing Donna Tartt's place in the continuum of modern literature is virtually an impossible task, because she has so deliberately placed herself outside that continuum. There is, in all three of her novels, a stubborn refusal to accept the standards that have been thrust upon her as a writer of fiction in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: not only the standard of brevity, supposedly the foremost requisite for an author in this allegedly "post-literate" age, but also those of content, voice, structure, and genre. Her latest novel, The Goldfinch, has been called "Dickensian" by more than one reviewer, and in a recent interview with CBS' Charlie Rose, she cited the works of the ancient Greek tragedians as one of her influences. That she is bold enough to ignore prevailing literary standards is reason enough for our approbation; that she has become both a dependably best-selling writer with a devoted following and a darling of (most of) the book reviewers while doing so elicits our further admiration.

Yes, Donna Tartt is most assuredly her own person: she writes as she pleases, will never be accused of falling slave to fashion, either professionally or personally (for the Charlie Rose interview, and one with the BBC, she wore a man's dark suit, white shirt, and necktie), and even has the nerve to admit that she enjoys writing her books. "No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader," she tells Rose, which of course begs the question of how much fun the reader is likely to get from the three long novels she has so far produced. Judging from her reviews and her sales figures, a lot of readers have had a lot of fun indeed. As also becomes evident from reading her reviews, however, her work is taken quite seriously in many quarters; she has been compared not only to Dickens but to Flannery O'Connor, Paul Bowles, William Golding, Evelyn Waugh, and even Poe, Dostoyevsky, Bellow, and Shakespeare.

Obviously, then, more than mere "fun" is at issue here. Tartt herself explains, in the BBC interview, that she seeks "density and speed" in her writing--speed in the narrative, so that it is lively enough to carry the reader along, and density in theme, to give the narrative a solid foundation. That she dependably achieves the former is soon apparent in any of her books; despite her tendency to prolixity and the complexity of her plotting, she always keeps things moving along at an irresistible pace, and she is at her best when rendering action scenes. In fact, I know of very few other writers who are as good at the latter, past or present. This great skill at propulsive narrative, at keeping the reader turning the page and wondering what is going to happen next, is doubtlessly a great source of her popular appeal. If you have one of those friends who complains that "nothing ever really happens in modern literature," give him or her a Donna Tartt book. Something "happens" on virtually every page. Whether or not she achieves her goal of density, of making her work as thematically substantial as the masters to whom she has been compared, is a question not as easily answered, and one that requires a more detailed examination of her work.

The Secret History, Tartt's first novel, was published in 1992, and the history of its publication is as much a part of the book as its content. (More on that below.) Tartt's iconoclasm is immediately apparent in her daring decision to put all five hundred-plus pages in the voice of Richard Papen, a California native who has traveled to Vermont to attend Hampden College (widely assumed by the book's reviewers to be a stand-in for Bennington, which Tartt attended) and to put as much distance as possible between him, his parents, and his suburban milieu. He soon discovers fulfillment for his "morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs" by joining a small group of his fellow students who hold themselves resolutely apart from, and regard themselves as superior to, the rest of the student body. …

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