A long time ago, at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a painting that looked a bit like this:
No, you may not ask what it means, or even worse, what I understood. I was mostly stunned. Then I thought, maybe credit is due for stating the obvious – it hadn’t struck me to take a sheet of A4 paper and mark its length and breadth. Anyway, I’m telling you this because this is how I felt while reading The Goldfinch. As though there was great meaning which was eluding me however hard I tried (that is, I am a philistine).
It is a sweeping story, taking place across cities (and continents), filled with coincidences. Simply put, it is about thirteen year old Theo, who survives an explosion in a museum. His mother dies in this explosion, and so does another old man (whom he just met) and whose niece he falls in love with. This old man gives Theo a ring and a cryptic message to go find someone who can take care of him (who else is reminded of a Bollywood movie at this point?). We follow Theo through his drug-fuelled teenage years, his friendship with a Russian boy, his life as an antique furniture dealer, his one-sided love, etc etc etc.
I don’t know why I sound so annoyed. I expected something engrossing and unputdownable, instead I found a book that made me fall asleep at least four times, and had me wondering if I would ever finish it. And the numerous coincidences. [Of course the driver of the taxi Theo hails should know magic. Everyone he meets knows the great artists and can distinguish a Rembrandt from a Monet.] As far as my comprehension goes, the underlying philosophy of this book is that, great art alone survives (all else is fleeting and insignificant), everything happens for a reason and is part of a bigger scheme.
I am going to devote some space now to discussing the level of detail in this book. Truly, the devil is in the details. Consider this:
We have an Acer computer at home. It is placed on a wooden desk, which has space for the processing unit and a printer, as well as a tray for the keyboard and mouse. That day, I was watching a YouTube video on the computer. The internet speed left much to be desired. If I had to say which video, then I would tell you it is the one in which Raghava Lawrence was interviewed by Sun TV, after the success of Kanchana-2 (or Muni-3). He is asked about his heroines getting whiter with every successive movie, and if there is any specific reason for this. Lawrence smiled and said, “Is there a heroine who is dark and successful today? Show me one.” The anchor smiled. Lawrence said something to the effect of “only if the woman is beautiful, will I be able to dance/ will the dance look good, and only then will people pay money to watch it”. Is Lawrence implying fair is lovely? Why does he look so smug? Why does the anchor insist on asking questions such as these? Sixteen minutes into this interview, my mother asked me to retrieve a piece of paper from under the printer. I bent a little, but not all the way – I didn’t want to take my eyes off the screen. As I pulled the paper from beneath the printer, something came loose and the printer fell from its shelf, right on the big toe of my left foot. The pain was intense. I squeezed my eyes shut. I saw spots and stars and maybe even fireflies.
Didn’t you enjoy that? All I wanted to say was, I hurt my toe. 😉