The Charioteer // Mary Renault

[from 2016]

I have, seemingly, developed a filthy habit of starting to read books of which the more conservative members at church would heartily disapprove during the final week of my exams. During the HSC, it was Lolita. For my first set of uni exams, it was The Charioteer.

Mary Renault’s 1953 gay classic would mark a transition in her career, as her final contemporary novel and first to explicitly deal with same-sex attraction. A skim through the introduction seemed to reveal her as my kindred spirit, with our shared concern for the ancient gay (or, as she would say, “queer”).

The Charioteer is set during the Second World War, though thankfully not on the dreary battlefield. Laurie Odell, a recently-injured soldier, convalesces back in England at a veterans’ hospital where he meets and falls in love with Andrew Raynes, a conscientious objector. At the same time, Ralph Lanyon, whom Laurie admired during school, re-enters his life with an underground circle of gay friends. Ultimately, Laurie is forced to choose between the innocent, blooming love between him and Andrew and Ralph’s sexual experience – and settles for the latter. The eponymous charioteer refers to Socrates’ tripartite vision of the soul from Phaedrus: the charioteer (who represents reason) drives a well-mannered white horse (which represents noble sentiments) and an unruly black horse (which represents irrational, base desires), and must exercise control over the two to reach enlightenment.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read. The writing is absolutely gorgeous and understated. There is, of course, a wonderful emotional muting which evokes more emotion than more explicitly prosaic descriptions generally do. The plot is also quite eerily similar to Maurice by E.M. Forster – but this is somewhat understandable, since both Renault and Forster were acquianted in similar writing circles.

The most interesting element is the treatment of the love triangle. I am, of course, hardly a fan of love triangles – I’m very much a believer in Soulmates and Destiny (BBC Merlin whomst?). Renault’s treatment of it, however, was painful but necessary – in the way using a pin to remove an ingrown hair might be painful but necessary. Laurie, I would assert, was ultimately more in love with Andrew, and this love was reciprocated in full (cf. that very soft smooch in the kitchens, O My Heart). I was frustrated by his refusal to allow Andrew to make the decision to be with him but later, I was also reconciled with Laurie’s acknowledgement that he would not force Andrew into a difficult position out of that love for him. Ralph, of course, was a bit more complicated. I did not particularly like him – although, granted, this could be very much because of my Soulmates and Destiny bias – but I recognised his importance in allowing Laurie himself to find that there was liberation in being gay.

Either way, it’s a wonderfully-written novel with a lot of complexity bubbling under the surface. It’s certainly well worth a read.

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The Goldfinch // Donna Tartt

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Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 nouvelle vague film, À bout de souffle, seemed to be doing storytelling backwards when it lingered on the insignificant vagaries of la vie quotidienne à Paris – putting us, for a third of the film, with protagonist Michel Poiccard and his American girlfriend Patricia in a dingy hotel room to follow their meandering conversation – and delivered major plot points in brief, confused moments crystallised most finely by the closing scene of Michel’s death, as Patricia delivers a perplexing imitation of Michel’s signature Bogart-esque tic. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published in 2013, seems to follow this upended narrative tradition of glossing over the crucial and poring over the insignificant, albeit with one glaring difference: where À bout de souffle is brilliantly fascinating, thoughtful, and self-aware, The Goldfinch is markedly not.

A more ready comparison to The Goldfinch would be Tartt’s 1993 The Secret History, a thoroughly brilliant novel which serves only to exacerbate the many inadequacies of its successor. In fact, it is difficult to fathom how the sharp mind which crafted The Secret History is the same which hodgepodged The Goldfinch into ink-and-paper existence – I suppose the most applicable explanation for this would come from Hume, who would chastise me for assuming that a common cause would generate the same effect.

The novel is essentially the fictional memoir of Theo Decker, who traces the downward spiral of his life after he is caught in a terrorist bombing in a New York art museum which kills his mother. In the confusion of the aftermath, he somewhat accidentally steals the eponymous painting and comes in possession of an heirloom of a dying furniture dealer. In returning the heirloom to the dealer’s business associate but simultaneously failing to return the painting, Theo sparks a series of events which draw him into a criminal life.

I shall start, as many other critics have, by targeting the novel’s wealth of unnecessary detail. At over 800 pages, the book was begging for a prune like a lavender bush in summer, or anything written by George R.R. Martin. That is not to say that all thick books are full of shit – but the likelihood is much higher, and The Goldfinch certainly was.

Perhaps most irritating was the fixation on intoxication: alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and a glittering array of pharmaceuticals permeate the novel in what seems like a conscious attempt by Tartt to seem “edgy” by talking about drugs. Theo’s overdependence on drugs was confusingly irrelevant – he claims that he can control his addiction to prescription drugs by taking them on every other day, dramatically quits almost as soon as he introduces his habit to the reader, then sneaks back into it in his stress. What was the point? His drugged-out reliability is briefly questioned – but then the novel plunges quickly back into action (“action”), and the significance of that is never truly explored.

Associated with the drug ramblings is Theo’s depression and PTSD, which was perfunctorily dragged out to air when it suited the narrative, i.e. when Tartt had to justify Theo’s drug addiction, when Theo rather unconvincingly grieved his mother (going through all the necessary steps of crying at night and not eating), or when Theo rather unconvincingly freaked out over killing a man (obsessively bleaching “blood” from his clothes like a butch, postmodern Lady Macbeth in his Amsterdam hotel room and – you guessed it – imbibing drugs to calm his nerves). That is not to say that it’s wholly incredible that Theo is depressed and has PTSD after the trauma of the bombing, but it’s just so randomly shoehorned into various parts of the novel as some sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card explanation for Theo’s otherwise nonsensical behaviour that it ultimately only serves to promote tedium and a deep desire for an End to the Reader’s Suffering.

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As Theo takes his assorted drugs, I reach for the Panadol to soothe my eye-rolling-induced headache.

There was also just an outstanding amount of (often untranslated) Russian and Dutch, seemingly for no good reason other than to show off a) Tartt’s excellent linguistic research or b) Tartt’s skills as a polyglot. Theo’s Ukranian friend Boris is always speaking Russian and teaches Theo a bit – but what purpose does it serve, really? If it develops Boris’ cosmopolitan character, it certainly does nothing for Theo. The Dutch, on the other hand, just seems to be scenery. And yes, The Secret History was bursting with ancient Greek, but it was thematically relevant there in a way that the Russian and Dutch here seemed like a desperate attempt to recall the depth of that link between language and concept.

I feel that the inconsequential elements of this novel can be blamed largely on Tartt’s attempt to cover an area that was too big. For one, the physical area of the book’s setting was too expansive; although set mainly in New York, there are tangential episodes in Las Vegas and Amsterdam which are given too much word count, since Theo’s subsequent returns to New York render these locations somewhat liminal and insignificant in hindsight. The time frame was also way too long and condensed badly; Tartt seemed unwilling to collapse too many chunks of time (save one 8-year break in the middle of the novel) and filled them instead with deeply uninteresting detail or background explanation. The plot-relevant action only really picks up again, almost reluctantly, in the last hundred or so pages, but by then it’s bewildering and boring and the reader has been already thoroughly worn out by the previous 700 pages of pointless rambling.

In light of this, what were the plot points that Tartt neglected? Perhaps most strikingly, I would say the eponymous painting itself. After all, it does get somewhat forgotten about for approximately eight years in the novel, despite being the reason for its existence. Theo’s fretting thoughts over it are oddly infrequent, as though the painting itself was only put into the novel in a second draft as a deliberate motif to create a sense of narrative continuity. Theo has random spells of musing over how lovely he finds the painting, then returns to babbling on about furniture or drugs.

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Carel Fabritius’s Goldfinch

But? If I must be honest? I can’t really see the appeal of this painting? I mean, sure, it’s lovely, and undeniably ahead of its time; the juxtaposition of the quasi-Impressionistic bird with the realism of its perch, the delicate mystery of its chain. Other than that, I truly feel that I’ve seen much more enrapturing works of art (case in point, Benjamin-Constant’s elusive 1887 Empress Theodora) worth stealing and hoarding and admiring and talking incessantly about – but you know, that’s just me.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant’s Empress Theodora

Another thing over which Tartt glossed was the heirloom Theo returned, the ring which belonged to Welty (the dying furniture dealer). The ring is the other item in Theo’s possession when he leaves the débris of the Met, and is crucial in connecting Theo with his “found family” and, later, locating him in the same gallery room as The Goldfinch. Other than that, for such a significant artefact with strong motif potential, it’s curiously ignored for most of the novel.

I must touch also on Theo killing the man towards the end of the novel, because – what??? It was so weird and random, like Tartt really felt like she had to show how depraved Theo had become by making him kill a man, but was also unwilling to make him that depraved, so she just made him kill a random baddie. Of course, the fact that only a random baddie dies – in rather speedy and confused scene, no less – makes Theo’s Out Damn Spot! episode afterwards unnecessarily overdramatic. And yes, you may say that I would probably Out Damn Spot! if I killed a random, but in a novelistic context his death is so insignificant it just shouldn’t really matter (also, it’s not as though Tartt doesn’t take artistic liberties elsewhere in the novel).

Moving on now to characterisation, which was disappointingly two-dimensional and clichéd. Theo, the protagonist, completely failed to arouse any sort of empathy. By the end of the novel, I just wanted him to get fucked over (i.e. imprisoned for killing a man, selling fake antiques, and stealing a painting, whatever, just get rid of him), but then he uncannily escaped justice (I could rant more on the awful deus ex machina of how this happened, but I won’t). In many ways, he was more or less an empty vessel filled with pilfered elements of other characters in the novel. Most of those pilfered elements belonged to Boris, his Ukranian friend, a somewhat criminal personality with a fondness for drugs and by far the most developed character. I personally found him supremely annoying (and he was inescapable in the book), and then I found myself frustrated with Tartt’s insistence on both Boris and Theo’s heterosexuality despite the suffocating homoeroticism that suffused their relationship.

At first, I felt like I had a particular bone to pick with Tartt’s awfully flat female characters in The Goldfinch. Pippa is one of the few likeable characters, but her portrayal was obviously a romanticised figment of Theo’s lovesick imagination. Theo’s mum is the saintly Madonna to Xandra’s (his dad’s girlfriend) fake-tanned whore. The matronly Mrs Barbour is lifted straight from some Victorian novel, the perfect entertainer until her fall from grace in the form of her son and husband’s death. Kitsey, Theo’s fiancée, is a superficial rich girly-girl whose hidden depths can only be dredged by the man she cheats on him with.

But then I realised that it wasn’t just the women characters who sucked – everyone sucked. Hobie, another of the few likeable characters, is also a figment of Theo’s imagination in that he encapsulates all of Theo’s ideals of a genial father-figure, in contrast to Theo’s alcoholic dad who neglects him and dies attempting to escape debtors. Lucius Reeve is set up halfway through the novel to be a Big Baddie, but curiously fizzles out towards the end of the novel. There’s a background cascade of random people of colour doing stereotypical things (i.e. gaggles of Asian tourists), and one gay Asian boyfriend of a baddie who cops a degree of racist/homophobic abuse (behind his back, not that that’s any better) from Boris.

But ultimately, the greatest literary sin Tartt committed was in dumbing down. She’s a clever woman, but for some reason, both she and her editor wanted to pander to the Illiterate Masses or something. The unnecessary detail? Probably a glittering distraction from the plot inconsistencies and flat characters. The focus on the painting smacked of the pseudointellectual as if just talking about art – whether or not what you said made any sense or not – automatically made you esoterically intelligent.

Not to mention the painful final 30 pages, in which Tartt more or less tacks on an essay about the novel to the end so it’s Really Obvious For The Plebs What Her Really Clever (read: convoluted and nonsensical) Novel Was About So That They Can See How Clever She Is And Also Pretend That They Understand It When They Talk About The Book With Their Friends. I mean – a well-written novel does not need to justify itself for boring me to death in its final pages. Not only did the essay fail to justify most to all of novel’s events, it was also hugely unoriginal. Art and immortality? The unique ways in which art speaks to us? The Romantics have already pored extensively over these notions with far superior works than The Goldfinch. If this was my thesis for an English essay, I would definitely not be expecting an HD.

Of course, the novel wasn’t wholly awful. It has its moments of beauty in Tartt’s prose, and the furniture restoration sequences are weirdly interesting. Popper (aka Popchik), Theo’s Maltese terrier, is adorable. It is generally enjoyable until the forced elements of plot or swathes of meaningless detail ram their way awkwardly in. But it was, ultimately, a disappointingly dreary read from an author who has already proved herself to be capable of so much more.

Crazy Rich Asians // Kevin Kwan

Since finishing Brideshead Revisited in January, I find myself thinking back to it often, just musing on its complexities. I think about Catholicism and Christianity, and how God eventually calls us all to him. I think about the disenchantment of modernity and modernism. I think about the least erotic sex scene in the entire English literary canon. I think about the little shy wine (like a gazelle) and how Sebastian and Charles were definitely in love. I think about how I expected myself to hate the Marchmains, and ended up loving them a lot. I think a lot about the line, “It’s heaven with strawberries.”

In many ways, some aspects of Crazy Rich Asians rather mirror the first half of Brideshead‘s Et in Arcadia Ego. Two individuals meet at a university and come to know each other quite intimately. One is middle class, the other belongs to a much higher social tier. The rich one takes the middle-class one to his palatial family home, where the latter is compelled to interact with the eccentric family members there. Before reading either book, I expected that they would be satirical and found they were not.

Brideshead Revisited was not meant to be satirical, so I adjusted quickly.

Alas, Crazy Rich Asians lacked the grit of insight and beautiful, understated writing which Brideshead offered in lieu of satire. Possibly because it was meant to be satirical.

I probably should have realised that all the effusive praise littered on its back cover and three pages was (in the words of Shrek) compensating for something. Like my fellow classmates in the World Politics tute, Kwan manages to say a lot of stuff (about 400 pages of stuff, in fact) and ultimately mean very little, or nothing. It’s almost a shame, really. His premise is original and genuinely concerning; there is indeed a growing phenomenon of materialistic, amoral, and tastelessly bourgeois wealthy Asians. Yet, for some reason, Kwan refrains from tearing apart these disgusting people in order to pursue his boring little happy ending. Yawn. Yawn.

Emblematic of the dreariness of this novel is the apparent protagonist, Rachel Chu. I say apparent because it’s told in third person omniscient and each chapter switches people, and they’re actually all kind of boring too. But I have a particular bone to pick with Rachel Chu. She (like the other characters, I guess) has no character. We are told a lot about how she’s supposedly so “Americanised” but all I see is just the same-old cookie-cutter second-gen Asian archetype. The fact that she’s into Colin Firth movies is so cringe-worthily typical, like Kwan is not aware that women are actually not homogenous.

Lesbi-honest, probably not the Colin Firth movie Rachel Chu was watching.

Rachel has no emotional depth and is unconvincingly passive about this whole what-the-h*ck-why-is-my-boyfriend-the-richest-person-in-Asia business. As, apparently, an economics professor she is strangely comfortable with the disgustingly flagrant displays of wealth into which she has been suddenly dumped. Why is she not shocked and horrified at these obvious issues of wealth disparity? Why is she not analysing how the selfishness of these people prevents trickle-down economics from being a reality? Why is she not criticising the amorality of the obvious offshore banking and tax evasion these people enjoy?  Only in the last 40 pages does she finally grow a spine and sense of logic; in what should probably have been the true end of the novel, she dumps her boyfriend Nick with an uncharacteristically insightful speech about the depravity of his family. Of course, all this belated character development is ultimately bulldozed over when they get back together without sorting out these issues she raised earlier.

And indeed, the wealth is disgusting. But possibly even more disgusting was Kwan’s portrayal of it. After a while, it got a bit difficult to tell whether Kwan was trying to make fun of them or really just wanted to be them, deep down. Every three paragraphs – quite literally – Kwan would chronicle someone’s outfit or some rich person’s house with the painstaking dedication of a fourteen-year-old snipping sullen-eyed models out of their mum’s copy of Vogue to glue-stick into their diary. It was like he was doing product placements. I felt a bit ill.

Kwan’s writing process: a visual representation.

Moreover, there was a confusing scene in which Nick says, “I remember there was one [traditional Malay village] nearby which we would sneak into to steal baby chickens.” Already, my brain’s alarm bells are screaming, YOU’RE WEALTHY AS FUCK, WHY ARE YOU STEALING INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S PROPERTY? (It’s also screaming about the preposition placement, but we can ignore that for now.) Rachel, soulless plank that she is, says fondly, “Little rascals!” And they have a bit of a laugh, as my incensed mind shrieks, FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHY IS STEALING FROM THE POOR BEING CONDONED?

Another morally confusing scene is the final chapter featuring Astrid, Nick’s “It Girl” cousin, who has just been dumped by her husband because of her overbearing family and her laissez-faire attitude to spending money. Astrid’s story arc had a lot of potential, and I was looking forward to her perfectly-coiffed head getting pulled out from its ostrich-grave of materialism and exposed to some real hardship. But after all the dumping and upset, she finds herself in the arms of her former boyfriend who…basically kind of demonises her husband for not being OK with her lavish lifestyle? So ultimately, she’s not compelled to learn about how there’s more to life than fancy dresses. Hugely disappointing.

Actually, all of the characters are irritatingly one-dimensional, little more than walking clothes racks. There are, for one, way too many to be fleshed out properly, like one of those Marvel superhero mashup movies. They are also predictable; most of the women characters are essentially a homogenous mass of natural beauty, designer clothes, and shallowness. Furthermore, the focus on the character of Eddie was bizarrely unnecessary; he added ultimately nothing to the plot other than being a bit of a shit, and petered out mysteriously halfway through the last part.

Overall, the writing in and of itself was pretty bad. Kwan is exceptional in that he may be the only person on this planet to not have had the Holy Mantra of Creative Writing, show don’t tell, drilled into his brain from birth (or at least Year 2). The novel is a lesson in Writing for Simpletons. There are some wonderfully tautological lines such as, “…he screamed, feeling the pressure building in his head,” and “…was having a heated conversation with her daughter…she fumed”. There’s evidence of Poor Research, as evident with his claim that the British accent was common in Hong Kong – undeniably the words of a man who has never been to Hong Kong, or has no idea what a British accent sounds like. There are lines which are so bad it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re meant to be satirical, such as this exemplar: Rachel looks at a Venus of Milo replica and literally thinks that “maybe someone should chop off her arms too. Maybe she would feel better” – honestly, what the fuck does that mean? Not to mention this gem: “Dongguan Prison. Even the name sounded ominous” – oh I don’t know, maybe because its name literally has the word “prison” in it??????

Chopping off boring-as-fuck Rachel’s arms won’t make this novel any more ‘armless for my eyes.

Unfortunately for us, not only has Kwan not had show don’t tell drilled into his brain, the people who “educated” him clearly replaced that mantra with said is dead. So we are graced with a smorgasbord of speech tags: “ventured”, “added”, “seethed”, “countered”, “mused”, “chided”, “boasted”, “reported”, “declared”, “complained”…and when a “said” was truly necessary, he just had to spice it up a bit. “Said saucily.”

Not only does his expression leave much to be desired, I also found spelling and grammatical errors. For example, when describing the sound of a gong, he writes, “A melodious peel [sic] rang through the room.” I saw mandarin peels flying across the hallway in my mind’s eye. He (and his editor) are also obviously unaware of the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested”, as it seemed not to rake on their grammatical conscience that he had used the former when he meant the latter.

That’s not to say that everything in the book was total shite. I did quite enjoy the snippets of Cantonese, the homage to the culture of the Asian matriarch (replete with Thatcher-style perm), and the accurate description about the predictability of second-gen Asian boys. But let’s be real, that’s really not quite enough to convince me to like this book after the grief it gave me in all those areas above – and all the other horrid bits I couldn’t fit in here. It lacked complexity. It lacked coherence. It lacked closure. It lacked commentary.

It lacked enjoyment, really.

TL;DR – if you want a quality book on rich people, read Brideshead Revisited and recycle Crazy Rich Asians.

SEBASTIAN: “Suck my dick, Rachel Chu.” CHARLES: “…my name’s not Rachel Chu.”