Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The long and short of it

I have been reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch for over a month now and I am still only half way through. I am a stupidly slow reader. Although, to be fair, it is 864 pages long.

Generally speaking, I'm enjoying it. But I wonder whether it goes on, just a bit, in places?

The writing is beautiful and evocative. The scene near the beginning in the art gallery is particularly powerful. But could the whole book have done with a hearty edit?

There is one particular tic that's been getting up my nose. Phrases like 'We always...', 'We sometimes...', and 'Often we'd...' seem to crop up fairly regularly. I don't like these generalised flashbacks. It feels a bit sloppy. I want to see a scene in which the regularity or repetitious nature of whatever it is they are doing is shown rather than told. I think it is partly because in everyday life, when someone says "we always do this/that..." it often means they've done it twice, or even only once but like to be perceived as the type of person/couple/family to often do that thing, whatever it may be. I don't trust it.

A single set scene, crystal clear with everything the reader needs to glean the surrounding story from, is so much more powerful. And Donna Tartt writes this kind of scene so brilliantly throughout the novel that these broad stroke flashbacks feels unnecessary. Like I'm being stuffed with story.

Perhaps my reaction stems from the amount of time I spend with short fiction - reading it, writing it, editing it - where every sentence, every word, has to work and where the best stories don't rely on generalised flashback (or, more and more I'm finding, don't rely on flashback at all.) I've just reworked a story that I wrote a long time ago and found myself hacking away at the ugly flashback scenes, to tighten the prose.

This week I'm also reading an Everyman collection of Russian short stories. In contrast to Tartt's weighty Russian equivalents, such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, these bite sized stories demonstrate that size isn't everything. With short fiction, it is so much about what you leave out, the unspoken moments, that gives a story its punch. Tolstoy's 'Korney Vasiliev' gives the life story of a man's undoing in just over 20 pages. Gogol's 'The Cloak' explores class, status and society through a man's need of a coat. These narratives leave something for the reader. It is the sealine viewed longingly through coin operated binoculars, rather than an overwhelming tidal surge.

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