I love memoirs that push the edge of the genre, using fictional techniques to tell a riveting true story. Authors like Alice Sebold (Lucky), Jenette Wells (The Glass Castle), Cheryl Strayed (Wild), and Ann Patchett (Truth and Beauty) spring readily to mind. But fiction writers can teach memoirists a thing or two – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a case in point.
In The Goldfinch Tartt masters both a riveting plot and complex characters, as well as an underlying theme that gives the story a compelling through line. Writers of creative nonfiction could learn from Tartt’s techniques. Most illuminating for memoirists are the ways in which Tartt:
Plots her story for maximum impact – Each of her chapters has a narrative arc and closes by leaving the reading wanting more. The story builds through many upheavals for the protagonist, Theo Becker, until about three-fourths of the way through the climactic plot twist is revealed.
Makes place a character in her story – Each location in The Goldfinch conveys a particular mood and illuminates Theo’s the internal conflicts. New York city is often overcast or rainy, with threatening clouds. Las Vegas is unbearably bright and dry – it is painful to experience the glare Tartt conveys through her descriptions – and the barren, uninhabited spaces – a perfect mirror of Theo’s inner turmoil and outer challenges. Amsterdam is cold, dark, menacing.
Uses dialog to reveal her characters foibles and secrets – Dialog in The Goldfinch reveals deep psychological patterns, secrets, and character flaws. Each character has a distinctive speech pattern. The alcoholic babble of Theo’s father, the socially distant chatter of his Park Avenue foster family, the ironic and twisted monologues of Boris, Theo’s best friend, the calm intelligence conveyed by Hobie, Theo’s ultimate protector and mentor. Even the two women Theo loves have distinctive speech patterns that reveal the differences in their characters.
Creates a sense of intimacy with a first person narrator – The story is told from Theo’s point of view and largely in his voice (which we later learn was shaped by his journals – memoirists take note) in a manner that is intimate and engaging. Yet, because of Theo’s powers of observation, Tartt truly illuminates each character. There is an underlying thread of compassion that allows us to connect as readers with even characters that are unlikeable or “evil.”
Uses both situation (plot) and story (theme) to enrich her prose – The situation in The Goldfinch is compelling, tragic, and murky – a wounded, grief stricken 13-year-old steals a priceless work of art by the Dutch painter Fabritius – and the painted goldfinch, chained to its perch, comes to symbolize all the ways in which Theo is a captive of loss. The underlying theme is one of illusion (art, beauty, doctored antiques) versus reality (betrayal, abandonment, greed, death). Tartt keeps the reader guessing by effectively intertwining a compelling plot with a rich, and often perplexing underlying theme.
Doesn’t rush her story or her protagonist – There were times while reading The Goldfinch that I was tempted to mentally edit overly long passages, but the writing was so gorgeous I trusted Tartt to weave her spell. Her patience as a writer – and ours as readers – is richly rewarded in a story that moves at the often frustratingly slow pace of the grief-stricken. Theo grows into a man before our eyes, and Tartt refuses to rush that process, as her protagonist increasingly confronts a moral quagmire from which he barely escapes with this life.
There is plenty at stake in The Goldfinch. For those who write memoir, it is worth studying literary fiction to learn the techniques of masters like Donna Tartt. Allowing our stories to gather richness and coherence, and employing fictional techniques to illuminate a deeper truth, is a huge effort. But one that pays off big time for both writer and reader.
A little bird told me so!