If you read a lot of mass-market fiction, you start to pick up on which writers are really honing their craft and which are phoning it in. Phoning it in comes across in lazy plotting (“Oh no, I forgot to charge my phone!”), or telling rather than showing, or a particular sort of character development I’m going to illustrate here. This specific piece is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which all told is a pretty solid novel, though she had no idea how to end it.
The passage here deals with two characters, narrator Theo and his object of desire Pippa. Years before, Theo and Pippa were both badly injured in an explosion, and while Theo appears to have recovered, Pippa still suffers from its aftereffects. Earlier in the novel, we are introduced to Pippa’s boyfriend Everett, who Theo dislikes both on principle because Everett is Pippa’s boyfriend, and on merits because Everett is kind of a whiny twit to Theo’s man of action. Much later, Pippa is visiting and she and Theo are discussing her uncle Welty, who was killed in the explosion. Pippa says:
“But Welty—he was one too. An Advanced Being. Like—not joking. Serious. Out of the ballpark. Those stories that Barbara tells—guru What’s-His-Name putting his hand on her head in Burma and in that one minute she was infused with knowledge and became a different person—Well, I mean, Everett—of course he never met Krishnamurti but—”
“Right, right.” Everett—why this annoyed quite me [sic] so much, I didn’t know—had attended some sort of guru-based boarding school in the south of England where the classes had names like Care For the Earth and Thinking of Others.
This is terrible writing. Not the prose, which is intended to reflect how people actually converse, but rather the setup. We’ve had a whole chapter with Everett in it well before. Everett is not a new character in this chapter, and Theo has had ample time to dissect him as not worthy of Pippa for all sorts of reasons that boil down to Everett isn’t Theo. So if Tartt had known that Everett had gone to a guru-based boarding school back when Everett first appeared in the book, surely Theo would have found this out and commented on it as a way of disdaining Everett, especially since Theo is a dedicated rationalist and would roll his eyes at anything guru-based.
Therefore, Tartt didn’t decide to make Everett a graduate of a guru-based boarding school until she wrote this very passage. Which is fine: sometimes we learn new things about the characters we write. But what’s not fine is her failure to anchor this new insight in the text. All she has to do here, once she’s figured out the “guru-based boarding school”, is go back to the earlier chapter where we meet Everett and have Theo find out about it, and then he can trash Everett for it. Guru-based is funny, and it’s a great piece of a character. There’s all sorts of fun things Tartt could have done at this point: for example, she could have Everett do something Theo finds baffling, and then Theo investigates and finds out about the school, and it only confirms his belief that Everett isn’t the right guy for Pippa. Then she could make it even funnier by having Everett’s guru-based knowledge actually be the appropriate response to a particular situation, which leaves Theo both angry and bereft.
This is a common trope in mass-market fiction: in detective novels, it often manifests when a new character is introduced with a throwaway quotation and then a long paragraph of narration telling us who that character is and what they like on their pizza. Since I’ve never heard a name for the trope before, I’ll show another example of it in an upcoming post.