by Gretchen Shirm

The type of novels I like best are roughly around three hundred pages. There is something about the shape of narrative of that length of book that I find deeply satisfying. I think it is about the limitation that length imposes upon a writer – the narrative of the book has to be confined to that space, the novelist has to give more thought to what is left out and to silences. Silences, to me, are perhaps the most important thing about a novel.

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Silences ask me as a reader to think, to insert myself into the book and to speak back. There are usually fewer silences in a longer book.

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Many of my favourite novels are about this length – Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (288 pp), Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin (320 pp), Delia Falconer’s The Service of Clouds (322 pp), James Salter’s Light Years (308pp) and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (291 pp), for example. Many others are shorter.

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In a longer novel, the focus is necessarily more diffuse; the canvas is larger.

Recently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch made me think about the structure of the long novel and how it differs from the shorter one.

I’m always conscious when I pick up a longer novel of what else I could be reading in the same length of time. And perhaps, because of this, I demand more from the longer novel; I’m always conscious of the investment I am making in it.

I’m also very aware of the discipline of good writing – of the amount of material it requires a writer to throw away.

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Part of me also resents the assumption that a longer novel is, because of its length, somehow more substantial than a shorter one.

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From the moment I picked The Goldfinch up, I had to admit the book was riveting. Beginning with a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which the 13 year old protagonist Theo Decker survives the incident, but loses his mother. It covers the span of over a decade until Theo reaches his mid twenties. While leaving the museum in the confusion of the aftermath of the explosion Theo removes Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. The narrative is spun artfully around this missing masterpiece (in perhaps an ironic gesture, the painting itself is small). Theo’s guilt at having stolen the piece is meshed with his grief at having lost his mother in the same incident.

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In order for a long novel to work, it must take on an architecture that is fundamentally different to the short novel. It requires an overarching plot to give the novel its continuity, but it also requires various subplots to sustain its length. At 771 pages, what is remarkable about The Goldfinch is its single perspective, first person narrative.

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My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)

My copy of The Goldfinch (in the time it took to read the dog chewed it and I spilled smoothie on it)

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What I was attuned to in reading The Goldfinch was the way in which Tartt places a number of narrative threads in the novel that she picks up at a later point and through this structure, gives the novel its momentum and overwhelming sense of cohesion and inevitability.

This pattern is created from the very first page when we read that Theo is in Amsterdam as he narrates the book and has been involved in some type of crime. From this point, he tells us about the explosion that killed his mother, working from that point back (as a thirteen year old) to where he is today (as a twenty six year old). Already, we know the book is moving back towards Amsterdam, which already provides the book with its momentum.

It was this sort of placing and picking up on of key characters that seemed key to the movement of the novel. This occurs with Theo’s father, from whom Theo is estranged when the novel opens, but later plays a crucial role in Theo’s development. It also occurs with his school friend Boris, whom he meets in Las Vegas and years later runs into Theo in a bar in New York (this was the only ‘coincidence’ that I found slightly jarring.)

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The second meeting with Boris divides the novel neatly in two. The first half of the novel has to do with Theo’s guilt about keeping The Goldfinch and his excruciating dilemma about whether to return it to the authorities. The second is in his effort to locate it after it is taken from him. With its two distinct parts, roughly covering Theo as a teenager and Theo as a young adult, The Goldfinch read to me like two novels in one.

Other elements include the three significant location changes in The Goldfinch: from New York to Los Vegas, back to New York, to Amsterdam. There is also a subplot about a man who tries to bribe Theo for the painting, another plot involving Theo’s fraudulent sale of several pieces of antique furniture and his betrothal to the sister of his childhood friend Andy Barbour, with whom he had lived after his mother died.

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Whereas in the shorter novel, everything is working towards a single point, in the longer novel, there is often the sense of many of its separate threads finally coalescing. In the longer novel, there is usually more plot, more story, more characters than in a shorter novel. In a way, the focus in the longer novel is necessarily on resolving many of the unruly elements of the book that have been introduced to sustain its length.

In the shorter novel, the gratification for me is more often an emotional one – in the intimate account I have been offered of a character, in coming to understand that character as a human being, I have also come to terms with a part of myself. In the longer novel, the satisfaction often, and certainly in The Goldfinch, comes from bringing together the many different characters, plots and subplots into a resolution of events.

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I do often admire the longer novel for its sheer scale and the ambition of its writer. The longer novel covers more surface area. Like The Goldfinch, it often involves a broader cast of characters, more locations and events and yet, sometimes I feel when the effort is on so many things, it is taken away from the smaller, subtler details. The smaller details, the finite observations about people, what they do and how they do what they do. The details that disclose a person; they tell us the things a character doesn’t know even about themselves.

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Sometimes, with a longer novel, I am in a way offered more, but I often find myself leaving with less.

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