Thursday, December 19, 2013
A Novel World: On Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
Little, Brown and Company, 771 p., 2013
Donna Tartt has written an ambitious and immensely readable novel, its sentences often deft pastiches that at once record and voice the thoughts of its main character, Theodore Decker, or Theo. Theo’s story proceeds from the fateful day a fictional explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his mother and nearly kills him. Young Theo, 13, survives, badly concussed. He comforts a bloodied, dying older man who gives him a ring, telling him where to take it, and who also tells him to salvage Carel Fabritius’s small 1654 painting of a goldfinch.
That painting and its accompanying exhibition have drawn Theo and his mother, and, among other museum goers, a mysterious girl, Pippa, accompanied by that elderly man. Only glimpsed prior to the explosion, it’s this elderly man, Welty, whom Theo stumbles upon amidst the wreckage and tries to comfort. The gallery rooms have become a welter of debris and the place smells of fire. Despite his injuries, Welty sees that the Fabritius painting has been blown entirely out of its frame. Welty dies, his blood on Theo’s hands as Theo watches. Then, his head aching and full of sound, Welty’s ring in his pocket and the Fabritius painting under his coat, and glimpsing Pippa (who has also survived) as he goes, Theo makes his way out of the gallery rooms surreal in their destruction, down one empty corridor after another, trying always to move away from the smoke and sirens, until he eventually finds a door that opens onto a street. Dazed, almost freakishly determined, he walks home, where he waits for his mother, who will not appear; she has been killed in the same explosion. Theo loses a mother and gains a painting.
From that fateful day, it’s a long and twisty tale centering on two questions: what will happen to that painting, and what will happen to Theo? These questions and their successive answers take Theo to the elderly gentleman’s business partner (Hobie, a restorer of antique furniture), to the house of one of Theo’s friends (Andy Barbour) where he stays for several weeks, to Las Vegas with Theo’s father (a one-time bit actor, alcoholic, and erstwhile professional gambler who’d walked out on Theo and his mother some time earlier but who returns once he gets wind of Theo’s inheritance money), back to New York, eventually to Amsterdam, and so on.
Young Theo sounds very much like Holden Caufield – smart and with a vivid interior life of questions, observations, and judgments. If these traits and his own traumatic experience tend to isolate him, they also make his voice easy to hear. But unlike Holden, Theo ages.
In Las Vegas, Theo meets an equally unparented friend, Boris, who’s partly Russian, or Polish, or maybe Ukranian (Boris seems to speak all three languages, though his English is at once rudimentary and quirky). Despite the fact that Boris’s mother has also died years earlier, or perhaps partly because of it, Boris has learned both a relentless lack of fear and a surprising generosity towards the flaws of others. His father is a mining executive driven by work, sustained by vodka, and rarely at home; when he is at home, he’s prone to beating Boris, a habit Boris partly understands and mostly forgives.
For his part, Theo’s father keeps very odd hours. The woman he lives with, Xandra, works on the Las Vegas strip while, perhaps, selling drugs on the side. In this absence of any consistent supervision, Boris and Theo find easy access to alcohol and more; a marginal, intense high school experience ensues. All this while, Theo keeps the painting; he wraps it in protective packaging and tapes the package to the back of his headboard. And from time to time he unwraps it to look at it again. He does this with some guilt and some pleasure. The painting connects him with his mother and with a set of values. Over time, Theo comes to know The Goldfinch so well he will later be able to identify it by some nail holes in the board on which it’s painted.
Tartt’s language effectively and often idiosyncratically compels and propels the narrative, making it usefully difficult for a reader to step back and thus find a place from which to survey and judge. One guesses that Tartt wants the book read in big swoops of time, and though the story might lag some in the middle, she doesn’t let it lag for long. The family that initially agrees to take in Theo knows him because their Andy and Theo are school friends. The Barbours read like old old money New York – a world that may look as foreign to readers as it does to Theo. In this, Theo’s story starts to seem parallel to that of any number of Dickensian heroes: a poor protagonist scrambling to figure out the social codes of a level of society not previously known. As an orphan, Theo’s continually angling to fit it, always aware of his precarious position.
In Las Vegas, Boris and Theo make quite the pair, both bereft and mostly alone, living in a half built, half foreclosed suburban development the desert slowly reclaims, under a sun so bright it hurts. Even there, Pippa lurks in the background of Theo’s thoughts, she and Theo bonded by a trauma they have each just barely survived. When Theo’s father dies, Theo can think of nowhere else to go but back to New York, where Hobie again takes him in; eventually the two become business partners. It’s an interesting cast of characters, each sharply drawn, idiosyncratic, improbable when cursorily described but human and compelling within the novel’s world.
And in the end, Tarrt isn’t really trying for anything like realism. Her world, while based on the prosaic one, is a novelist’s world: a place rife and rich with meaning as her central character must confront the largest, scariest questions – about mortality and how to live in its knowledge. The novel’s answers come as much from Boris as from Theo, and they have everything to do with art, with what it can accomplish, and what it cannot. In this, the small Fabritius painting becomes pivotal: “But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself? Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth or power. There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and no sense of escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching.”
Theo never sought the explosion that killed his mother, never planned to comfort a dying man who tells him to take and preserve a small painting, never envisioned the distinctly odd unspooling of his own story. In this, he is perhaps no more surprised than any of us in our own lives. As Theo says near the novel’s end, “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth.”
Against this, in the midst of it, is art, about which Theo says, about which Donna Tartt says, “…it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” And in a weird or perhaps brilliant coincidence, the actual painting of that goldfinch chained to its perch is currently (in December, 2013) on display in New York, not at the Met but at the Frick. It measures 9 inches wide by a bit more than 13 inches tall, and it is dated 1654.