The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: why, in the end, yes

This was going to be a part of my December reading, but I’ve ended up writing so much about The Goldfinch, that I’ve decided to post it as a kind of review, or assessment. Too wandering to be a review. A response, then.

The Goldfinch was a book I was so looking forward to, no doubt in part due to hype reasons. There was something about Donna Tartt, the myth of her, that I love, and that plays to my idea of the event book, of the novelist working away slowly in seclusion, letting the story fester and bubble in some southern swamp, until it is set loose to crawl northwards…

Well, the general problem with The Goldfinch, as I’ve said in a previous post, is that, quite frankly, anyone could have written it – anyone good, I mean. It is modishly appointed, with a terrorist bomb in an art gallery to set the plot in motion, and an upstairs-downstairs New York setting, when poor – and poor – as-good-as-orphaned Theo Decker is thrown into the luxurious lap of the Park Avenue Barbour family, that then splinters and shifts as Theo grows up, caught always in the shadow of that original moment of violence.

(When I say anyone could have written it, I mean you could imagine it being written by Jeffrey Eugenides, or someone, which is not to put Jeffrey Eugenides down, but, you know, he’s not Donna Tartt…)

It is beautifully written, at times, and some of the scenes in the antiques store where Theo finds emotional and physical shelter from the world are quite wonderful. The detail – and the uses to which it is put – is everything you could want from the lyrical-realist tradition, 150 years down the line from Flaubert:

After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he [Hobie, young Theo’s mentor] taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents — “sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

This is splendid writing. It positively reeks of expertise, but learned, properly processed expertise, not anything ersatz, anything you could glean from Wikipedia. And – more importantly – and so as not to make a fetish of the prose, it fits the moment, the place, the relationship: the poetic rendering of the difficult types of wood is precise to Theo’s memory of and love for the shop, and the man.

Not everything is treated this way, though. In fact, sometimes the prose can be wearisomely perfunctory, tossing out impressionistic, verbless, comma-spliced clauses like it’s going out of fashion:

Frosted panes, snow ghosting the cobblestones, deep and speechless, no traffic on the streets, centuries superimposed, 1940s by way of 1640s.

The problem is, there is a fashion for this kind of writing; or rather, it is a kind of style, but it’s not Tartt’s, and I wince when I read it on her pages.

To be fair, the problem of these ‘styles’ is resolvable by the fact, revealed very near the end of the book (and this is not really a spoiler, I don’t think) that Theo’s first person narrative is a written first person narrative. The book is his, written, book. Which explains the different depth of care given to different episodes. But doesn’t quite explain – or doesn’t adequately justify – the overall structure of the book, which opens, in media res, with a brief scene of Theo holed up in an Amsterdam hotel, with hints that he’s hiding out from the aftermath of some ugly crime, and then leaps all the way back to the start: his happy childhood and the act of violence that ripped it in two.

Where The Little Friend and The Secret History (from memory) stuck very much to their designated locales (Mississippi and Vermont, respectively), The Goldfinch moves about, giving us New York, Las Vegas and parts of Europe. But it moves linearly, trudgingly so, and – again, as mentioned before – it must push our expectations ahead of it, page by page.

The two earlier novels created a sense of impending disaster that kept the reader obsessively, fearfully moving forward – the crisis must come, it must be here somewhere in these pages – and taking the book with them as they went. The reader, in other words, did all the hard work, all the heaving and shoving, and happily so.

In this one, well there is a worry embedded in the narrative (what will happen if the world finds out about the painting that Theo walks out of the museum with), but really it’s out of mind for much of the book and, by and large, things get worse for Theo despite, not because of it. Things get worse, but that fear/desire to see worse explode into the worst does not saturate the reading experience, as before.

And yet. And yet.

The final pages of the book – the last thirteen pages – are great. And when I say great,  I mean, in a classical sense, great. They are grand, and humane, and uncannily powerful. They pull together themes and characters from the novel I had casually dispensed with hundreds of pages before, and it ties them into the tight, feathered heart of what it wants to say in a way that is more musical than literary. (Novel as symphony, or possibly, here, concerto.)

And of course, it needs the other 750 pages in order to be able to produce that dozen.

A dozen? It is really just three-and-a-half pages that provide the final core of the novel, a personal-aesthetic treatise on the painting of the title, the C17th miniature on the cover: three-and-a-half pages that… well, I was going to say they destroy or erase or elide the boundary between fiction and criticism, but they do something more than that: they swell until they swallow whole the entire territory.

Donna Tartt has written one of the best pieces of work-specific art criticism I think I have ever read – that you have to read a 750 page novel to understand.

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4 comments

  1. Max Cairnduff

    There’s an Aldous Huxley, I always forget which though I suspect it’s Point Counterpoint, which for most of its length is actually quite difficult not by reason of prose or complexity but the coldness of its characters. It became for me a struggle to read, simply because I found them all so unpleasant.

    That’s odd, because I don’t as a rule care if characters are sympathetic or not. In fact, I think the common idea that a book is bad if it lacks sympathetic characters is idiotic. Still, that doesn’t mean character is unimportant, or that characters can’t prove a barrier to a book.

    Then, in the last few pages, there’s a moment of blinding humanity which reaches back and recasts the entire book. It’s brilliant. This reminded me of that.

    Of course, most readers will probably (quite rationally) have bailed before that point. As a rule books that aren’t great by page 200 don’t turn great on page 205. There are occasional exceptions, but the Huxley stands out to me as it’s still the only time I’ve pushed to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying and suddenly found that effort rewarded. Every other time disappointing books just ended disappointingly.

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    I’ve not read that Huxley – I think the only novel apart from BNW that I’ve read is Eyeless in Gaza. But i recognise your experience – I had it, big time, with Open City, which I probably would have chucked half way through if i hadn’t been reading it on a plane journey, with no other reading. Have you read that?

  3. languageisavirus

    actually, those lovely impressionistic sentences can be found throughout all of her work. this one is my favorite from The Secret History: Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.

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