If you’ve been to New York, there’s a resonating sound that perpetuates across the island. All the cars and movement reverberate against the orthogonal architecture, a low echo, like the inside of a sea shell. And when you’re there, despite all the movement, energy and money, the sound penetrates, and with it a sort of existential fear. If you’ve watched 9/11 videos, you can hear the sound, between the screams and the crumbling of the towers.
The opening of The Goldfinch is probably the best approximation of that yawning maw I’ve read. It’s a blockbuster start, and no doubt what propelled the book forward into reader’s hands. The premise is top notch: thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a terror attack in a museum that kills his mother, and in the chaos, smuggles out a priceless work of art – The Goldfinch.
But where do you go from there? Donna Tartt follows through with a prosaic bildungsroman, at least for 500 pages or so. First New York city and the workings of teenage angst, apprenticing with a lumbering antique furniture dealer named Hobie. Young friendships and loss, occasionally taking peeks at exquisite brushstrokes of the legendary painting. Later, in scalding Las Vegas, he lives with his drunk, gambling father, and a Ukrainian artful dodger named Boris.
The narrative world Tartt builds is exquisite. Her prose is populated with uncanny verisimilitude, from the songs playing on character’s iPods to the specific make of early Americana armoirs. The sentence by sentence structure flows easily, and the pages swiftly turn. Theo – only occasionally distorted by drugs or drink – is for the most part a thoughtful observer. There’s a dose of timidity and shyness in his interactions. He’s rarely vulnerable with his feelings. These are all acceptable, accurate character traits of one who was orphaned in a violent explosion in his youth.
And yet Theo’s passivity is the book’s weakness. In a way, its a core flaw in any first person tale. The dramatic irony that comes from a limited perspective is mostly wiped away in the direct telling. Since Theo spends hundreds of pages simply observing and describing his interactions with Boris, Hobie and Kitsey, instead of acting, his inner voice can become grating. Its the reason many readers find Catcher in the Rye irritating: hell is other people, and what worse to be stuck in the mind of another (even one as sympathetic as Theo Decker) for a thousand pages.
And while the journey Theo makes is fascinating – there’s a certain hygge to the passages in the old furniture shop, slanting afternoon sun cutting through the wafting dust – it’s cut deep by slightly off-kilter passages of Russian criminals, shootouts with gangsters, cliched high society snobs.
The novel itself is basically cut in half at 500 pages – Theo’s maturation. He returns to New York from Vegas, is accepted into school, then … fade to black. Eight years later, he’s a junkie and a conman. A number of characters are simply cut. Of course, Tartt isn’t so gauche and unsophisticated to drop these bombs in clumsily, and we receive them through the eyes of Theo, who’s properly animated enough so they fit into the world’s scaffolding. But underlying it all is the feeling that Tartt wrote herself into a corner and had to shake things up (a figurative explosion) in order to propel the book along.
After spending 900 pages in someones head, you’d think Theo would come to some sort of closure about his mother’s death, or the meaning of the painting. He doesn’t. There’s an info dump of existentialist purple prose, leaning nihilistic, pretty much every end left untied.
By the end, any passionate reader is a bit stunned. Is that it? What did it all mean? What was the significance of the painting, the drug addictions?
The closest analog, which many critics have pointed out, is Charles Dickens, who wrote coming of age tales in Victorian England, often populated with colorful characters (both rich and poor) from the bowels of industrial London. His writing were serialized, riveting as page turners. Yet who remembers intricacies or the catharsis of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist? The overall narrative arc and ultimate meaning of his stories was secondary to the thrill of living alongside fully-fleshed characters, through both the exhilarating and the drab.
It’s a fitting approach, mirroring the Goldfinch painting itself. Hyperreal, yet mundane. Perhaps even minimalist in its scope. Touches of darkness, absurdism. Maybe nihilism. A bird, chained to a perch, staring forth. Was the bird ever real? Is the painting capturing that reality, from some time in the 17th century? Or was it merely a notion in the mind’s eye of Carel Fabritius? Who knows what was his mind? All we have are his finite brush stroke, pigment and oil caught on canvas. It’s not art that stuns us, or changes our worldview. There’s no catharsis. We continue on with life. Yet there’s an enigma behind it, some shadow smudged on the wall. Did we miss something?
Lots of great art makes us feel like we’ve gained something, that we now possess a new experience. The Goldfinch (the painting, and the book), plays tricks on us, hinting at something grand. Yet when we open up the hidden cache, it’s empty. All that remains is a fading echo.