“There’s A Shape To This Thing, A Larger Pattern”: Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch:

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI found The Goldfinch a decidedly odd experience: for starters, it is fairly explicitly written in the Dickensian mode (the viewpoint character is ballsy enough to read Great Expectations and tell us all about it), and one of my literary blindspots, dear reader, is good old Uncle Chuck; so this book may indeed not be For Me, and therefore my reaction to its odd mixture of farce, thriller, bildungsroman and romance should be taken with a pinch of NaCl. What Donna Tartt has written, however, will, I wager, discombobulate reviewers other than me.

The novel starts as it means to go on: within thirty pages, our narrator Theo’s beloved mother has been killed in a terrorist attack on an art museum, and a mysterious old man has, with his dying breath, instructed our hero to rescue – or steal, depending on your perspective – one of the gallery’s priceless exhibits. All this, of course, powers the rest of the novel’s plot – or it would were the narrative not so attenuated and discursive, and rather uninterested in its own increasingly hyperactive resolution.

The book’s first part begins with an epigram from Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” There is very much a sense that The Goldfinch does not take place in our world, that it is at one troubling remove from our own experiences. On the first page, we read that Amsterdam “gave
a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury”. Is this really Amsterdam? And doesn’t Fabritius’s eponymous canvas hang in a city other than New York? And why does Tartt pretend it’s such a mystery why Fabritius painted a goldfinch, when it was a well-used symbol for the soul and salvation during his lifetime?

Putting aside the softness in the novel’s philosophy that this might suggest, I’m not sure how happy I am about such inexactness in a novel which makes such a virtue of its peripatetic plot: events move from New York to Las Vegas and back again, from Istanbul to Amsterdam. Some places are captured better than others – “What do people do?” Theo asks of a Las Vegas native, receiving the accurate response, “They drive?” – but none of them really stand out. The same is true of the novel’s characters: although there are many, none move beyond their starting Cliff notes. Boris, the Russian friend of Theo’s tearaway teen self, is a bit shady and a bit impulsive; the granddaughter of that doomed old man is a bit flighty and a bit unattainable; our narrator himself is a bit reflective and a tad passive. Repeat for 800 pages.

In this context, even Tartt’s telling asides – those loquacious details which in a narrative such as this aim for richness and depth – turn out apparently irrelevant and lightweight. At one point, we learn about the narrator’s childhood cleaner, Cinzia, who, when threatened with redundancy, “cried, and offered to stay and work for free; but my mother had found her a part time job in the building, working for a couple with a baby; once a week or so, she stopped in to visit my mother for a cup of coffee, still in the smock she wore over her clothes when she cleaned.” Other than emphasising the remembered characteristics of the narrator’s improbably nice mom (a bit saintly, a bit boho), how does this additional story help any? There’s no centre around which it can orbit, no mass towards which it can gravitate.

My negativity is not the response of this book’s average reviewer. Many have called it a great achievement, and in a sense it is: the novel abides, it perseveres, it does not collapse under its own considerable weight. Its sheer array of details works to inspire in the reader something of the archivist, of the collector – and in a novel about loss, about the irretrievability of things, this is clever. (“I guess that anything we manage to save from history is a miracle,” says the narrator’s mother moments before her death.) In this, then, The Goldfinch seems arch and deterministic, rather than flabby and random. When in its second half the book descends into a prolonged chase drama, there’s a sense that Tartt is poking fun at narrative itself, that its apparently split personality is in fact a satire of extremes held in opposition, of the false pleasures of popular authors like JK Rowling (Boris nicknames Theo ‘Potter’), but also of the sort of fractal authors Adichie refers to in Americanah as packing their novels with “with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons”. The old man’s dying words might set things in motion, but they’re not where the story is – the satisfaction is not in being barrelled along or forced into a particular pattern, but in experiencing whatever we can sift from whichever of all those extraneous details we can recall.

Towards the end of this compendious book, the narrator confesses that it is compiled from capacious notes he has made since he was thirteen. This entirely artificial note strikes exactly the right tone for Tarrt’s unlikely novel, equal parts postmodern pun and earnest explanation. “The historical significance deadens it,” the narrator says of Fabritius’s painting, and here is a novel which asks us to give up on getting from point A to point B and finding any satisfaction in the resolution; it asks us to enjoy its single moments, its grace notes and individual scenes. They don’t even make much sense when placed together, or move in any particular direction. Those fragments of the past we save are just that: moments, cast in amber.

Whether or not the novel works in this way will be down to personal taste: I didn’t feel its fusion of the nineteenth- and twenty-first-century novels did much for either form. Others will disagree, even find its layer-caking profound. Whatever your judgement, however, the novel feels rather harder to describe than the Baileys shortlist, which by and large is straightforward enough, rewarding novels already noted elsewhere. Lahiri, McBride, Tartt, Adichie and Kent have all been garlanded and promoted already. In that sense alone, part of me rather hopes that Magee wins the prize for the discipline and emotional depth of her rather less heralded effort, though it’s the slimmest and simplest of the lot.

I think, though, that on this safest of shortlists the previous winner might have an advantage, and Americanah is an important, fully-realised and well-written novel that on an aggregate basis bats off its competition with ease. McBride’s is the other novel I would be pleased to see take the prize: it may even beat the Adichie on invention and score-draws it on boldness, yet at the same time it has a warmth and energy absent in the Lahiri, Tartt and Kent. Those latter three novels in one way or another seem lumpy even where they are, in each case, in spots and often long passages rather wonderfully written. This, then, is a very strong first shortlist for the Baileys, one which rather deserves more press than it has got. Perhaps reviewers have already written enough about its six much-noted contenders; perhaps next year the Baileys should cast its net further. But, for 2014, this is a strong stable of novels, all six of which, it seems to me, have a credible chance of winning. (Compare that with this year’s Clarke award, and one can see David Hebblethwaite’s point: “contemporary sf published in the UK is punching well below its weight.”)

My hemming and hawing is over: the winner is chosen shortly.