Contrary to popular belief, a fancy prose style reveals nothing. Just ask Donna Tartt, whose favorite book happens to be Lolita. Her prose is as ornate and lavish and baroque as any major contemporary writer. But even after finishing her third novel, The Goldfinch, I still don’t think I’d be able to pick a passage of hers out of a lineup. Her sentences are so labored over that they seem scrubbed clean of authorial fingerprints. What, after three novels spaced across thirty years, does a Donna Tartt novel look like?
We do know, at least, what the release of a novel by Donna Tartt looks like. The Secret History came out in 1992 with as much hype as any debut novel in the past thirty or so years. Its author came equipped with a backstory tailor-made for Vanity Fair profiles and the opening paragraphs of book reviews. A lonely, book-wormed adolescence in the Deep South; stints as a cheerleader and sorority sister; “discovered” at Ole Miss by Southern literary godheads Willie Morris and Barry Hannah; then off to Bennington, intersecting with fellow classmates Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem; more names, like Binky Urban and Gary Fisketjohn; the near-decade spent laboring over The Secret History. “No one,” remembered Lethem about his former classmate, “had ever seen a first novel pass reviewers into legend by a publicity machine, or if they had, they’d forgotten.” This was an origin story so appealing that it would get mentioned in nearly every single review of her next two novels, Little Friend (2002) and, now, The Goldfinch.
The Secret History was so faultlessly engineered as to seem authorless. Its story of murder and occultation at a tiny, tony New England college expertly rewired the old American mystery—not a whodunit but a howdunit—managing to seem both classic and novel. At heart it was nothing but a Gothic tale disguised as a Bret Easton Ellis novel. (A trick Ellis himself would pull off twenty years later, to wildly different but brilliant effect in Lunar Park.) Its obsessions—with class and violence and the capital-S Sublime—have less in common with The Brat Pack than with Poe or Hawthorne.
Tartt’s subsequent novels have fallen along parallel thematic lines. The Little Friend covers similar terrain—a murder, drawn along class lines; evocations of pre-Modernist storytelling—but in a different setting, the Deep South. Her prose is like Humbert Humbert’s: fancy, the kind of high-but-pop-based vernacular found in Stanley Kubrick movies. (Tartt and Kubrick also happen to share perceptions as genius recluses with monkish devotions to their crafts.) But for all her resemblances to various masters of suspense, Tartt has always been a master of superfluousness (n.b., how many of her protagonists, from Richard in the SH to Theo in GF, resemble Superfluous Men). Her novels’ spare parts, the passages ostensibly with little to do with the plot, end up being their strongest moments, from the preamble in The Secret History to The Goldfinch’s long, beautiful section in Las Vegas.
To paraphrase Picasso, The Goldfinch is the sum of its destructions. It feels less like a single narrative and more like a collection of long and splintered stories. All of its characters are in some way damaged, and their brokenness defines them. It begins with an actual explosion—a terrorist attack on the Met as thirteen-year-old Theo Decker is guided through an exhibition on the Dutch Renaissance by his mother, who dies. The ensuing story charts the detritus of that day, both figurative and literal. An undercurrent of trauma and grief echoes, like a secret, through all the explosive action that ensues. His mother’s memory becomes inextricable with “The Goldfinch,” the 17th century Dutch painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo loots from the wrecked museum. It ignites a series of events that carry Theo from New York to Las Vegas and, eventually, to Amsterdam.
“A symbol,” observed Guy Davenport, “only comes into being when an artist sees that it is the only way to get all the meaning in.” This basically describes the plot of The Goldfinch, with the eponymous painting, which survived an explosion (IRL) that killed Fabritius, as its ouroboric symbol. The painting’s personal significance reveals itself to Theo gradually. It becomes a substitute for his longing, its articulation. By the end, the painting becomes the only way Theo can get all the meaning in.
The world of The Goldfinch is immersive without letting you forget for a single second that you’re reading a book. The intricacies of antique restoration are to The Goldfinch what the whaling industry was to Moby-Dick or the legal system to Bleak House. Its contemporary details fleck the story but never stop resembling drops of paint. All the references to iPods or Radiohead sound dubbed over older, more outdated lines. At its worst, the novel resembles one of Theo’s counterfeit antiques, a slick knockoff of a classic. Its classicalness calcifies to classicism, the baroque prose turns brittle. But The Goldfinch, like all of Tartt’s novels, is never uninteresting.
Vegas’s famous brand of American pop comes off in the book less kitschy than noir, elegantly neon and hardboiled, like the old Hollywood movies Theo and Boris stay up late watching on TV. The Vegas section’s main action resembles something out of a Robert Aldrich movie. Theo’s father gambles so inveterately that he falls into trouble with a mobster. Dad is a recovering alcoholic and failed actor, born to lose, straight out of the John Cassavetes/Sterling Hayden School of Haunted Men.
Theo’s father exemplifies the novel’s captivating-but-stock characters, whose one-dimensionality is saved by their charisma. Boris, like Sancho Panza or Queequeg before him, is given the kind of license denied the book’s hero. He is funny and goofy and vividly alive. Boris and Theo roam emptied housing tracts until they spill into the desert. These are two gutter punks who prefer listening to Shostakovich instead of the Circle Jerks. The Goldfinch is littered with these little anachronisms. There is Pippa, whom Theo first meets that day at the Met and falls immediately in love with, and who lives out her own Dickensian story, full of wicked aunts and esoteric boarding schools, offscreen. Theo pines for Pippa throughout the novel, their relationship destined for unrequitedness.
Theo begins drinking and taking drugs, which fits his profile, given all the early trauma and grief. It also does wonders for the reader. The novel drifts to Vegas. Or, really, it gets wrenched there by Theo’s father, who abruptly appears in New York one day, femme fatale (named, of all things, “Xandra”) in tow, to assume custody of his son and whatever that might be (monetarily) worth. Theo’s time in the desert is spent in a narcotized fugue. The importance of the painting temporarily melts away. The narrative, too, decelerates as it becomes surreal, which makes the prose shine more naturally. In flight to Vegas, Theo’s dad offers up a pill to calm him down. Its effects echo the sensation of falling into a good novel:
The pill wasn’t strong enough to knock me out, but it kept me high and happy and somersaulting in and out of air-conditioned dreams… down into a dream where I swam deep in greenish-black water, some torchlit companion with Japanese children diving for a pillowcase of pink pearls. Throughout it all the plane roared bright and white and constant like sea, though at some strange point… the engines seemed to shut off and go silent and I found myself floating chest upward in zero gravity while still buckled into my chair…
I fell back into my body with a jolt as the plane hit the runway and bounced, screaming to a stop.
It’s that moment in the magic show when the magician lulls his audience with misdirection. We stop thinking about the painting or the mess of characters left back in New York. We don’t notice the assistant slipping out of the box because our attention’s focused on the saw. As Theo leaves Vegas, alone on a Greyhound, a generous aspiring magician gives him some advice about how to hide a small puppy on a bus without getting kicked off. It’s a tell (to use another Vegas-centric metaphor) in which the dealer briefly reveals her hand. The would-be Copperfield tells Theo,
“Don’t keep looking down at the bag like that. Anywhere but the bag. The scenery, your shoelace… Confident and natural, that’s the kitty… Spill your chips—stub your toe—cough on your drink—anything… Anyways, the secret is, always fix your attention away from where the slippery stuff’s going on. That’s the first law of magic, Specs. Misdirection. Never forget it.”
See: The Goldfinch’s flood of writing, its overflow of characters and scenes, that’s the spilled chips. Its messiness, however affected or fussy, distracts us from noticing the plot’s turning gears. Whether this ploy is successful, I can’t say for sure. Its messiness stands in contrast to a certain popular brand of restrained and MFA-endorsed American fiction. No plain sentences about quiet lives of desperation.
Instead, The Goldfinch embraces Henry James’s famous (and, actually, derisive) description of long 19th century novels, like Moby-Dick and War and Peace, as “loose and baggy monsters.” It demonstrates how art, whether it be a contemporary novel or a 16th century painting, is often the only thing that can alleviate, at least temporarily, our desperation and aloneness. Look, Tartt seems to be saying, look at this tangle of thorns.
Sam Freilich lives in L.A.