This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so. —Steven Axelrod
Little, Brown & Co.
771 pages, $30.00
Describing a book you love is like describing a woman you’re in love with. Adoration turns anodyne; genuflection, generic. Of course she’s “beautiful and smart and funny.” Naturally, the book is thrilling and immersive. Words feel puny in the face of experience, tied to reality by a slender filament of connotation.
Better to just introduce the woman to your friends – or put the book into their hands.
For a reviewer it’s a daunting challenge, but an intriguing one: convey the book’s delights without tarnishing them, share the book’s story without squandering its surprises, celebrate its complexities without overwhelming the reader.
One friend of mine finished The Goldfinch and instantly started it again from page one. There was too much to absorb in one reading and she didn’t want the experience to end. One writer friend said simply “I wish I’d written it”; another said, “I feel like I did.”
For my wife it was like all the books she loved in her childhood, rolled into one: Ivanhoe and Hans Christian Andersen, David Copperfield, Nighthawks of Nantucket, Narnia and The Secret Garden and Treasure Island and more.
Donna Tartt has mentioned during interviews that Robert Louis Stevenson was a special favorite of hers, growing up, and that she loved the feeling his books gave her – the rush of story, the thrill of cascading events. The heroine of Tartt’s previous novel The Little Friend (2002) shares these predilections. The inimitable, indefatigable (and occasionally insufferable) Harriet Cleve loves Treasure Island, and maintains its spirit of adventure when she launches into some frightening adventures of her own.
For me, The Goldfinch recapitulates an even larger trove of literary tradition, from Tom Jones to Huckleberry Finn, from Pride and Prejudice to Catcher in the Rye, from Tolstoy to Capote, from Jules Verne to Elmore Leonard. Yes, along with being a Romance and a Picaresque, a novel of manners, an old-fashioned bildungsroman and a classic Hero’s Journey, The Goldfinch by the end, becomes, along with everything else, a surprisingly hard-boiled and suspenseful piece of all-American crime fiction.
For Theodore Decker the journey and the crime begin on a rainy autumn afternoon in Manhattan, when he ducks into the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, taking shelter from a rain storm.
They wander up the grand stairway and through the upper galleries, pausing by Carel Fabritius’s small masterpiece, which lends its title to the novel it haunts, inspires and animates. The 32-year old Delft artist Fabritius was killed, and his studio leveled, by a gunpowder magazine explosion in October of 1654. The Goldfinch was one of the few of his paintings to survive the blast.
It survives another explosion, more than three hundred and fifty years later, a fictional one this time, the result of the terrorist bombing that sets Donna Tartt’s story in motion. Theo’s mother Audrey is killed, having strolled into the gift shop – ground zero for the blast. Theo had lingered behind in the Dutch Masters exhibit tracking a fascinating old man and his companion, a lovely red haired girl with whom Theo sensed an instant wordless connection.
Theo wakes up in the smoking wreckage, the girl and his mother nowhere to be seen. Staggering through the rubble, he comes upon the old man. Delirious and dying, he instructs Theo to rescue the Fabritius painting, which has been blown off the wall, a “tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust.”
The old man, his name is Welty Blackwell, pulls a heavy gold ring with a carved stone off his own hand and thrusts it into Theo’s with the words, “Hobart and Blackwell” and the instruction, “Ring the green bell.” The old man dies in Theo’s arms. Then Theo takes the painting and the ring and flees through the shattered labyrinth of the museum, and out a side door to the street. He goes home, chased away by the first responders, hoping to find his mother waiting for him. Of course she’s not there and his life as he once knew it is over.
We are drawn into this vacuum by the precise beauty of Tartt’s prose. She has called herself “a minimalist, painting a wall-sized mural with a brush the size of an eyelash.” To understand the power of the book you have study the brush strokes themselves:
According to the clock on the stove, which I could see from where I sat, it was two-forty-five in the morning. Never had I been alone and awake at such an hour. The living room — normally so airy and open, buoyant with my mother’s presence – had shrunk to a paler cold discomfort, like a vacation house in winter: fragile fabrics, scratchy sisal rug, paper lamp shades from Chinatown and the chairs too little and light. All the furniture seemed spindly, poised at a tiptoe nervousness. I could feel my heart beating, hear the click and ticks and hisses of the large elderly building slumbering around me…And what would I do? Part of me was immobile, stunned with despair, like those rats in laboratory experiments that lie down in the maze to starve.
I tried to pull my thoughts together. For a while it had almost seemed that if I sat still enough, and waited, things might straighten themselves out somehow. Objects in the apartment wobbled with my fatigue, halos shimmered around the table lamp; the stripe of the wall seemed to vibrate.
Theo eventually makes his way to Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques store in the West Village. This is the first of many hidden worlds in the book. The store is dark, apparently closed; the green bell marks an unobtrusive side door.
When Mr. Hobart – Hobie – comes to answer the bell, Welty’s ring grants Theo admittance, and a roof over his head another glimpse of the little girl, Pippa, now recuperating from the explosion in Hobie’s townhouse. For Theo their bond is affirmed, even amplified by their joint survival, but Pippa is still too dazed to fully reciprocate his inchoate feelings.
Theo gradually drifts into the center of Hobie’s life, becoming an apprentice in antique furniture restoration.
After school amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he 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 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.
Downstairs – weak light wood shavings on the floor—there was something of the feel of a stable, great beasts standing patiently in the dim. Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture, in how he talked of pieces as “he” and “she”, in the muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces from their stiff, boxy more mannered peers, and in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets.
But it can’t last. Soon Theo is taken out of Hobie’s world by the bureaucracy that controls the lives of orphans (Theo’s father has been AWOL for years), and placed in the posh home of his school friend, Andy Barbour. This is another hidden world, a dark grotto of privilege, barricaded behind doormen and a long dark lobbies, gated elevators and heavy oak doors. The life inside the Barbour’s vast, gloomy pre-war apartment evokes Cheever and Chekhov – dwindling money, gin-soaked father, busy socialite mother; and a Salinger-like Glass family of squabbling siblings – the younger kids Kitsey and Toddy, older brother Pratt. It’s tricky at first. “Though nothing was required of me, still the effort to blend into their polished and complicated household was an immense strain. I was desperate to vanish into the background – to slip invisibly among the Chinoiserie patterns like a fish in a coral reef.”
All of this comes to an end when Theo’s father shows up, cheesy girlfriend Xandra in tow, and sweeps Theo away from everything he knows into a very different hidden kingdom: the deserted outer suburbs of Las Vegas, where abandoned McMansions bake in the heat beyond the range of bus lines and even fast food deliveries. Arid and bleak outside, sterile and over-air-conditioned inside, this new life would be lethal if not for the one friendship Theo strikes up at school, with renegade Ukrainian teen-age con artist Boris, who gleefully name-checks himself with every namesake from Yeltsin to Drubetskoy to Badenov.
If Hobie is the Protector in this journey, Boris is the Trickster, whose role is to disrupt, and he does a splendid job of it, right from the start, introducing Theo to pornography, drugs, and petty crime, while regaling him with the tales of his father’s oil wildcatting across Asia and South America, in several different languages.
The only stable thing in Theo’s life remains the Goldfinch, which he has carried with him to Las Vegas, wrapped and taped and now attached to the back of his bed’s headboard. Theo is terrified that Boris or his father might discover it, so he only takes it out on rare occasions when he’s sure he’s alone. But the picture haunts him, as it obviously haunts Donna Tartt and anyone else who has ever seen it. The lovely little bird is held to its perch by a delicate chain that seems to signify all the tragedy of life as well as the essence of life itself, the breath that leaves the body only to be pulled back again, over and over.
At one point Theo reads an Interpol report in the newspaper, detailing the value of the paintings stolen from the museum after the terrorist attack. A Rembrandt worth forty million was taken, but the Fabritius Goldfinch, clumsily hidden in a Las Vegas boy’s bedroom, is “unique in the annals of art and therefore priceless.”
Priceless! He had to get the priceless one. The little boy getting drunk on stolen whiskey in a desert suburb has somehow become an art thief of impossible global proportions, hunted by the FBI and Interpol. His father is a crook, too, though on a much smaller scale: a low-rent gambler heading for trouble. Eventually, Theo’s father encounters an unfixable string of bad luck. Genteel men with baseball bats appear at the front door, and his father dies in a car crash, speeding to escape his lethal creditors. Theo grabs the Goldfinch, some loose cash, and a handful of drugs to sell, and flees the city.
He winds up back in New York with Hobie, and the narrative jumps eight years into the future.
Clearly they were uneventful years: the soft fizzing of a long fuse. A chance encounter draws Theo back into the Barbour’s world, where he learns that Andy and Mr. Barbour have died in a boating accident off the coast of Long Island. He falls into a love affair with Andy’s sister Kitsey, and a trip to Hobie’s storage space in the Brooklyn Navy yards reveals a whole other side of the artisan’s art: a warehouse crammed with fake antiques. Hobie creates them for his own amusement, and he’s been doing it for decades. They are extraordinary pieces, and Theo starts selling them to the very collectors who have had such a difficult time getting into Hobie’s shop to buy the authentic articles. The deception, rather like his father’s gambling, starts out well. Theo sells many hutches and chairs and escritoires, showing a salesman’s skill and verve not unlike that which Welty built the business thirty years before. Soon Hobie’s business is in the black again. Hobie is too otherworldly to ask many questions about this financial miracle. But the truth is closing in on Theo fast.
It arrives in the person of one Lucius Reeve. Reeve’s curiosity was spiked by one of Theo’s fakes; a year of research later he’s tracked all of them down, and threatens to turn his evidence over to the police. But it’s blackmail, not moral outrage that motivates Reeve. He wants something.
“I know about the museum,” he says. “Here’s what I wonder. Why did James Hobart go about repeating that tale to everyone in town? You turning up at his doorstep with his partner’s ring? Because if he’d just kept his mouth shut, no one would have ever made the connection.”
Theo pleads ignorance, but it’s no use. Reeve is relentless. “You want me to spell it out? Right here? All right, I will. You were with Welton Blackwell and his niece, you were all three of you in gallery 32 and you were the only person to walk out of there. And we know what else walked out gallery 32, don’t we?”
The rest of Reeve’s story just sounds crazy – Theo and Hobie working together, using the painting to broker deals and raise money with thieves and terrorists all over the world. Actually, the painting is stowed safely in an East Side storage space with a load of camping equipment. Clearly someone has been hawking a forgery. Reeve offers a million dollars for the picture – against the threat of police prosecution for the furniture fakes. Theo has no idea what Reeve is talking about or what he can do.
Then Boris shows up.
At this point the plot, which has been cracking and creaking like a giant snowfield in an early spring, fissures into an avalanche and it would be unkind to reveal the events that follow in any detail. Suffice it to say that Theo is swept into the criminal world of Europe and winds up after a harrowing journey, cleaning his bloody clothes in an Amsterdam hotel room.
That moment leads us back to the very beginning of the novel, set in that same Dutch hideout. Turning to the front of the book, I wanted to see how exactly Tartt had whisked me fourteen years and thirty six hundred miles back to that rainy afternoon in Manhattan where everything started.
Deconstructing the transition brought back many of my old feelings about the author. When The Secret History came out in 1992 I read it in one frenzied gluttonous sitting, broken only for work and sleep. I loved the book but the author irritated me, as she no doubt irritated many other forty-something struggling writers who couldn’t get arrested with their work unless they happened to be carrying it in a valise when they were stopped for J-walking in Los Angeles. Tartt was 28 when the book came out, but she’d been working on it for years and must have begun it just out of college. How was that possible? Some childish part of me screamed: Me first! I have seniority! The world tilted into a grotesque carnival injustice thinking about all the languages Tartt’s book had been translated into, and all the money she was making. Of course, someone with actual seniority would have taken the whole affair with more aplomb. Well, five and then six and then seven years passed, and no new book came out and I (together with my grubby consort of the petty and bitter – which included quite a few critics and academics) began to feel better about Donna Tartt. The Secret History had been a fluke, a one-off. She was now suffering from epic writer’s block, crushed by the old sophomore slump, paying her dues belatedly but double or triple, with interest. Then, exactly ten years after the first novel, Tartt published The Little Friend. It seemed like an over-heated mixture of Intruder in the Dust, To Kill a Mockingbird and Harriet, the Spy, written not in Tartt’s dry allusive first person but in an purple pastiche third. A failure! This was getting better and better. I was actually starting to like Donna Tartt. I never read beyond the first ten pages of The Little Friend until I finished the new novel … eleven years later. Then, like Theo, I began to realize the exact nature of the situation. A Google search revealed numerous rave reviews for Tartt’s southern gothic, as well as sales figures and translation statistics that proved beyond a doubt the second novel I had dismissed was in fact another massive success. So I read the book and I loved it and resigned myself: This brilliant woman was going to write a book every ten years, and it was going to be a masterpiece and the best I could do about that ineluctable fact was wait and re-read and pre-order. And, perhaps, write an occasional essay to express my chastised and belated awe.
To begin at the beginning, then: it starts with Theo dreaming about his dead mother, the glamorous Audrey who remade herself in the big city after a Midwestern childhood; the evocation of Holly Golightly, one of so many allusions that tie the novel into our cultural history, could not be an accident. Pippa evokes everyone from Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes:
Is she wronged?–To the rescue of her honour,/ My heart! /Is she poor?–What costs it to be styled a donor? /Merely an earth to cleave, a sea to part. /But that fortune should have thrust all this upon her!
Hobie evokes echoes of Gepetto and Fagin and Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mrs. Barbour takes on the aspect of Miss Havisham as she ages; and of course Theo is Holden Caulfield, as well as Tom Sawyer and that other Pip, the much put-upon hero of Great Expectations.
And the dream of Theo’s mother opens into the memory of his last day with her, on the hinge of a single sentence: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” He describes her briefly and the next crucial sentence slips in page and a half later: “Her death was my fault.” The final stroke happens after a one more short paragraph: “It happened in New York, April 10th, fourteen years ago.”
And we are there, with the Amsterdam hotel where we started lost in the Manhattan rain, a fading dream of the future. So we dismantle the machinery of narrative, but the mystery remains. Tartt identifies this duality when she deploys an art critic to discuss the title painting:
“But Fabritius, he’s making a pun on the genre … a masterly riposte to the whole idea of trompe l’oeil … because in other passages of the work – the head? the wing? – not creaturely or literal in the slightest, he takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and hand-worked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract. Which is what makes him a genius less of his time than our own. There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird …It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but step closer. It falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing.”
And this is Tartt’s joke, too beyond the wry humor of her character’s voice, the sublime prank of all great writing: to take this jumble of twenty-six letters, arrange them into words and sentences and paragraphs, to leave you with memories more vivid than the ones you made yourself from the crude materials of your actual life, peopled with characters more vivid than the acquaintances you see every day. This is an ancient brand of literature, reaching back beyond Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, to Daniel Defoe and the Lais of Marie De France and even further to Murasaki Shikibu, whose Tale of the Genji invented the novel more than a thousand years ago. These are the books Donna Tartt curled up with under the covers, sneaking a final chapter with the aid of a flashlight. Maybe there’s some girl doing the same thing tonight with The Goldfinch. I certainly hope so.
— Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press will be kicking off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment next year with Gutter Books. Two excerpts from that novel have appeared in the most recent issues of “BigPulp” and “PulpModern” magazines. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and Salon.com. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.