I read a little of a book about a necromancer and put it down, picking up a book about 18th century Scotland and then putting it down. What else do I have around here that I’ve been meaning to read, I wondered, and picked up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch from where I’d put it after reading all the comments on my post about The Secret History. I might as well start this one, I thought. It was 4 pm. I didn’t put it down for more than a few minutes until 11:30 pm, and got up the next morning to finish it. Although I lost some of the impetus to keep reading in the second half of the novel, during which the main character, as Tartt’s characters so often do, loses himself in a cloud of guilt, drugs, and drink, the ending restored my faith that the journey would have an actual destination.
The novel begins in a place where you don’t know why the narrator, Theo, should be, and then segues immediately into his story about why his mother’s death was his fault, and then the story of what happened that day. Several things about that day are his fault, but the reader sees that his mother’s death is not one of them; that he’s simply reacting as thirteen-year-olds often do to the loss of a parent. After some horrifying scenes in which no one takes any particular notice of him as he crawls out of the wreckage of a bombed art museum and looks for his mother, who had been with him, he is suddenly faced with the nightmare of having to find someone to live with. He’s quick-witted enough to name the family of a friend, and they take him in, temporarily, and help shield him from all the publicity he gets as one of the only survivors. That’s the first big sweep of the novel. Amid all the uproar is the story of how he takes part of a message from a dying man and also one of the paintings from the wreckage of the room he was in. When he finally delivers part of the dying man’s message, he has forgotten the warning in it. He makes a friend of the dying man’s partner, Hobie, and a mysterious girl, Pippa, who was also with him at the museum.
During the middle part of the novel, Theo lives with his father, who had abandoned him and his mother but has now come back to see if he can claim any of the mother’s life insurance money, which she has tied up in trusts to prevent this very thing. He makes a friend named Boris, a Russian, and acquires a formerly neglected dog named Popper, a maltese. Boris and Theo take care of each other and the dog as best they can, with Boris sharing his cynicism and his drugs with Theo. When he sees a letter Hobie has written to Theo, Boris says “people promise to write and they don’t….But this fellow writes you all the time.” It seems like Theo has hit rock bottom, running from fathers’ rages and living hand to mouth, and yet Boris and his girlfriend Kotku remind him that other kids have had it even worse: “she thinks you’re spoiled. That you haven’t been through nearly the kind of stuff that she and I have.”
When the father kills himself by driving drunk and they have to part suddenly, Theo, still underage, goes back to New York City with the dog in hopes of living with Hobie. Luckily Hobie agrees, and Theo eventually becomes his business partner, replacing the man whose hand he held as he was dying in the museum wreckage. Although he loves Pippa, who still passes through New York City now and then, she does not reciprocate his feelings, except as a fellow survivor: “I wrote thirty-page emails to her that I erased without sending, opting instead for the mathematical formula I’d devised to keep from making too big a fool of myself: always three lines shorter than the email she’d sent, always one day longer than I’d waited for her reply.”
Although Theo now can live a pleasant, upper-class urban life, engaged to the younger daughter of the family who had taken him in when he was a child, Kitsey, he spirals down into depression, saying “the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit” and realizing that he’s become addicted to various narcotic and painkillers. When Theo thinks about weaning himself off of the drugs to which he’s become addicted, he thinks that he will see everything as he’d once been taught to see the work of the golden age Dutch painters: “ripeness sliding into rot. The fruit’s perfect but it won’t last, it’s about to go.” He thinks about people, that “even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil.” Theo has been convinced that “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole,” but when he thinks he has lost the painting he saved from the wreckage, The Goldfinch, he feels “drowned and extinguished by vastness—not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassable distances between people even when they were within arm’s reach of each other.”
Just when I was about to get totally disgusted with him, things begin to happen and Theo begins to see that some of the distances he’s been perceiving are not as far away as he thought they were. Chance, which has already played a big role in Theo’s life, plays an even bigger one, although Theo always says “it didn’t seem like chance to me.” Boris tries to tell him, when he’s ended up where the novel began, in Amsterdam, that the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot might show that “sometimes—the wrong way is the right way? You can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or, spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?”
In the end, Theo says that “everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet—for me, anyway—all that’s worth living for lies in that charm.” He also admits that “maybe I only see a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.” The way the author has held a mirror up to Theo’s life shows readers a pattern, while his doubt echoes the individual doubt each reader always has about how much an individual life means. Theo wonders whether there can be a “truth beyond illusion…between reality on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality…a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
Since he’s a character in a novel, his “reality” is different from ours, but if you find beauty in the patterns of this novel, then you’re able to see that place where the mind strikes reality, and affects it. Like a satirist subtly managing to tell his audience what they ought to value while he excoriates what they ought to reject, Donna Tartt has drawn her readers into a perception challenge in her novel about art, making it an artful novel.