Friday, October 17, 2014

“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life."

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I needed Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch the same way I needed Steven Toltz's A Fraction of a Whole. Please give me a considerably-sized work of literature, my body had been begging for weeks, and preferably a bildungsroman.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt traces young Theo Decker's journey from childhood to adulthood. In this whirlwind of an adventure, Theo's life is turned topsy-turvy. After his mother is killed by an explosion at an art museum, from which he escapes, he sojourns at the home of his wealthy childhood friend, Andy Barbour. Then, the sudden reappearance of his alcoholic father - whom he detests - sends him to Las Vegas, where he meets his best friend for life: the reckless, fearless and foul-mouthed Russian emigrant, Boris. The death of Theo's father, however, prompts Theo to return to New York and once more into the antique-filled, homey shop of James "Hobie" Hobart, the furniture restorer who was once business partners with Welton "Welty" Blackwell. Welty is the elderly man who, in the wreckage of the museum, had given Theo not only a ring that sent him to Hobart, but also instructions that - in the eyes of 13-year-old Theo - had urged him to seize and salvage the most precious painting in the room: The Goldfinch.

No matter where Theo is, be it in the Barbours' pristine dining room or the god-forsaken Las Vegas desert, The Goldfinch is the undercurrent that anchors him to his childhood, to his beloved mother and to the lovely red-haired girl who had wandered through the museum with Welty and lives in his antique shop: Pippa. The Goldfinch, beautiful and impenetrable (as all age-old paintings are), makes Theo feel "less mortal" and "less ordinary." As he says, it "was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am. And it's there: in my notebooks, every page, even though it's not." Because of The Goldfinch, however, Theo's whole life is "balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow apart." Indeed, he lives in perpetual fear of someone discovering his well-kept secret and jailing him for art theft. Although Theo keeps the painting well hidden and is initially protected from this fate, his arrest becomes increasingly plausible when he discovers, years later in New York, that Boris had taken advantage of one of his hangovers to steal The Goldfinch and trade it in underground black markets for cash (nasty surprise).

So, page ~750 onwards is dedicated to Boris and Theo's (mostly Boris’s) hunt for the precious painting. How did Boris even end up living the gangster life? How did Theo manage to run into him in New York? Indeed, one of the most significant themes in this novel is chance. Channeling Dickens in plot twist after plot twist, Tartt creates a level of suspense that leaves readers attributing all the near-impossible yet somehow explainable happenings in the novel to the machinery of fate. The idea of ‘if’ is introduced to readers early on in the novel, as poor Theo torments himself with the ‘ifs’ that may have saved his mother—what if they had gone to eat lunch first? What if they had left the museum earlier?
Chance also strikes the reader through the other deaths in the novel: the death of Theo’s father (and the fact that he even turned up to begin with), the death of Mr. Barbour and Andy (the absolutely innocent!), the death of a gangster at the unwitting hands of Theo…
The authority of chance is also hammered into Theo as his gambling, astrology-trusting father tells him, “there’s always more to things, a hidden level.” Theo’s father, "waiting to make the big bets when Mercury was in retrograde, reaching for a knowledge just beyond the known,” had always insisted that “there’s a pattern and we’re part of it.” Yet Tartt also alludes to the cruelty of such chance in saying that you would “hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light,” if you “scratched very deep at that idea of pattern.” It does seem merciless that Theo is inevitably driven to adulthood by chance, so much that is not in his favour.

Perhaps the one silver lining in Theo’s world of arbitrariness is that chance also sends him back to The Goldfinch (albeit temporarily):
I was different, but it wasn’t. As the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.
What also strikes me about The Goldfinch is how ‘true’ it is – not that anything close to Theo’s unique adventure could ever happen in real life (ah, fiction!), but Theo’s decline into the world of booze and meth is certainly plausible and perhaps even predictable given the unmentioned, yet definite, post-traumatic stress order he battles after his mother’s death.

For instance,
“Sometimes even a bad movie or a gruesome dinner party cold trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen, desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, my mother dead on a marble floor, stop it stop it, muttering aloud to myself in elevators, in cabs, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had – more than once – driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happen to have on hand.”

The novel seems even more “realistic” because the painting itself is indeed real – not fictional – and was painted by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654. What also keeps Theo’s story grounded in modern-day life are the 21st century allusions consistent throughout the novel. For example, Boris insists on nicknaming Theo “Potter,” a reference that is so deeply familiar to me that I was often thrown off whenever anyone yelled, “Hey, Potter.” Tartt also references Lady Gaga and – I’m sure of it – Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter.
Although Boris calling Theo “Potter” was hilarious, I’ve always found that fiction loses some element of its magic when brought to the surface of “real life,” and The Goldfinch is unfortunately no exception.

Speaking of reality, The Goldfinch revolves around the theme of illusion. At the beginning of the novel, Theo’s mother suddenly has the sensation of a “time warp” as she makes her way down Park Avenue. It’s a “way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.” Similarly, Theo himself is tricked countless times throughout the novel – by the absolutely unreliable Boris, by his father who pretends to be interested in setting up a bank account for him (only to use his social security number to try and leech his savings) and by Kitsey Barbour, who – alas – cheats on him. Even the painting itself is a trompe-l'œil that creates the illusion of distance. Indeed, Theo (in one of his more pessimistic moods) considers life a nasty illusion in general:

“Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. ... But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.”
Yet Theo also experiences a sweeter kind of illusion in childhood with Pippa (whom he calls his “morphine lollipop”—so childishly tender):

“And the flavor of Pippa's kiss [on my cheek]—bittersweet and strange—stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”
Of course, it is tragic that Pippa eventually settles for the mediocre Everett while Theo is lovelessly engaged to Pippa’s polar opposite, the cool and upper class Kitsey Barbour. Here, Theo’s illusions are crushed by reality as Pippa reminds him that they, both vulnerably PTSD victims, wouldn’t be good for each other.

So, what makes The Goldfinch so irresistible? So worth staying up late and getting up early for? On the one hand, it’s most certainly the plot. Tartt teases the picture of the painting on the cover of the novel, names the novel The Goldfinch, yet hides the painting away for 7/10 of the book. Where is it, we wonder, as we maddeningly read on.
Apart from plot, there is no doubt that Tartt’s style is next in line as the most significant element that sustains your read. Fabulously long run-on sentences propel you through Theo’s story; Boris’s long-winded rambles are infectiously entertaining; Tartt’s frequent use of parenthesis (almost exorbitantly so, at the end) are your windows into Theo’s anxiety and frustration; as long as someone is speaking, which is often the case, the book refuses to be put down. Watching Tartt’s interviews, I realize that she speaks as she writes – quickly, keenly and clearly.

At times strenuous, repetitive and factually dubitable, however, The Goldfinch was not always an easy read. There are certainly passages in the novel that demand a “cut to the chase” response (especially during one of Boris’s self-indulgent rants), just as the plausibility of a great number of incidents deserves to be questioned (so much simply left to chance!). The Goldfinch is a rollercoaster ride. It’s exhilarating, but too many repetitive loops and turns do leave you feeling a bit light-headed.

Nonetheless, The Goldfinch deserves the Pulitzer because what we hear in Theo’s voice is the magic that keeps us turning the pages. We hear Theo’s longing for his mother, a childish anxiety and naivety that drive him to hide the painting, an adolescent frustration that sends him into the hallucinatory world of drug and drink, an omnipresent terror of being discovered and arrested, and a growing sense of mature understanding that emerges most profoundly at the end of the novel.

I recently read the first chapter of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which won the Pulitzer in 2005. The Goldfinch is probably its polar opposite in terms of style and pace. In the former, a pastor speaks to us throughout the novel in a slow, steady voice; in the latter, everything seems to tumble out of the pages in a magnificent storytelling way. The Luminaries (another huge novel), which won the Man Booker Prize last year, also has this effect. But regardless of whatever ‘kind’ of novel now sits on the crest of literary acclaim,
“I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
Theo does this for The Goldfinch, and I certainly hope to do it for books.

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