Sunday, January 1, 2017

Review: The Goldfinch

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

I knew I liked this one from the opening pages, but it took me a while to figure out why. Most of the time, when I find lingering digressions like these – when I’m staring at a book this long – I get irritated by descriptions that don’t seem to move the plot forward. I put on my editing hat and start to imagine what I would red pencil out.

Here, though, and strangely, I enjoyed the slow pace right away, and I especially enjoyed the eventual payoff. Tartt has a gift for making the seemingly peripheral interesting. She’s like a rare houseguest who, no matter what new topic she raises, has a way of making everything seem fresh. You expect to tire of her, but she surprises you at every turn in subtle ways.

After a time – but still very early – I decided there was something Dickensian about the book’s rhythm, about the way it seemed to have an intrinsic pace with quirky and colorful insights and strongly drawn characters. I didn’t know where it was going, but I trusted the voice, trusted that the seemingly insignificant would come back to mean something. I trusted that I was going to be led into a variety of interesting places that added up to an even larger picture.

Then, of course, I came to discover the even wider Dickensian sense of the book. We get, eventually, an orphan who’s raised with the high and the low. He knows real wealth and real poverty, characters and caricatures. There is the bright world of art and art collection – with all the insects and swindlers it draws. And there is the seedy world of Vegas and its two-bit gamblers, druggies, and mobsters. It really does cover the high and the low on a scale that few other than Dickens have been able to do.

And then, just as our Dickensian hero comes into focus, he finds a “Pippa” to love (reminiscent of both Great Expectation’s Pip and his great, quasi-sisterly love in Estella) and an Artful Dodger-like criminal pal in Boris.

So, that’s the frame in which I slowly came to understand what I so admired and enjoyed about this from the start. It wrestles with a span of American culture more fully than just about anything else in recent fiction. I liked The Secret History very much, too, but I liked it for almost the opposite reason. That one spends so much time in the claustrophobic world of its elite (and effete) small college – admittedly with a point-of-view character who is there under masquerade – that it assumes the dimensions of the whole world in dizzyingly seductive fashion. They can do what they do (SPOILER: kill someone) because they’ve so lost sight of everything outside their tiny circle.

What’s ultimately gripping here is the sense that there are two worlds – one of the Barbers’ wealth and privilege and one of Boris’s chicanery – and that both are grey-tinged. They have their different virtues and they have their different corruptions. In between lies the one fully good space of the novel, the profoundly decent, art-soaked world of Hobey and Pippa. Theo tries to stay in that middle ground, but he’s always pulled in both other directions. That, for me, accounts for the six or seven year gap in the middle of the novel: so long as Theo stays in Hobey’s world (which he does in that period) there’s no story. (It also accounts for the year-long gap near the very end.) The story comes in his sensing there’s a good place that’s closed or, more properly, closing to him.

Word of consumer warning: this is a long book, and it’s one that I think works best if you read it quickly. There are elements that ought to stay present for you. It helps, for instance, to have a sense of what the The Goldfinch painting looks like when it gets discussed in later scenes, but those come hundreds of pages after the last time we’ve gotten such a description. It also helps to be familiar with both Vegas and New York – with both the influence of Mrs. Barber and of Boris – even though those sections are both very long and otherwise seemingly disconnected.

If this novel has Dickensian rhytms, however, it is thematically – in this case like The Secret History – a meditation on timelessness versus the present. There it was philosophy crossed with religious ecstasy. Here it’s art, represented by the wonderfully imagined painting of the title.

There is an action climax here – one there’s no need to risk spoiling – but whether and how Theo gets through it is less compelling than what he comes to learn about his place (or anyone’s) in the face of eternal beauty. The closing pages are among the novel’s best – which is good since it takes so long to get to them – and they feature lyrical musings on what it means to spend a lifetime seduced by art.

Tartt doesn’t idealize that experience any more than she did in The Secret History. Art can be, as Hobey put it, like a seedy stranger calling you with a “pssst” from a darkened alley. It might not demand anything better of you than you were already likely to give. Good choices do not always lead to the greater good, nor do bad choices lead always to the bad. All of that is probably a gloss on Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth and all ye need to know.”

I’ve heard there are some who remain troubled by this one long after reading it. I guess I am, in the hours after finishing it, having the opposite reaction. There’s something liberating in recalling how small our individual power is to affect the way a great work of art is loved and remembered by the world at large. My choices do not need to stand for others’, even if I am a teacher. Instead, I have no obligation other than to keep reading and seeing as long as I feel called to do so. Art may imply morality. It may give me a sense that I can be a better person. But morality (and truth and happiness and many other virtues) doesn’t depend upon it. Beauty and truth may be married, but like all spouses they need to spend some time apart.

This book, at its most compelling, explores that space – what it calls at times “the silence between the notes” of music. In its rhythm, it finds that structure on the scale of Great Expectations and David Copperfield. In its theme, it finds it in the empty space between the things we most desire.

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