Enigmatic to the last, Tartt, will we really have to wait till 2023 till your next novel? As with The Secret History (1992), and The Little Friend (2002), The Goldfinch (2013) is equally immersive, painstakingly formulated of intricate details and characters. Now, again, we must wait, like delicious weekdays spent in anticipation for Friday night, when the latest episode of Silent Witness would play, way back when. If it means that Tartt can follow in her own stead, and keep building the growing castle of her immortality, we should remain happily patient.
The Goldfinch, Tartt’s third novel, follows Theo Decker, who is left to his devices after his Mother — Nabokov-style (gallery, bomb attack) — passes away. From this tragedy unravels Theo’s life into adulthood, as he pursues (or is pursued by) the (idea of) the painting his Mother loved: Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch. The story is an epic Bildungsroman, with a coy girth to show it, following Theo through his years to adulthood and dilemma…
Tartt is celebrated for incorporating a baroque level of detail into her writing — she has an indulgent, ‘lingering’ aspect to her descriptions, in which the context of the narrative becomes a film set, to be filled with mis-en-scene, each piece painstakingly selected for its rightness. In The Goldfinch, Tartt seems to indulge this habit even more than in either The Secret History, and The Little Friend, an inclination that is complimentary to the Theo’s own art-riddled narrative arc. This becomes a means of rebelling against the raw, minimalist aesthetic that seems to dominate modern literary fiction. She is reminiscent of Nabokov as he wrote in Lolita (1955), overlooking details of significance as he does (“picnic, lightning strike”), and honing in on the peculiarities of color in an individual’s eyes, the scattered details of Hobie’s kitchen… It’s as if she turns away from Hemingway, and other gatekeepers for the sparser, raw styles of Cormac McCarthy’s (and others). There is something nourishing in her style, in reveling in idiosyncrasies, of image, and aesthetic beauty.
Therefore, we can forgive the length and self-indulgent, rambling plot, because this book is to be savored, not to be rushed through. The plot does not leap from action to action, but from window to window, and anxiety to anxiety.
Much of the criticism of The Goldfinch online stems from a) the ‘Y/A feel’ of the book (we love to pen things into the boxes of genre and ‘target audience’, don’t we?) and b) the ‘drag’ of the plot. That said, anyone who selects a 776 page novel to read, then whines about the length of it, or the ‘slow pace’ is being foolish: the proof was in the pudding when you picked up the hardcover. This was never going to be a book that rollicks from action to action. This is a book that savors detail, consternation, and beauty — a focus that is precluded by its very size.
We rain praise upon the detail-riddled classics, like Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (1869), a book composed of the most threadbare sinews of plot and diluted, foolhardy characters. Yet we have determined that it is worthy of analysis, praise, and immortality, because it rises to the stage, again and again in modern works, including this, The Goldfinch. And therein lies Tartt’s meditation: the imperishable artwork.
“That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you.’ Fingertip gliding over the faded-out photo — the conservator’s touch, a touch-without-touching, a communion wafer’s space between the surface and his forefinger. ‘An individual heart-shock.” (p. 758)
Tartt’s book carries not only Fabritius’ painting, but a thousand other artworks: music, film, painting, architectures, ritual.
The Goldfinch is a vestibule for appreciating art inasmuch as it is artwork itself, a travelator-turned-Mobius strip of admiration and narrative. One doesn’t rush from painting to painting through a gallery.
INCLUSIVITY: Some, though the central cast is largely white and male — the women, Pippa and Kitsey, still revolve around the men, and the doormen to Theo’s childhood apartment building seem to be the main ‘tap’ for inclusivity…
THIS ALONGSIDE: People say Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) is comparable, due to the similarities of setting and plot, but for a similar appreciation for image, beauty, and symbol, one could be directed to Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) or for the Bildungsroman epic, Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002).