The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

[As with all my posts, I have written about the novel as I have read it, bit by bit. So when I was writing about Part 1, Chapters 1-3, I had read no further. There are eight consecutive entries in this post.]

29 July 2014
Part 1, Chapters 1-3
First, it’s highly readable. It’s easy to have read nearly 120 pages without it seeming any effort at all. In the short sub-chapter that opens the novel – each long chapter is divided into a lot of shorter ones – the narrator is in Amsterdam, having had to get out of New York fast. He’s cagey about why, because… because Donna Tartt needs to pique our curiosity, I guess. Things haven’t gone right for our man, or so he tells us, since the death of his mother when he was thirteen. He’s now 27, and lying low.

This is a framing device because, so far, everything else has been one long, vivid flashback to the hours just before the cataclysm and the weeks that follow. How can I describe the style? American Literary Completist? It takes many pages to get the boy and his mother to the museum, with his thoughts ranging from the trouble he’s in – they’re on the way to a meeting at his school because he’s been caught with someone who was smoking, but he worries that some earlier crimes will be uncovered – to the hunger he feels, having missed breakfast for reasons he’s at some pains to set out for us. Then there are his distracted responses to her explications of the Dutch paintings in the exhibition they’ve come to see – she would have been an art historian if the money hadn’t run out before she could do her doctorate – which, significantly, are one long memento mori. His distraction doesn’t stop him remembering her words in the kind of implausible detail you get in Victorian novels. Later, his memory becomes fragmented and untrustworthy but, I guess, that isn’t what Tartt is interested in at this moment as she lets us into her own (rather interesting) insights. Maybe I’ll come back to those, but for now…

…we get, quite out of the blue, a 9/11 moment. Before this we’ve spent – let me see – eighteen pages wondering how the mother is going to die. But, by having the boy constantly blaming himself, Tartt has been setting a trap. How were we to know our author is planning to blow up the Frick Collection? Cue – what, exactly? A fictional, New York-based evocation of what it feels like to be in one of those all too real bomb explosions, terribly familiar from TV news, in which dozens of innocent people are killed.

It’s brilliant, but I’m uneasy with it. Modern writers love this particular writing exercise, the one in which they try to convey the disorientation and horror of being blown up, i.e. something that’s a very long way indeed from our own lives. Kate Atkinson does it in Life After Life, published within weeks of Tartt’s novel, and both authors do an impressive job. In each case it feels plausible, so that for a few minutes it is as though we are there, coming to terms with regaining consciousness in a place where everything is wrong, and where, at first, you don’t recognise body-parts for what they are. Maybe it’s because the news is full of what is happening in the worst bombardment of Gaza in that troubled territory’s history, but I find this imaginary bombing on American soil vaguely distasteful. It’s Gaza now, but earlier in the year it was Syria, and before that a whole list of strife-torn regions. So what do novelists in the West do?

I know, silly question. But it makes me wonder how Tartt, famously clever writer that she is, adds other ingredients to her plausible mix. As I turn one page, and then another – 20 altogether between the explosion and the boy walking out of the museum without his mother – I wonder how she keeps me doing it, uneasy as I am. I can’t help but stand back and try to work out what smoke and mirrors she’s using. One of them is a careful layering of remembered details. We’ve had the mother’s thoughts on the paintings, presented verbatim, and now we get a splintering, with most of the pieces missing. From now until the end of Chapter 3 at least (I’ve read no further), memory is a troubled, provisional thing. Except… one set-piece scene after the explosion is made to stand out. The boy is present in the moments leading up to the death of an old man, who had been at the museum with a girl that the boy had fixated upon. The man gives the boy a ring, and the name of some people he wants him to give it to. He also gets the boy to rescue the painting of – wait for it – the goldfinch, the one his mother had named as her favourite. You couldn’t make it up. Then… cue an explosive coughing-up of blood, which showers the boy, and a hastening towards death.

The boy – I should really start calling him Theo – gets back to the apartment, pretending to himself that his mother will be there. We get, in detail, the mounting terror of his evening and night, right into the early hours, as he fails to cope with the news we know he’s going to get. At the end of Chapter 2 he gets it, and then we’re into another world again. Park Avenue.

Well brought-up novelists take us to nice places, and now our boy gets to stay in an apartment that is as good as it gets. The nominal justification for this is that Andy Barbour, his friend from elementary school, is the only person he can think of when pressurised by the social workers to come up with someone he might stay with for a while. (I didn’t mention that Theo’s no-good father left home with no forwarding address some months before. His highly unsympathetic grandfather and step-grandmother, when they are eventually traced, plead incapacity.) In a long chapter Tartt makes it her business to have the uber-controlling Mrs Barbour shield our boy from the worst intrusions of the media and the authorities. There’s plenty of plausible, readable detail about how he continues to fail to cope with what has happened to him, with the ways that the various members of the wealthy family adapt to his troubled presence. He goes back to school. He toys with the ring the old man gave him. He thinks about the painting, still in his own apartment but, for reasons that Tartt makes plausible, he fails to mention it when questioned by about what he remembers of the explosions. Forgive me for using the word, but it has all the features of a classic McGuffin.

And one day, some weeks into his improvised new life, he remembers the names of the people the old man mentioned to him. He looks up their number in the phone book. At the suggestion of the geekish Andy he goes to the address he’s also got – cue picturesque descriptions of Greenwich Village on a Sunday morning – and, reader, somebody answers the door. Time to read on. (And when I start writing again, I’ll try not to keep describing how plausible it all is. I’ve already used the word five times.)

30 July
Chapter 4 – to the end of Part 1
24 sub-chapters, in case you were wondering, in about 80 pages. His hopes of a new life with the Barbours, which has begun to look very real, are shattered just before the end of Part 1. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see it coming: having finally found out about the death, Theo’s father re-enters his life. And he’s brought a woman with him who is about as different from both Theo’s mother and Mrs Barbour as she could possibly be. Reader, she’s a gum-chewing, celebrity-obsessed pleb. Augh.

Xandra – ‘with an X’ – is the last in a line of larger-than-life characters in this chapter. Along with memories of long-ago conversations presented verbatim, interiors described in elaborate detail and the carefully timed twists in the plot, these give the novel a Victorian feel. (I googled tartt goldfinch dickensian, and up came a whole raft of reviews and blogs.) The first of them is the huge man Theo has briefly met at the end of Chapter 3, Hobart, always known as Hobie. He is the business partner (and probably more) of the old man who died in the museum. He’s a restorer of antique furniture, and his workshop, in the evocative chaos of its welcoming interior, is like a metaphor of the inside of his head. Hobie isn’t actually based on Mr Venus, the hapless proprietor of the bone shop in Our Mutual Friend, and definitely isn’t the oleaginous Krook in Little Dorrit, but he nearly is. And the relationship Theo develops with him over many visits is straight out of Dickens as he searches for someone to stand in for the absent father he never liked anyway. I’ll come back to fathers and sons in this novel, because Tartt does, incessantly, alongside the problematic marital relationships they are a part of.

In fact, it’s all about relationships. Theo, having lost his darling mother – and I’ll come back to her – slowly begins to piece together something viable in its place. At Hobie’s, behind the shop that had been run by the old man, the girl he first saw before the bomb blast at the Frick is making a slow recovery from an alarming head injury. She is Pippa, and a single meeting is enough to establish a strong bond between them – only for her to be whisked away to Texas by an inconvenient aunt. Pippa, a promising musician before her injury, will surely feel as lost there as Theo will be in Las Vegas, which is where his father is about to take him at the end of the chapter. Tartt likes these parallels. By this time Theo, over the two or three months he’s been at the Barbours’, has begun to find his way with them. Just before the cataclysm of his father’s reappearance, he finds out that the parents like the influence he is having on their geeky son. He is suitably thrilled when he realises that the summer holiday they have invited him on might well lead to a permanent place in the family. Good Victorian that she is, Tartt places the arrival of the father at precisely the moment when Theo begins to assume that his future is assured. His final meal with Hobie – not, Tartt lets us know, to be their last ever meeting – is designed to be as touching as anything in Dickens.

These are the relationships that work. Alongside them are many more that don’t. All the adults in Theo’s life – psychiatrist, social workers, teachers – attempt to engage him following his bereavement, and Tartt makes every last one of them completely inept. She does that authorial trick in which the adult Theo, narrating all this, is able to describe in forensic detail not only his reasons for resolutely not responding to them but also his ability to see how wrong they are getting it. It’s part of what I see as her completest agenda: she doesn’t want us to mistake Theo’s taciturnity for lack of insight which, she demonstrates, he’s had in spades at the time.

Theo’s father is the ‘I coulda been a contender’ type, a promising former actor who blames everyone but himself, and especially not his own drinking, for his failure. Theo, alongside the reader, wonders where the relationship with Xandra can lead. He thinks she must already be well acquainted with the story his father tells her over a horrible restaurant meal. Theo waits for the name of the villain of the piece to appear, which it does: Mickey Rourke, jealous of our man’s talent, and the architect of his fall from favour. The other marriage we see is that of the Barbours. The capable Mrs B manages her jaunty, medicated husband, a former banker (or something) who suffered a nervous breakdown some years before. He’s working again, while she spends time with her beautiful objects and good works, and they have a perfectly workable modus vivendi… except her favourite son, at college, is a bully and a mess. Near the end of the chapter he has been sent down, possibly permanently.

Marriages. Parents and children. We hear a lot of stories via Hobie, whose own father was, as he tells it, another bully. Hobie, too, could have been somebody, but his father swindled him out of the money he earned to pay his way through college. He was only saved by Welton ‘Welty’ Blackwell, the man who was to become his partner. (If this was more than a business partnership, Tartt leaves us to speculate.) Welty’s father, a rich man in Egypt before Nasser threw out all foreigners – this novel is full of little exoticisms – exiled his son to America when he was crippled by an illness that twisted his spine. He didn’t like imperfections…. And his status as another of the novel’s bad husbands and fathers is confirmed when we hear about Pippa’s mother. She, the mother, was the child fathered on a servant during the man’s second marriage, a child he was allowing to be brought up in unhappy squalor with boozy aunt. (I think.) It was Welty who rescued her, not worrying for a moment that people assumed this half-sister to be his own child.

Welty, as presented by Hobie, is one of the novel’s handful of good guys. The other main one, apart from Hobie himself, is Theo’s mother – as presented by Theo. One thing that 21st Century readers know all about is (sigh) the unreliable narrator, and we are on our guard. Theo’s rose-tinted version of their life together, especially after his father’s disappearance, is full of her kindness, tolerance of his own foibles and her artistic brilliance. His father presents a different picture, as though Tartt is reminding us how partial a view we’ve been getting. She was impossible to live with, judgmental, prone to long silences…. We’re bound to think of reasons why he would see it this way, but I can’t imagine this author to have brought in his alternative view without wanting raise the issue of different people’s perceptions. How true are any of the stories we’ve been hearing?

There’s plenty of other stuff. Some of it, inevitably in an American novel about families, is about money, status, class. Pippa’s wealthy aunt, the one whose unwelcome arrival foreshadows that of Theo’s father, is like a colder version of Mrs Barbour. Inevitably, she can only see advantages in having Pippa raised a long way away from what she clearly sees as the squalor of the apartment behind the shop. Theo’s father has washed up in Las Vegas – it’s Andy who remarks that the forwarding address in ‘Desert End Road’ could be on another planet – with the woman we’ve been allowed, so far, to see as a waste of space. But is her news that she’s kept her new man off the booze for more than 50 days just talk? Or is she, in fact, going to be a lot better for both father and son than he thinks at this moment?

And then there’s the plot regarding the painting. It has been in the empty apartment all along and, shortly before his father’s arrival, Theo reads in the paper that it is presumed destroyed. There’s a tense episode when he has to rescue it from the apartment, by hiding it in a suitcase, when his father insists on going there straight away. (All of this, as you would expect, is told in the context of his continuing grief. As he nervously makes moves to hide the painting, he is constantly faced with agonising details of that last morning. He hasn’t been to the apartment for months, but over a few days he has to witness his former life being dismantled, packed away or sent to charity shops.) There’s the ring, which clearly has some real significance. Unlike with the painting, Theo has no hesitation in returning it to its true owner when he gives it to Hobie the first time he meets him. And… there’s another back-story. Theo’s mother had an idyllic life with her horses in Kentucky before – guess – family circumstances and an unsympathetic relative forced her into coming to New York. It’s a good job she was able to make it as a small-time model. (Why does this all suddenly sound like hokum as I describe it? Is it another unreliable version of the past?)

We await the next episode in the picaresque life of our hero. We’re over a quarter of the way through the novel, and we’ve only progressed from one spring to the following summer. We’ll never reach Amsterdam in fourteen years’ time at this rate….

5 September
Part 2, Chapter 4
78 pages, 28 sub-chapters and… what? Theo makes a friend in Vegas. The chapter is big on mise-en-scene and meticulous descriptions of what it feels like, say, to wake up drunk or to come close to drowning. But, aside from the year rolling round from high summer to Christmas Day, nothing happens that moves the plot forward an inch. Maybe that’s the point. There’s a moment of narrative tension on the first page, when a new doorman at Theo’s old apartment building refuses to let him have the suitcase that he’s left there… but it’s dispelled immediately when the old one turns up and gives it to him. Later Boris, the new friend, finds something under the bed – which we know is where Theo left the painting – but it’s only a bottle of vodka he brings out. I seriously wonder whether Tartt is doing this on purpose, to signal to the reader that the real content of this chapter doesn’t lie in the plot, but elsewhere.

Ok, where? For a start, fathers and sons again: Boris’s father, another drinker, beats him up regularly, but otherwise leaves him alone. In fact, he’s left him alone for most of his life as he moves from job to job all around the world. It’s left Boris fluent in several languages and almost impossibly worldly-wise for his age, with enough stories to fill many drunken evenings with Theo and many pages of the novel. He’s a larger-than-life character to go with all the others, and he becomes another parent-substitute for Theo. Or non-substitute, as each gives the other a kind of cobbled-together support. Boris feeds Theo food he mainly shoplifts and the booze that is always in the house. Theo lets Boris stay at his father’s house so often that he becomes almost as much a part of the family as Theo did on Park Avenue. Except Tartt puts a disturbing spin on things by having Xandra so clearly attracted to Boris that he and Theo speculate on whether she will end up taking him to bed. Inevitably, Boris lets Theo know that he would not be losing his virginity if she did.

The fathers are mostly absent, but not entirely. Occasionally, Theo catches a glimpse of what must once have attracted his mother to his father, and he gains some thin little insights into his father’s relationship with Xandra. They clearly find each other sexually attractive and good company, and have been together since almost a year before he left his wife. Theo struggles at first to work out what he and Xandra actually live on: she has a bar job and he – what? – is out late at nights, which is why Theo usually has the house to himself. Boris, meanwhile, has to put up with a father who is often away for days at a time and who always comes in drunk and often violent. (Theo is surprised by his smallness and apparent graciousness when he meets him. I think it’s Theo himself who makes the observation that you can’t always tell what somebody is like just be looking. Deep.)

But this chapter is almost as much about place as it is about relationships, and painstaking descriptions confirm that houses continue to match the interior lives of their owners. The one his father shares with Xandra is on a failed development in the middle of nowhere – Tartt, no doubt deliberately, has different characters echo Andy’s original observation that it sounds as if it’son a different planet – and it’s so sparsely furnished it troubles Theo for days to begin with. Boris’s is on the very edge, where the desert is already reclaiming the streets and yards. As for Vegas and the Strip – which Theo only seems to see twice, at the very beginning and end of the chapter – it’s exactly as you’d expect a 15-year-old boy to see it.

Theo gets thoughtful and obviously caring letters from Hobie and, occasionally, politely friendly ones from the Barbours. And at the end of the chapter Theo’s father has just won so much at the Baccarat tables that he treats him and Boris to a lavish Christmas dinner and gives them $500 each. But if there are going to be any developments in the plot we’re going to have to wait until the next chapter.

10 September
Part 2, Chapter 6
This is the second of the two chapters in Part 2, and it’s such a mirror-image of the first that the whole thing feels like a perfect arch. Leaving New York and arriving in Vegas in the summer at one end becomes leaving Vegas and arriving in New York in winter at the other. Getting to know and depend upon Boris becomes a gradual process of coming to terms with how separate they really are from one another (Boris has met a girl), and with how he needs to fend for himself. His half-hearted efforts to get to know Xandra are replaced by a bad-tempered phone conversation at the end in which he makes it clear he never wants to speak to her again. Oh, and there’s been a single big plot shift: at the start of Chapter 5 his father is alive. By the end of Chapter 6 he’s dead.

Tartt signals a fairly swift passage of time early in the chapter, and most of the action takes place towards the end of the year following that unexpected Christmas treat. Unlike the previous chapter, this one contains elements that move the plot forward, but these can be summarised quickly. The lives of Boris and Theo continue on the same downward trajectory as in the previous chapter until Boris meets Kayleigh, or whatever she’s called. (Boris likes nicknames – Theo is Potter, after the Harry Potter-style specs he wears – and hers is Kotku. There’s even a nickname for the dog who features more and more as the chapter goes on.) Theo finds himself spending more time with his father – who, we realise later, has an ulterior motive: he wants the money which, we only discover very late in the chapter, is being held in trust for Theo’s education. His need for money comes as no surprise, because Tartt has brought on another larger-than-life character for a cameo appearance, the affable New Jersey cowboy with the toupee. He is owed money by Theo’s father – he refers to ‘five points’, whose meaning only becomes clear later – and there are heavies in the car who aren’t as friendly as he is.

But the horrible set-piece scene in which his father’s desperation becomes clear still comes as a shock. At first he is the smiling, friendly man that Theo has come to know over these months, asking him in a perfectly reasonable way to take the money out of his trust-fund so that he can invest it in a business project alongside the money he’s been making. (His ’53 per cent’, enough to tip the balance of probability, has been one of the meaningless fictions he’s been spinning to Theo. Theo has often been mystified by how losses don’t seem to worry his father. He’s forgotten what a good actor he is.) It’s only when he hits him hard, twice, across the face that we realise how desperate he is. Theo makes the call to the lawyer, gets nowhere with it – his mother had clearly expected exactly this sort of attempt, which isn’t the first – and hears the sound of his father weeping in the other room. The next time we hear about him he’s crashed the car, completely drunk, apparently whilst trying to flee the state.

As ever, Tartt incorporates all this, and everything else that happens, into the almost hyper-real rendition of Theo’s experiences that we’ve been getting since the beginning of the novel. His jealousy of Kotku, the experience of different kinds of drugs and drink, strangely intimate episodes of male bonding that mean more to him than they do to Boris…. All these amount to another trajectory, one that seems to become explicit when this boy who had once obsessed over a mysterious girl has to leave. What he doesn’t say to Boris, ‘the thing on the edge of my tongue… was, of course, I love you.’ Is this a discovery about his own sexuality, in a novel in which the fiercely heterosexual Boris can make fun of Hobie’s letters as those of an ‘old poofter’? Or is Boris, whose father is coming to the end of his time in Vegas, simply the family that Theo is looking for?

I’m guessing the latter. Following a sixty-hour bus journey during which boredom is occasionally interrupted by moments of terrifying tension – he’s smuggled the ridiculous dog on board – I was reminded of the best writing for young adults: Tartt knows how to take you there, making you feel what it’s like to be young and vulnerable. And at the end of it, as Theo suffers the onset of a fever he’s been trying to ignore, he arrives home. Hobie’s shop seems unoccupied at first, and Pippa – for it is she – doesn’t recognise him…. But then Hobie appears and it’s the most Dickensian moment since the last time we were in his company in the Village.

So what’s Part 2 been about, exactly? Theo has lived through a year and a half, and Tartt is a good enough writer to have given us a strong taste of what that has felt like. His father is dead. Otherwise, plot developments that seem important at the time fade into the background or turn out not to be important at all. There are scares over the painting, which Theo has now taped inside layers of paper, but they come to nothing. There are scares over the dog, as when Theo is faced by a bus-driver who is ready to turn him off when she discovers it, but… it’s ok. And when he arrives at the shop in the Village – having had the experience of Mr Barbour, clearly off his meds, failing to recognise him – it is ‘closed-up and dark’. Oh no. But it’s ok: Pippa opens the door – but she doesn’t recognise him. Oh no, again. But half a page later Hobie is there. ‘His hug was strong and parental’ – you got that? – and we know it’s going to be ok. The next chapter is ‘The Shop-Behind-the-Shop’. Bless.

Unfortunately, we’re only half-way through the novel, so things won’t stay cosy for long. And the chapter doesn’t end up on that note anyway. Xandra’s parting shot during that unpleasant phone conversation – he took over $1000 of her tip money before he left – might be worrying: ‘You and your dad are a whole lot more alike than you might think. You’re his kid, all right, through and through.’ We’re back with fathers and sons again, a theme that’s never really gone away anyway, and the final words of the chapter are ominous: ‘her words were an ugly thread running all night long though my dreams.’

12 September
Part 3, Chapters 7 and 8
There are all kinds of ugly threads running through his dreams during the year or so covered in this short section. One is to do not with how like his father he is in terms of character, but physically. Despite what Bracegirdle, the lawyer with the most Dickensian name of all, might say about him having the look of his mother, Theo knows from the mirror and glimpses caught in shop windows that he really is his father’s son. But it’s something else that Bracegirdle says that causes real stress: despite what he’d said during that fraught telephone call, Theo had had the right to withdraw all the money if he’d wanted. Sure, it would have been subject to heavy taxes, and it wouldn’t have been enough to pay his father’s debts… but it doesn’t stop the feeling of guilt: maybe he could have saved his father’s life.

That’s only the start of it. He is able to live with Hobie, but Pippa leaves even before he’s recovered from his fever. She is at a Swiss school for girls with mental health issues, and she has to be back after the Thanksgiving break. Theo, for the first time in nearly two years, withdraws into himself to study for the examinations for the college for high achievers. He doesn’t want to go, but at least it will beat the boarding school Bracegirdle has in mind for him…. Except, when he passes – he suspects there’s been some leeway given for the tragic victim of the high-profile explosion – he fails to engage with it on any level. Teachers who begin by trying to ignite a spark of enthusiasm in the poor boy who has been through so much eventually give up on him. Wistful thoughts of Pippa, of Boris, of his mother – even of his father – send him to the comfortably mindless things he can do to help out in Hobie’s workshop.

Tartt is doing that thing again where she will spend pages on recreating the everyday in all its hyper-real detail punctuated by occasional mentions of the passage of time. It’s as convincing a depiction of low-level depression as any I’ve ever read. Maybe what I mean is that I recognise the symptoms from a similar experience of my own many years ago: I did everything except what my teachers wanted and expected of me, and wasted so many hours of every day that I can now only gasp in wonder. What happens with Theo is a withdrawal in to the comfortable world behind the shop. Popper the absurd little lapdog, shrieking in terror whenever he is taken out on the street, becomes a kind of metaphor of Theo’s own fear of the real world. In fact, in Part 2 Tartt had someone remarking on the similarity between their names: Popper and ‘Potter’. Theo spends hours doing little jobs for Hobie, as though Vegas had never happened. (Sometimes I wonder how much would have been lost if Part 2 really had never happened.) He keeps meaning to get in touch with Andy, but he never does, allowing that awkward moment with Mr Barbour on his first disorientated night in New York become an obstacle. As you do.

In case we’re getting bored, Tartt reminds us about the painting from time to time. There are similar moments of tension as in Las Vegas – he decides to clean his room regularly so Hobie will never think of doing it and find the strange package in the pillowcase – but this obviously isn’t enough of a threat. So Tartt does that other thing, where a new ingredient is introduced: there’s the highly publicised arrest of a paramedic who opportunistically stole three paintings after the explosion. The case takes months, so Tartt can milk it, having Theo’s stomach churn at every mention of it, of the huge sentences the paramedic and his associates eventually receive, and of the high-profile speculation about the other missing paintings. A kind of resolution comes only at the end of Part 3, when he realises how easy it is to put items into storage.

And that’s about it. He gets very occasional texts from Pippa and, finally, one from Boris who seems to be having a ball. But Tartt lets us know he won’t be seeing Boris for a very long time – and it makes me wonder which of the other characters we will be meeting again. Pippa? Andy? Xandra, for goodness’ sake? And here we are, over half-way through, and Theo is years away from being on the run in Amsterdam. Tartt had better hurry things along.

15 September
Part 4, Chapter 9
She does. Hurry things up. ‘One afternoon eight years later….’ And I realise, having just finished reading this chapter, that I hadn’t really been enjoying this novel since Theo is first whisked away from New York to Vegas. Suddenly, following the daring ellipsis between Chapters 8 and 9, it’s got interesting again. There’s only so much you can do with character and mise-en-scene, because if you’re going to have a thriller – and what else are we going to have with a stolen painting lurking in the background for the last 400 pages? – what you really need is a plot.

Fine. But I don’t think that the paragraph I’ve just written does justice to this novel. I’ve characterised Parts 2 and 3 – over 200 pages – as ‘character and mise-en-scene’, but what Tartt is really doing, surely, in this highly plausible first-person narrative is assembling a state of mind in free-fall. Theo describes his sad progress – or, rather, Tartt charts his progress through a clever use of what purports to be his voice – with enough detail to make it convincing but without the self-justification that would turn us against him. By the end of Part 3 she’s done enough to persade us that we’ve got to know him in all his neediness. He’s a mess, and we feel concerned enough for him for Tartt to get her teeth into the second half of the novel. Through a carefully assembled series of manoeuvres – and for me, this chapter really does establish Tartt as the supreme mistress of the well-crafted plot – she has Theo at the centre of a crisis that threatens not only him but poor, innocent Hobie as well.

Earlier, I’ve been blasé about the way Tartt will bring in new ingredients, as though it’s a straightforward thing for a novelist to add a character here, a plot twist there. What I’m beginning to suspect is that from the beginning she’s done nothing by accident. What she’s doing in Part 4 is adding new – new what? – new narrative features to an imagined world that is already up and fully functioning. One example of what I mean: those occasional mentions of the painting which, until now, have seemed to be a device merely to add to Theo’s sense of confusion and displacement; now I see that Tartt has been doing the groundwork of convincing the reader that this is an item whose loss really would command international concern, and real outrage should it be confirmed that it has been stolen. Added to that are layers of confused emotion that have accrued to it as now, twelve years after the explosion, Theo’s sense of guilt is inextricably bound up with memories of his mother on that terrible day.

But I’m not telling you the plot. During the eight-year hiatus Theo has become a crook. We haven’t seen it happening, but his activities seem to confirm that he really has become his father’s son: he feeds his own addictions through whatever he has at his disposal. In his case it’s his father’s ability to convince others of his sincerity with a hoard of tables, chairs and sideboards that look like real antiques: he sells as genuine items that Hobie has reconstructed from salvaged portions of damaged furniture. We know, because Tartt has told us often enough, that this is no more than a labour of love for Hobie, with no intention to sell. He rents storage space which, we know from Part 3, costs more than he ever makes in sales – and, five years ago, Theo started to sell them to the unsuspecting rich. He feels little or no guilt about this: they have the money to spare, they are happy with the bargain they think they’ve got, and nobody is harmed. Hah. Hobie tells him what he already knows when, following Theo’s confession to him late in the chapter, he points out that any one of those sales could destroy his own reputation forever. It’s one of those inconvenient truths that Theo has been very good at hiding from himself.

It’s come to this through the activities of a character who has only recently appeared on the scene, Lucius Reeve. He has been one of Theo’s victims and, like a few others before him, has suspected the authenticity of an item. But unlike them, he has so far not allowed Theo to buy it back at a higher price, seeming to be aware that this is another scam: the resulting bill of sale creates a provenance for the item that will make it easier to sell on. Theo has gone to a meeting with him, armed with a forged bill of sale from the 1960s that is to be backed up by a character from Theo’s past – from Part 1, in fact. (Tell you later.) But the meeting doesn’t go the way Theo expects, and doesn’t get to use the bill of sale. Reeve doesn’t want to talk about the suspect piece at all, but about – guess – the Goldfinch painting. It now becomes clear why Tartt had Welty give Theo his ring in Chapter 1: Reeve has correctly concluded that Theo must have been in the same room in the museum, the one that had contained, on loan from The Hague, the most famous missing painting of all.

Luckily for Theo in his confusion Reeve, having correctly guessed that he has the painting, gets everything else wrong. He has concluded that Hobie is in on it, and that Theo has saved him from bankruptcy by somehow renting the painting out. There has been an international investigation in which, wrongly, it has been alleged that the painting is used as collateral in big transactions between criminals. Theo looks genuinely astonished by the supposed link with such activities because it’s the first he’s heard of them. He makes an excuse and leaves – but with Reeve’s threats to denounce both him and Hobie fresh in his memory. This is why he has to confess to his new partner at least a portion of what he has been up to, in a sub-chapter that’s as convincing a mixture of showing and telling as anything in the book so far. Hobie is appalled, tries to get Theo to put things right by buying everything back – impossible, obviously – then lets him off the hook by assigning some of the guilt to himself. ‘You are young…’ – he’s 26 – and Hobie had asked no questions about how quickly and easily he was able to turn around the fortunes of the business. The chapter ends with Theo not at all sure if the suspicious-looking character lurking outside the shop and avoiding the light is someone to be feared or just a figment of his imagination.

What else in this chapter? There’s Theo’s addiction to ‘pharmaceuticals’, begun in Vegas and helped on its way by the hundreds of assorted pills he stole from Xandra and his father. We get as many details as you’d expect about the transactions he has to undertake with dealers with whom he’s been on first-name terms for years… and, because it’s what happens in novels, Reeve’s bombshell comes just over a week into Theo’s most sincere attempt so far to get himself clean. The descriptions of depression – and I’m beginning to wonder if Tartt has first-hand experience of it – are as harrowing as anything else we’ve encountered.

As we would guess, characters appear from Theo’s past. In a wonderfully tortured flashback we get the appalling five days of Pippa’s last visit, with – wait for it – her English boyfriend. Aargh. And we get the return of the Barbours. It isn’t Andy that Theo meets by accident, despite his having expected it to happen for ten years, but the mixed-up, unfulfilled, bullying older brother. This is Platt, and he is the bearer of news as bad as any other in the chapter: Andy and his father are dead. They were washed overboard some months earlier when Platt had allowed himself to be persuaded out by their father, whose new medication clearly hadn’t kicked in yet. Platt, now in his thirties, has been found a job, but it’s clear that he drinks too much and, when Theo eventually meets the whole family – he reluctantly visits Mrs Barbour straight away – it’s Todd, the younger brother, who sits in the father’s place at table.

This isn’t just local colour, as the Barbours are already worming their way into what is becoming the main plot. Mrs Barbour, whilst trying to stay cheerful – never something she’d previously considered necessary – is a shadow of her former self, and Platt wants to make money from some of her ‘junk’. He’s the one that Theo persuades to back up the bill of sale for the problematic piece now owned by Reeve, by offering a generous percentage, but clearly there will now need to be other deals. And there’s Kitsey, Andy’s younger sister, now a cool beauty. Theo isn’t really attracted – Pippa’s the one, and he has two non-committal relationships to fulfil his other needs – but, like Todd, she remembers him vividly from those months when he nearly became a family member and appears to like him. It’s a problematic kind of liking, based on all kinds of odd fancies from years ago – what isn’t in this novel? – but he doesn’t mind when he thinks there’s been a call for him from her. Who knows where that one is going to go?

Suddenly we seem a lot nearer to the opening chapter in Amsterdam. Reeve’s story has brought home how impossible it will ever be to do anything with the painting, and Theo has read how its empty frame is displayed at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, with a sad little eulogy to its greatness. Is he going to somehow try to smuggle it back there? Or is that just too ridiculous?

17 September
Part 4, continued, Chapter 10
Whoo. It’s as long a chapter as ‘Park Avenue’, which was Chapter 3 in Part 1, and Park Avenue is where Tartt has returned us to. What did I say the first time? ‘Well brought-up novelists take us to nice places’ – I didn’t know yet that she was lining up plenty of less elegant places as well – but this time the adult Theo is infinitely more knowing about the unattractiveness of New York’s haut monde. But I’m stalling, because I need to admit how easily Tartt has been pulling the wool over my eyes. What did I say about this being a thriller? So why do I never notice any clues?

First off, he’s engaged to Kitsey. This isn’t a huge surprise, but we wonder what on earth he thinks he’s doing, as he hates everything about the life she’s shoe-horning him into. Sure, he’s spent a highly pleasant summer and autumn with her – the key to this being the fact that they had been mostly alone together – but now he’s constantly being forced into the company of her friends and the over-privileged world they live in. Tartt opens the chapter in some high-class shop in the run-up to Christmas where he and ‘Kits’ – I’m reminded how much he hated Pippa’s boyfriend calling her ‘Pips’ – are adding to their wedding-present list. Everything is as alien to Theo as the rest of Kitsey’s life, from the icily perfect and over-priced modern plates – ‘modern’ being one of the most derogatory words in Theo’s lexicon – to the shop assistant’s formulaic pronouncements on the sorts of things the groom is sure to like. He doesn’t.

Kitsey herself is little better. Aside from the full-on sex he enjoys with her she avoids intimacy, changes the subject when conversation becomes ‘too intense’ and – the biggest clue of all – never has her phone switched on when he wants to get in touch. The clues become less subtle as the long chapter goes on, so there is no surprise when he sees her with his one-time childhood enemy, the bully Tom Cable, deep in a far more intimate conversation than he’s ever had with her. For the first time, he sees her weeping actual tears: she seems to be bringing the affair to a painful end just two days before the engagement party, the one that makes him almost physically sick just to think of. He confronts her next day… and she persuades him that the best thing for both of them, and for poor Mrs Barbour, is to go ahead with the engagement. Go figure.

But this is nothing compared to what else takes place in the space of the same week or so. If you thought the previous chapter contained a lot of plot – considering that hardly anything of note has happened to Theo in the previous eight years – you’ve seen nothing yet. Most notably the painting, which has only featured very occasionally in the novel before the shock of Lucius Reeve’s suddenly bringing it up, is at the centre of a set-piece scene in which there comes what I can only think of as a staged reveal: it hasn’t been in storage all those years because there’s nothing of value at all inside the package. And the false reference to it that Reeve had drawn Theo’s attention to? Not false at all.

The lead-up to this revelation is almost as big a surprise. ‘Potter!’ Theo hears as he desperately goes seeking a dose of ‘pharmaceuticals’ in a bad part of town after months of (relative) abstinence. Only one person in the world calls him that and, yes, it’s Boris. It had me thinking about the outlandish coincidences that 19th Century novelists were often prepared to use for the sake of plot, but Tartt has a get-out (sort of): he’s been seeking Theo out, had called at the shop earlier, because… he feels he needs to repay him for the terrible thing he did to him. Theo is mystified, but slowly Boris comes round to it. It seems that during one of the waking blackouts Theo has never admitted to having, he showed Boris the picture in the house in Vegas. Later, finding the package stuffed into Theo’s school locker – we remember it – Boris had taken the picture out and replaced it with a textbook. By chance, Theo had never looked inside the package again – just as, by chance, he left Vegas so quickly, despite Boris’s protests, that Boris couldn’t return it.

This new Boris thread, stretching to the end of the chapter and beyond, enables Tartt to take the reader to some more extraordinary places, to go alongside the interiors of rich people’s houses and the dozens of finely picked-out details of New York streets. Theo learned how to be an addict in Vegas but, as he explains gleefully, after Theo’s departure Boris learned how to be a dealer. Now he’s a big-time international crook – I’m not making this up – and it takes him to some pretty seedy places. The loft in New York owned by Horst, the middle-man specialising in handling art that is used for collateral, is straight out of Blade Runner. (Oddly enough, the film is referenced later in the chapter.) In Horst’s seedy loft, its walls displaying work by artists Theo recognises, Boris tells him of his suspicions. The case whose details Theo had learnt from Reeve – one which, of course, Boris himself was handling – had failed because of a set-up by an insider, Sascha. Boris isn’t sure what to do next. Horst won’t hear anything against Sascha, so Boris can’t lean on him, and information given by another of Horst’s men that the painting is in Ireland is highly suspect…. What we do know, especially when Boris turns up at the engagement party at the end of the chapter telling Theo to grab his passport and some cash, is that now the painting is back at the heart of the novel, it isn’t going away.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty else going on. There’s Theo’s growing disaffection with the skiing, golfing and sailing set, reaching a kind of apogee at the engagement party… which is where he meets a supposed friend of Mrs Barbour’s, the oleaginous Havistock Irving – not, as comes as no surprise in this novel, his real name. He is in partnership with Lucius Reeve – also, it now transpires, not his real name – and tells Theo about the dodgy items they’ve already run to ground. Hobie later identifies him as a conman who has a reason to bear a grudge against him: he and Welty were once witnesses in a case in which they identified missing pieces among items they were attempting to sell. (Theo’s last word to the Barbours before he leaves with Boris is to tell them not to let Irving come near them or any of their property.)

And before all this, on the same night that he discovers Kitsey’s long-term unfaithfulness, he goes home to find – guess – Pippa in the house. His twelve-year infatuation with her, barely suppressed in all that time, comes back so strongly he can hardly speak. But he does eventually manage to have a conversation, arranges to spend the next evening with her when – how does it go? – ‘as if by pre-arrangement of the gods’ – everything between them falls perfectly into place. Except their telepathic-seeming understanding of one another is no such thing. He is a soul-mate, knows exactly what she is going through – but only, it seems because they are both suffering from the same Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As soon as they step outside the wonderful little restaurant the gods provided for them, they are back to their usual, slightly awkward relationship. So, no happy ending yet. But Theo’s when Theo goes back for his passport he leaves for her, along with the carefully-chosen book, a $30,000 necklace and an ‘I love you‘ note to go with it. It’s his last desperate attempt to keep love alive… or, looked at in a different light, it’s another plot element from an author who knows exactly how to keep our interest piqued.

Ok. But, somehow, I don’t think I’m doing justice to this novel. It’s a complex combination of almost stream-of-consciousness descriptions of Theo’s state of mind, his portrayals of other characters who change and develop over hundreds of pages – all of whom are placed within such precisely observed locations I feel every room could be sketched from the descriptions – and, of course, thriller elements woven through, sometimes so subtly it’s impossible to recognise them for what they are. As Theo describes for us the tricks of the dealer’s trade, which include knowing when to shine a light on the richness and when to keep something hidden in the shadows, Tartt is presenting an analogy of what she herself is doing. I’m wondering whether this is one of the cleverest novels I’ve ever read.

And I’m wondering whether, in the form of the new-look Boris, Tartt has created a way for Theo to smuggle the painting back to where it belongs. Or is it just another trick, on both Boris’s part and hers? Only Part 5 to go before we find out.

19 September
Part 5, Chapters 11 and 12 – to the end
No tricks. Or, if you look at it a different way, lots of tricks. Far from letting Theo down, Boris – alcoholic, heroin-addicted, live-for-the-moment Boris – is the one who not only saves him but gets the painting back exactly where it belongs. Tartt pays homage to Dickens’ Christmas Carol – a novel she’s already mentioned earlier – when, having brought the solid-seeming presence of his mother to Theo in a dream on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day itself she brings in Boris as the ghost of Christmas Present. He arrives as Theo is treating himself to a luxurious meal before turning himself in to the cops, bringing him good news and the solution to all his woes. Or nearly all.

It’s more complicated than I’ve made it sound, obviously. Later, when Theo is about to explain to Hobie exactly what’s been going on, he uses a phrase that made me laugh out loud (a response, I’m convinced, that is exactly what Tartt is looking for): ‘It’s a long story. I’ll make it as short as I can.’ I laughed because, so far, it’s taken him 750-odd pages to reach this point. So what would his short version sound like? We don’t know because, I suppose, we’ve already had the long version. The way that events are later presented is a feature of this novel – just think of Boris’s memories of Vegas or Theo’s father’s version of life with his mother – but this time all we learn about is the manner of Theo’s presentation: ‘short sentences, matter of fact, not trying to justify or explain.’ Oh yeh?

One of the things we get in Part 5 is the working-out of the thriller plot. It takes place in a lovingly rendered Amsterdam where Christmas lights and evocative canal scenes give way to the seediness of the suburbs where the low-lifes live. It’s one of Tartt’s two-layer narratives, in which Boris feeds information to Theo at exactly the same rate that Theo feeds it to us. Theo only now learns about having to front the handing-over of the money and worthless banker’s draft, hadn’t realised Boris (and probably the others) would be carrying guns, hadn’t even known he would be going under a different name until minutes before the handing-over of the painting. But hey.

Things are fraught, there are scuffles… and Boris and his cronies are able to foil a double-cross – they’re pulling a double-cross of their own, naturally – and, 23 pages in, they are celebrating. They haven’t even needed to hand over the $40,000 cash they’d managed to grab to go with the forged banker’s draft…. But it’s no surprise, with 100 pages still remaining, that it all comes crashing down: Horst has sent whatever heavies can muster to get the painting back, and this is when we know we’re approaching the situation at the opening of the novel. Then, Theo was fretting over the man he’s killed. Now, with the wrenching, almost out-of-body strain of a man who has never handled a loaded gun before, comes the waking nightmare of the shooting itself. They get away, Boris with a flesh wound in his shoulder, but Sascha’s Asian boyfriend has run off with the painting. Boris is to go off to find it, and Theo is to lie low in his hotel room for a day or two. Or three, or four….

The week or more that he’s there, under self-imposed house arrest, give him enough time to reach the deepest existential crisis of all, lovingly described over many pages. I was beginning to find his arguments for the pointlessness of his own existence persuasive enough for me to be quite reconciled to the suicidal thoughts that assail him on Christmas Eve. He can’t leave the country – his passport is in Boris’s car – and the US consulate can do nothing until after the holidays, so… he swallows enough pills to kill him, writes letters he doesn’t intend to be self-pitying to Kitsey, Hobie, Pippa, Mrs Barbour – and throws up the entire contents of his stomach. Is it a kind of redemption? At least it’s an admission to himself that things can’t carry on as they have been. He falls asleep, tired out – Tartt is good at conveying the level of exhaustion that days of desperate guilt and uncertainty have pulled down on him – and has the dream of his mother. By the time he wakes up he’s decided to turn himself in.

The arrival of Boris is another of the (many) moments when Tartt appears to be reminding the reader that this is a created world. We – I, at least – care enough about Theo to keep on reading, and yet it’s never in any doubt that Boris, and the deliverance he brings, are no more real than Dickens’ three ghosts. We stick with it because it’s clever and neat. Boris’s assurance that it was Theo himself who gave him the idea of phoning the ‘art police’ – he did, we remember – is an irony that just adds to the neatness. All the cogs and wheels mesh, in the most wish-fulfilling Victorian tradition. Everybody’s happy.

As if. Boris might have implausibly acquired a million dollars or more in reward money a mere day or two after he has a crony lead the authorities to Sascha’s hideout, and they may have found enough other stolen loot there to promise millions more… but Theo’s life is a piece of shit. (I’m paraphrasing.) It takes him some time in the hotel room, with Boris washing down Theo’s blinis and caviar with his champagne, to come round to the idea that his return to New York appears to be a possibility. After a laddish day or two in Boris’s Antwerp crib he gets a plane home. The painting is back where it should be, his money worries are over, and… he isn’t feeling good about anything.

Was it around this time that I began to think of this novel as the apotheosis of Western navel-gazing? Or had that come about 500 pages earlier? What is it about the veneration of the self-exploring consciousness? I wonder if this novel could have been written without Dave Eggers having paved the way in his true-life version of the same phenomenon in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Like Eggers, Theo admits to us near the end that he has been able to remember so much because he’s been keeping a kind of haphazard journal all along. And what could be more self-regarding than the adolescent’s – or eternal adolescent’s – need to write down all that important stuff?

Whatever. There are loose ends to be tied up in New York, and only 20-odd pages left to do it in. Hobie, when he arrives, is clearly terribly hurt – Tartt conveys it all through his body-language – and there’s the small matter of his love life: not only Pippa and that hastily scribbled note but also his deserted fiancée. I’m impressed by what Tartt does. She spends by far the longest time on the conversation with Hobie that begins so awkwardly. By the end of it, ten pages later, they’re discussing whether their shared obsession with beautiful objects is healthy and Theo is telling Hobie he sounds like his dad. This isn’t just a reconciliation brought about by one of Tartt’s most brilliantly managed set pieces. It has also brought to the foreground the ‘line of beauty’ thread – which weaves its way through the only sub-chapter left after this.

It’s ‘almost a year later’, Theo tells us at the start of it, that he is close to completing the task of buying back all the items he’d falsely sold as genuine. But even as he ties up every loose end – we’ve read a letter from Pippa in which she makes it clear why they would never be able to provide one another with the necessary mutual support, and we’ve heard that the Barbours are absolutely fine about putting the engagement on possibly permanent hold – until there’s only one left inconveniently dangling. Life is meaningless. Oh.

What’s a man to do? He criss-crosses the US and Europe using the reward money from a genuine masterpiece to buy up what have to be regarded, despite Hobie’s devoted craftsmanship, fakes. Tartt is loving this, and she makes the most of the irony of Theo’s situation. He has long hours, days, week as he moves from airport to airport, hotel to hotel to reach the conclusion set out in the epigraph for Part 5, perhaps the most portentous of all: ‘We have art in order not to die from the truth.’ It’s Nietzsche, and nobody, least of all Theo, is going to be arguing with him on that count. In fact, most of this final sub-chapter is his exposition of that very truth.

But that isn’t all it is. Theo has had his Damascene moment in Amsterdam – it’s how he refers to it himself – and it’s the realisation that not only can you not always get what you want, but that you might, regrettably, be genetically programmed to want exactly the wrong things. The Goldfinch – which, he now tells us, gave him a sense of otherness from the rest of humanity while he thought it was in his possession – is back in The Hague. Pippa is somewhere else, and always will be. And Theo? ‘We can’t escape who we are.’ Ah. ‘And much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond the illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond the illusion.’

So what is there? (Better hurry up, because we’re exactly one page from the end.) There’s a ‘middle zone’, that’s what there is, and that’s where everything of value resides, ‘a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being.’ And, in the last paragraph of all, he’s back with the painting. It has taught him that ‘we can speak to each other across time…’ and ‘life – whatever else it is – is short.’ Ars Longa Vita Brevis, as you might say. ‘In the midst of our dying, it is a glory and privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.’ You’d better believe it, because I’m sure that it isn’t some hokum about a stolen painting that’s kept Donna Tartt writing, it’s her love of art.

4 Responses to The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

  1. jessamy104 says:

    Thank you for this stellar review… well written and helped me get some themes together to discuss with my book club 🙂

  2. madgirlwithmadderhair says:

    love this. love your reviews. wow wow wow.

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