Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 nouvelle vague film, À bout de souffle, seemed to be doing storytelling backwards when it lingered on the insignificant vagaries of la vie quotidienne à Paris – putting us, for a third of the film, with protagonist Michel Poiccard and his American girlfriend Patricia in a dingy hotel room to follow their meandering conversation – and delivered major plot points in brief, confused moments crystallised most finely by the closing scene of Michel’s death, as Patricia delivers a perplexing imitation of Michel’s signature Bogart-esque tic. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published in 2013, seems to follow this upended narrative tradition of glossing over the crucial and poring over the insignificant, albeit with one glaring difference: where À bout de souffle is brilliantly fascinating, thoughtful, and self-aware, The Goldfinch is markedly not.
A more ready comparison to The Goldfinch would be Tartt’s 1993 The Secret History, a thoroughly brilliant novel which serves only to exacerbate the many inadequacies of its successor. In fact, it is difficult to fathom how the sharp mind which crafted The Secret History is the same which hodgepodged The Goldfinch into ink-and-paper existence – I suppose the most applicable explanation for this would come from Hume, who would chastise me for assuming that a common cause would generate the same effect.
The novel is essentially the fictional memoir of Theo Decker, who traces the downward spiral of his life after he is caught in a terrorist bombing in a New York art museum which kills his mother. In the confusion of the aftermath, he somewhat accidentally steals the eponymous painting and comes in possession of an heirloom of a dying furniture dealer. In returning the heirloom to the dealer’s business associate but simultaneously failing to return the painting, Theo sparks a series of events which draw him into a criminal life.
I shall start, as many other critics have, by targeting the novel’s wealth of unnecessary detail. At over 800 pages, the book was begging for a prune like a lavender bush in summer, or anything written by George R.R. Martin. That is not to say that all thick books are full of shit – but the likelihood is much higher, and The Goldfinch certainly was.
Perhaps most irritating was the fixation on intoxication: alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and a glittering array of pharmaceuticals permeate the novel in what seems like a conscious attempt by Tartt to seem “edgy” by talking about drugs. Theo’s overdependence on drugs was confusingly irrelevant – he claims that he can control his addiction to prescription drugs by taking them on every other day, dramatically quits almost as soon as he introduces his habit to the reader, then sneaks back into it in his stress. What was the point? His drugged-out reliability is briefly questioned – but then the novel plunges quickly back into action (“action”), and the significance of that is never truly explored.
Associated with the drug ramblings is Theo’s depression and PTSD, which was perfunctorily dragged out to air when it suited the narrative, i.e. when Tartt had to justify Theo’s drug addiction, when Theo rather unconvincingly grieved his mother (going through all the necessary steps of crying at night and not eating), or when Theo rather unconvincingly freaked out over killing a man (obsessively bleaching “blood” from his clothes like a butch, postmodern Lady Macbeth in his Amsterdam hotel room and – you guessed it – imbibing drugs to calm his nerves). That is not to say that it’s wholly incredible that Theo is depressed and has PTSD after the trauma of the bombing, but it’s just so randomly shoehorned into various parts of the novel as some sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card explanation for Theo’s otherwise nonsensical behaviour that it ultimately only serves to promote tedium and a deep desire for an End to the Reader’s Suffering.
There was also just an outstanding amount of (often untranslated) Russian and Dutch, seemingly for no good reason other than to show off a) Tartt’s excellent linguistic research or b) Tartt’s skills as a polyglot. Theo’s Ukranian friend Boris is always speaking Russian and teaches Theo a bit – but what purpose does it serve, really? If it develops Boris’ cosmopolitan character, it certainly does nothing for Theo. The Dutch, on the other hand, just seems to be scenery. And yes, The Secret History was bursting with ancient Greek, but it was thematically relevant there in a way that the Russian and Dutch here seemed like a desperate attempt to recall the depth of that link between language and concept.
I feel that the inconsequential elements of this novel can be blamed largely on Tartt’s attempt to cover an area that was too big. For one, the physical area of the book’s setting was too expansive; although set mainly in New York, there are tangential episodes in Las Vegas and Amsterdam which are given too much word count, since Theo’s subsequent returns to New York render these locations somewhat liminal and insignificant in hindsight. The time frame was also way too long and condensed badly; Tartt seemed unwilling to collapse too many chunks of time (save one 8-year break in the middle of the novel) and filled them instead with deeply uninteresting detail or background explanation. The plot-relevant action only really picks up again, almost reluctantly, in the last hundred or so pages, but by then it’s bewildering and boring and the reader has been already thoroughly worn out by the previous 700 pages of pointless rambling.
In light of this, what were the plot points that Tartt neglected? Perhaps most strikingly, I would say the eponymous painting itself. After all, it does get somewhat forgotten about for approximately eight years in the novel, despite being the reason for its existence. Theo’s fretting thoughts over it are oddly infrequent, as though the painting itself was only put into the novel in a second draft as a deliberate motif to create a sense of narrative continuity. Theo has random spells of musing over how lovely he finds the painting, then returns to babbling on about furniture or drugs.
But? If I must be honest? I can’t really see the appeal of this painting? I mean, sure, it’s lovely, and undeniably ahead of its time; the juxtaposition of the quasi-Impressionistic bird with the realism of its perch, the delicate mystery of its chain. Other than that, I truly feel that I’ve seen much more enrapturing works of art (case in point, Benjamin-Constant’s elusive 1887 Empress Theodora) worth stealing and hoarding and admiring and talking incessantly about – but you know, that’s just me.
Another thing over which Tartt glossed was the heirloom Theo returned, the ring which belonged to Welty (the dying furniture dealer). The ring is the other item in Theo’s possession when he leaves the débris of the Met, and is crucial in connecting Theo with his “found family” and, later, locating him in the same gallery room as The Goldfinch. Other than that, for such a significant artefact with strong motif potential, it’s curiously ignored for most of the novel.
I must touch also on Theo killing the man towards the end of the novel, because – what??? It was so weird and random, like Tartt really felt like she had to show how depraved Theo had become by making him kill a man, but was also unwilling to make him that depraved, so she just made him kill a random baddie. Of course, the fact that only a random baddie dies – in rather speedy and confused scene, no less – makes Theo’s Out Damn Spot! episode afterwards unnecessarily overdramatic. And yes, you may say that I would probably Out Damn Spot! if I killed a random, but in a novelistic context his death is so insignificant it just shouldn’t really matter (also, it’s not as though Tartt doesn’t take artistic liberties elsewhere in the novel).
Moving on now to characterisation, which was disappointingly two-dimensional and clichéd. Theo, the protagonist, completely failed to arouse any sort of empathy. By the end of the novel, I just wanted him to get fucked over (i.e. imprisoned for killing a man, selling fake antiques, and stealing a painting, whatever, just get rid of him), but then he uncannily escaped justice (I could rant more on the awful deus ex machina of how this happened, but I won’t). In many ways, he was more or less an empty vessel filled with pilfered elements of other characters in the novel. Most of those pilfered elements belonged to Boris, his Ukranian friend, a somewhat criminal personality with a fondness for drugs and by far the most developed character. I personally found him supremely annoying (and he was inescapable in the book), and then I found myself frustrated with Tartt’s insistence on both Boris and Theo’s heterosexuality despite the suffocating homoeroticism that suffused their relationship.
At first, I felt like I had a particular bone to pick with Tartt’s awfully flat female characters in The Goldfinch. Pippa is one of the few likeable characters, but her portrayal was obviously a romanticised figment of Theo’s lovesick imagination. Theo’s mum is the saintly Madonna to Xandra’s (his dad’s girlfriend) fake-tanned whore. The matronly Mrs Barbour is lifted straight from some Victorian novel, the perfect entertainer until her fall from grace in the form of her son and husband’s death. Kitsey, Theo’s fiancée, is a superficial rich girly-girl whose hidden depths can only be dredged by the man she cheats on him with.
But then I realised that it wasn’t just the women characters who sucked – everyone sucked. Hobie, another of the few likeable characters, is also a figment of Theo’s imagination in that he encapsulates all of Theo’s ideals of a genial father-figure, in contrast to Theo’s alcoholic dad who neglects him and dies attempting to escape debtors. Lucius Reeve is set up halfway through the novel to be a Big Baddie, but curiously fizzles out towards the end of the novel. There’s a background cascade of random people of colour doing stereotypical things (i.e. gaggles of Asian tourists), and one gay Asian boyfriend of a baddie who cops a degree of racist/homophobic abuse (behind his back, not that that’s any better) from Boris.
But ultimately, the greatest literary sin Tartt committed was in dumbing down. She’s a clever woman, but for some reason, both she and her editor wanted to pander to the Illiterate Masses or something. The unnecessary detail? Probably a glittering distraction from the plot inconsistencies and flat characters. The focus on the painting smacked of the pseudointellectual as if just talking about art – whether or not what you said made any sense or not – automatically made you esoterically intelligent.
Not to mention the painful final 30 pages, in which Tartt more or less tacks on an essay about the novel to the end so it’s Really Obvious For The Plebs What Her Really Clever (read: convoluted and nonsensical) Novel Was About So That They Can See How Clever She Is And Also Pretend That They Understand It When They Talk About The Book With Their Friends. I mean – a well-written novel does not need to justify itself for boring me to death in its final pages. Not only did the essay fail to justify most to all of novel’s events, it was also hugely unoriginal. Art and immortality? The unique ways in which art speaks to us? The Romantics have already pored extensively over these notions with far superior works than The Goldfinch. If this was my thesis for an English essay, I would definitely not be expecting an HD.
Of course, the novel wasn’t wholly awful. It has its moments of beauty in Tartt’s prose, and the furniture restoration sequences are weirdly interesting. Popper (aka Popchik), Theo’s Maltese terrier, is adorable. It is generally enjoyable until the forced elements of plot or swathes of meaningless detail ram their way awkwardly in. But it was, ultimately, a disappointingly dreary read from an author who has already proved herself to be capable of so much more.