5 Books In Search of an Object

Donna Tartt's Goldfinch

Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch begins with Theo Decker recalling the terrorist explosion that killed his mother and resulted in his possession of a Dutch master’s painting. Over the ensuing pages, Theo moves fluidly between families, his grief and trauma failing to lessen as he ages, the painting always by his side as a reminder and an icon. With this central (and real!) painting in mind, here are five other books focused on an object that sets the plot in motion…and in some cases, nearly drives its seekers mad.

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, protagonist Oskar finds a key his father left behind before his death in the World Trade Center attacks. Inspired by the scavenger-hunting games he and his father used to play, Oskar sets out on a journey around New York, searching for the lock that fits the key. Foer’s self-consciously emotional style in his second novel—and his practice of inserting blank pages, random fonts, and superfluous pictures—isn’t for everyone, but if you want a kid on a quest, Oskar’s certainly a clever one (almost unnervingly so—he was played by an actual child Jeopardy! champ in the 2011 movie).

Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th-century Arthurian romances basically invented Camelot (the one with King Arthur, not the fornicating Kennedys) as we know it. His Perceval, or the Story of the Grail is the earliest known telling of the search for the Holy Grail, and inspired everyone from Monty Python to Indiana Jones—not to mention Lerner & Loewe. A good translation is essential if you don’t have a master’s degree in medieval French; I like Ruth Harwood Cline’s extensively footnoted 1985 version.

Dashiell Hammett’s noir classic The Maltese Falcon is arguably more famous as a film than a book, thanks to Humphrey Bogart’s indelible performance as the original hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade. The elusive bird figurine around which all the action orbits would just a few years later earn itself a name as an enduring trope of movies and, later, television: the MacGuffin.

The character of Voldemort looms large over J.K. Rowling‘s first three Harry Potter books; unseen, even insubstantial, his evil is nevertheless constantly present. It’s not until Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that He Who Must Not Be Named is restored to a physical body, and can then become a concrete threat to poor whinging Harry. By the time the series reaches its conclusion, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort has become the ultimate MacGuffin—he’s split his soul into six pieces, embedding them into Horcruxes, objects—and, uh, people—that allow him to live on even if his physical body is killed. Harry, Hermione, and Ron embark upon an epic (and, some readers argued, endless and frustrating) quest to find the Horcruxes and destroy them, so that Harry can eliminate Voldemort once and for all.

And who can forget the oblivious, blank-eyed wanderer we spent so many years of our childhoods pursuing: Waldo. Sneaky little bugger, always hiding behind striped beach umbrellas.