“A beautiful, stay-up-all-night-and-tell-all-your-friends triumph,” runs the publisher’s gush, incorrigibly, on the back cover of The Goldfinch. Hmmm. How about staying up all night, carrying on through the next day, gobbling some Benzedrine like Jack Kerouac, staying up a second night, discovering in the white sadness of the dawn that there are still 300 pages to go, bursting into tears and burning the toast? And then telling all your friends?
Donna Tartt’s third novel is 771 pages long. This is not a trivial consideration. It is, moreover, an enveloping and slightly paralyzing literary experience, such that if you submit to it in the proper spirit your Twitter feed may go unchecked, your Facebook page unrefreshed, for days or perhaps weeks. My reviewerly impulse is to compare it to a drug, to some kind of opiate or slow-release pill, but the book itself is already stuffed with drugs — coke, heroin, Oxycontin — so I will compare it instead to the memory implantation technology in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, remember? Enjoying grafted-on memories of a fictional holiday on Mars? Well, after a session or two with this book the hissing curbs of rainy Manhattan will be yours forever, whether you’ve been there or not: traffic torrents, city spume on your ankles, rushing faces, patter of a friendly doorman — yours to keep. There will also be a corner of your brain devoted to the skies over Las Vegas, and another area that smells of high-end furniture polish.
Bomb blast in the museum. That’s how The Goldfinch begins, like a modernist manifesto in action. But though the fragments sunder and swirl, Tartt’s storytelling is old-school, sequential, with a continuous, even pressure of mind behind it. Young Theo Decker is visiting the Met with his mother when chaos hits: things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc. “Alarm bells clanged in a muffled distance… Stiffly I lay there, in the growing consciousness that something was out of joint. The light was all wrong, and so was the air…” Theo is only lightly injured, but his mother has been killed, and life as he has known it is over. The tinnitus from which he suffers in the immediate wake of the explosion will recur later, at times of acute stress. His unreliable, or reliably terrible, actor-alcoholic father having absented himself — to the relief of Theo and his mother — some years before, he is effectively an orphan. The wealthy family of a schoolfriend takes him in; from the cheerful bohemian existence he shared with his mother, he has been removed to a world of “glazed chintz and Chinese jars.”
The lineaments of fairy tale are discernible here, and indeed people do begin to loom upon Theo with the vivid malevolence of Joan Aiken characters. “ ’But hello,’ she said — all charm all of a sudden, holding out to me her thin, red hands covered with diamonds.” His haven and place of rest is the demesne of the furniture restorer Hobie, whose niece Pippa is a fellow survivor of the Met bombing. Hobie’s dark workshop and gentle manners are a balm to the damaged Theo. I should mention at this point the small and very valuable painting by Fabritius, of a chained goldfinch, with which a wobbly Theo made off in the confusion of the freshly shattered museum, and which, for reasons unclear to him, he cannot bring himself to return. His father reappears; he leaves New York, goes to live with his father in Vegas; altered skies, altered states, new chemicals and different friends (you will not soon forget the extraordinary Boris, a mobile drug vacuum and mini–Lord of Misrule). Theo changes identities almost — but the painting travels with him, still hidden from the world, a charged object sending out secretive pulses of shame, promise, riches, scandal, fantasy.
Tartt’s prose is of the kind that goes everywhere, explains everything, tumbles over its own rhythms in transports of data-based imagery. When a heavy debt collector arrives at his father’s door, a terrified Theo goes woozy over the man’s footwear: “Not knowing what to say, I stared at his cowboy boots. They were black crocodile, with a stacked heel, very pointed at the toe and polished to such a high shine they reminded me of the girly-girl cowboy boots that Lucie Lobo, a way-out stylist in my mother’s office, had always worn.” TMI, as the kids say? A Rick Moody–esque piling-on of not-quite-necessary detail? Actually, no. Theo’s mind works this way, in synaptic somersaults that generally lead back to his vanished mother. And as for the gangster, the feminine gloss of his pointy boots somehow increases his fearsomeness. (Elmore Leonard did this all the time.)
There are, it must be pointed out, no laughs in The Goldfinch. Plenty of emotional truth, moral mystery, perceptual overload, and narrative surge — but no laughs. You will not find yourself giggling or snorting, even as Theo veers and crashes through a hundred comedy-ready situations and set-ups: art sharks, Vegas casualties, Russian mobsters, and so on. Perhaps it is simply that his pain is too great, the pull of his anti-self too strong to allow any loose chuckles to escape. The Goldfinch has a corresponding power, a visionary drag on the circuits. When your core is out of whack, it seems to tell us, nothing can compensate. And so it will go, until the little chained bird is free.