Three Things You Missed When You Read The Goldfinch

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate hate hate,” which can translate into a bloody-minded contrariness when it comes to great successes: the more the world showers someone or someone’s creation with praise, the more some folks are going to take the opposing position and complain that they/it really isn’t all that amazing. In the modern literary world, no one brings out the lovers and the haters like Donna Tartt, author of The Secret History, The Little Friend, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch.

Tartt has been a polarizing personality in the literary world ever since she received an astounding $450,000 advance for her first novel, The Secret History. She was 28 years old, and the print run for her first novel was 75,000—a pretty large number for a debut. Immediately, people began lining up to explain to anyone within earshot that Tartt might be a good writer and the novel might be very strong, but there was no way she was that good. Not nearly-half-a-million good. And of course, once you start from that perspective it’s almost impossible to read a novel and come away with a rational, objective impression of it.

The Little Friend was published about a decade later, and while it won awards and certainly sold well, it didn’t quite reach the levels of adulation of her debut. Reviews were a little more mixed, and while the novel is certainly an artistic and economic success—and is likely to grow in estimation as time passes—it represents a bit of the classic “sophomore slump” for Tartt, which naturally delighted her detractors, who nodded wisely and smugly informed all and sundry that they always said Tartt was overrated.

And then, The Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch was an Event from the start. It was the sort of book that people talked about long before it was published, the sort of book people passed around in galleys and advanced reader copies (ARCs). Tartt was once again on everybody’s mind, and expectations for the book were huge.

The novel tells the story of Theo Decker. At the beginning he’s living a happy, fairly typical childhood with his mother in New York City. He’s better off than most, but not nearly as rich as some of the other kids at school. His father is a shadowy figure, long gone, and he loves his mother fiercely. While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her, Theo notices an elderly man and a striking red-haired girl who immediately fascinates him (the girl’s name, he later learns, is Pippa, and she becomes a lifelong obsession). Then, without warning, a bomb goes off, killing Theo’s mother and many other people. In the chaos and wreckage, a literally shell-shocked Theo is encouraged by the old man to steal the famous painting The Goldfinch—which Theo does, unsure of his own motivations.

The novel follows Theo as he navigates Child Protection Services, is taken in by rich friends, is claimed by his disastrous father and moved to Vegas, lives an adolescence of indolent, unsupervised drug abuse and boredom with his alcoholic, hilarious, and sketchy friend Boris (the son of a Russian “businessman”), and flees back to New York where he is taken in by the grieving partner of the old man who inspired the painting’s theft. Through it all, the painting haunts Theo, wrapped up under layers of cardboard and plastic and hidden (or so he thinks) in a climate-controlled storage unit he fears to visit.

Reviews were mixed. The Guardian called it “overlong and tediously Potteresque.” The Washington Post noted its “rather mundane ideas.” The New Yorker wrote that “its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature,” and critic James Wood later complained loudly about a perceived “infantilization of our literary culture” when discussing the novel. There were also reviews that praised the novel as a new classic, rich and dense with layered meaning, full of beautiful language that startled and inspired. The point isn’t that everyone hates the novel—the point is that no one can agree on it, or Tartt. Just as when she received her notable advance for The Secret History, the Haters have come to Hate.

Boom Goes the Pulitzer

When The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize last year, the internet and print world exploded in a flurry of think pieces about it. Some were celebratory, but cocktail parties around the world suddenly brimmed with critics taking the book down a notch and complaining about the quality of the novels the now win the world’s hugest prizes. The Goldfinch is poorly plotted, with startling things happening for no reason! It relies on film references for its descriptions and emotional beats! Characters come and go randomly, and important details are suddenly introduced with no prior warning, and given paragraphs of detailed backstory, as if no one beta-read the manuscript and pointed out how disjointed everything feels! The language is purple and overcooked, Tartt’s sense of geography is wonky, and her author photo is overly severe!

These people are, in a word, wrong. Maybe not about the author photo, but about everything else.

Is The Goldfinch a perfect novel? It is not. It’s an immense shaggy dog of a book, filled with ideas, observations, and plot. Oh, so much plot. It occasionally dives into unrealistic territory as the main character, Theo Decker, makes his way through his youth from the traumatic day his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing to the final adventure when he finds himself thrust into a second-rate crime thriller.

But one can easily argue that any classic novel has flaws. Negativity and cynicism are easy, after all—every college freshman knows that a new band is only worth praising when it’s your own little secret, and the moment it becomes R.E.M., you have to immediately start complaining that their old stuff was better. Admitting awe and an emotional response to a novel always feels shallow; pointing out its flaws always feels smart.

If you enjoyed The Goldfinch and find yourself on the defensive at some social gathering against a blowhard telling you how wrong you are to admire it, here is some ammunition to use against him: three aspects of the book very few people have noticed that elevate it into the Pantheon of Great Novels.

Theo is an Unreliable Narrator
These days an unreliable narrator is almost always a showy, almost gonzo thing, often complete with dramatic revelation, “twist” ending, and a Sixth Sense-like recap of the plot from this new, transformed perspective. It’s often a Fight Club moment, and while Fight Club is itself a brilliant novel that uses an unreliable narrator device exceptionally well, it’s possible to employ a trickster point-of-view voice more subtly.

Theo Decker, in The Goldfinch, appears to be a reliable narrator. He employs no tricks of speech or prose, he doesn’t present any obvious inconsistencies or contradictions, and he lets the reader in on his biggest secret from the very first pages. Theo’s lack of reliability is exposed in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways, notably in details that pop up only when Theo is forced to admit them. At first blush these bouts of exposition can seem like lazy writing—Tartt suddenly realizing that she never mentioned an important fact before and now needs to cram it in. But this is a misreading. Tartt isn’t disorganized; Theo is a liar.

The biggest clue is so big it’s almost invisible: Theo is a professional liar. His adult career, once he makes his way back to Hobie in New York City, is to fake up antiques and sell them as famous pieces, inventing histories and provenances with an expert eye. Theo is, in other words, a con artist. For him, reality stopped having any meaning the moment his mother died. As a result, he lives entirely in the moment. He doesn’t like to think about the past because the past is the country where his mother died. People and details well up from the blackness of Theo’s past and surprise him as much as they surprise us, and because he does not ever consider his past, we can’t trust his present.

The fact that he’s a narrator who avoids thinking of the past while telling us his life story also explains the endless, nearly infinite (albeit subtle) inconsistencies in that story. His timeline is all over the place—trying to pin down when, exactly, thirteen-year old Theo is involved in the museum bombing is almost Heisenbergian in its impossibility. 2001? 2002? Some other year? Theo remembers things suddenly, like a favorite song that moves the adult Theo and Boris to a sentimental recollection of their time in Las Vegas despite the fact that the song was never mentioned once during that passage in the book, and is in fact never mentioned again. Theo is sifting through memories, and those memories are jumbled. The time frame of the story is vague because Theo is vague.

The Male-Female Divide

Something else people overlook in this book is its careful structure. Yes, on first read it’s superficially shambling: Theo survives the explosion, steals the painting, and then seems to lose all agency for a while as he shuffles first to the Barbour’s hermetically-sealed uptown apartment, then to Las Vegas with his horrible father, then to New York again (on a bus, no less!) where he embarks on a seemingly random career choice of furniture dealer. The plot meanders, and it’s just a series of experiences until Theo’s latter-book adventures in the criminal underground, right?

Wrong. There’s method to this madness—subtle, masterful method. In fact, the book is ingenious in the way it organizes Theo’s journey by sex. First, the feminine world of New York, dominated by his mother and then Mrs. Barbour, a world of cozy meals, homey apartments, and a wide-ranging social world filled with quasi-siblings and social contacts. Then, the masculine world of Las Vegas that Theo’s father takes him to, a world of drugs and alcohol, gambling and superficial glamor, violence and emptiness, with long stretches of the story just Theo and his new friend Boris (the best character in the book, perhaps the best character of 2013) ambling around an empty desert.

Finally, Theo comes home to New York to live with Hobie—the homosexual but largely sexless Hobie, a gentle older man who offers neither family (aside from the brief, painful glimpses of Pippa, Theo’s unrequited love with whom he feels a permanent, painful bond) nor aimless freedom, but something in between. Theo goes from being a child in New York, ensconced in family, to being an adolescent in Las Vegas, acting out and exploring his limitations, to being an adult with Hobie in the furniture shop. He’s still Theo—he still has the hidden painting and the drug addictions, trailing him from his past—but he’s a fully-formed Theo, combining in many ways the aspects of his previous chapters.

The Nature of Value

The Goldfinch is, ultimately, a story about value. What are things, people, experiences actually worth?

Consider the titular painting. It’s priceless because of its beauty and craftsmanship, its age and provenance. Theo steals it almost thoughtlessly, numb from shock, and doesn’t look at it again once he has safely hidden it away. If an object considered valuable because of its beauty is never looked at, does it actually have any value?

Later in the story, the painting is stolen by Theo’s friend Boris, and replaced in its wrappings. Because Theo never looks at the painting he values so much (as a link to his mother, to his past, as a prize he took from life) he does not realize the switch has happened until Boris informs him of it years later, and yet in the intervening years he valued the lump of wrapping and tape hidden in a storage facility as if it were a priceless work of art.

And the painting—even the real, actual painting—only has value in theory. The adult Boris, now connected to sketchy organized crime elements around the world, can use it as collateral for loans, or as a bargaining chip, but cannot actually sell the painting, because it does not have any actual value. That’s the thing about “priceless” objects: people hear that word and think it is so valuable you cannot ascribe a price to it. In reality, “priceless” means it’s impossible to sell, at least not openly—or not for money.

This concept is applied to people as well. Pippa is Theo’s obsession, a girl he first saw in the museum before the blast, whom he got to know as a young child recovering from her injuries. He loves her—he values her—above all others. And yet, as with the painting, he hardly ever sees her, and his relationship with her is tortured and unrequited. On the other hand, Theo is engaged to the unfaithful and apparently heartless Kitsey Barbour. The relationship is passionless, although Theo feels affection for Kitsey, and even the revelation of her faithlessness isn’t enough for Theo to immediately cancel the engagement. With Kitsey, he has all the superficial value of a romantic relationship: time spent together, the wedding planning, intertwined lives. With Pippa, he has none of these things. And yet he values his relationship with Pippa far more, despite the fact that in a sense it doesn’t exist: Pippa does not return his love, or think of him nearly as much as he does her.

In the end, Theo concludes that nothing really matters—that nothing has real value. “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth,” he says. Without choice, nothing is of consequence—whatever is going to happen to you will happen, no matter what you decide or choose. Steal a painting, don’t steal a painting, it doesn’t matter. You’ll never actually look at it anyway.

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