Inside the Space of the Frame

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Little, Brown, 771pp, £13.99, ISBN 9781408704950

reviewed by Sarah Emily Duff

The idea that only white men are capable of producing the Great American Novel remains oddly persistent. When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was published four years ago, the author appeared on the cover of Time, confidently labelled the Great American Novelist. As many pointed out, other novels by women which appeared at the same time could just as easily be held up as capturing something essential about early 21st-century American life: Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, as well as The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.

In an essay for The Millions, Gabriel Brownstein argues that what lends Freedom its popularity – in contrast, specially, to The Cookbook Collector – is Franzen’s struggle to relate ‘whacked-out and dark postmodern irony’ (practiced by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and others) with ‘sympathetic humanist realism’. As a result of this, his characters

exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident.

Although Brownstein acknowledges that much of the hype around Freedom was the product of a publishing industry that routinely positions literary fiction by women as ‘chick lit’, Brownstein rehearses, nonetheless, all the clichés about how men and women write: Franzen is ‘loud’ and ‘crass’ and ‘ambitious’ while Goodman is quiet, ‘elegant’ and ‘whole-hearted’. She disappears in her novels; Franzen ‘swaggers’. Experimental, rule-breaking fiction is for the men; ladies should keep to gentle domesticity.

Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch proves Brownstein both right and wrong. Its success bears out his point, borrowed from David Foster Wallace, that the knowing, self-reflexive ironical novel tends to sell – and to sell well. But The Goldfinch – which deals with the same themes addressed in Freedom while remaining alert to the limitations and possibilities of the realist novel – has not once been reviewed in the same terms as Franzen’s writing. Will Tartt ever be described as the Great American Novelist? I wonder.

There are some superficial similarities between The Goldfinch and Tartt’s two previous novels, the wildly successful The Secret History (1992) and the less well received The Little Friend (2002). Coming in at slightly more than 700 pages in the paperback edition, The Goldfinch is as long as its slab-like forbears. It also presents convincingly the world from the point of view of a troubled child and, later, young adult. But The Goldfinch is, in some ways, Tartt’s most ambitious novel.

As Tartt has acknowledged – both in the book itself and in interviews – The Goldfinch is modelled on Dickens’s sprawling novels of mid-Victorian London life. Like David Copperfield, Great Expectations and, most obviously, Oliver Twist, The Goldfinch follows the adventures and misadventures of the orphaned Theo Decker. Set in New York during the early 2000s, the novel begins with an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, which kills thirteen year-old Theo’s beautiful, art-loving mother. Since the disappearance of his alcoholic father, Theo’s world has revolved around the gently bohemian existence he and his mother lead on the Upper West Side. It would be something of an understatement to suggest that Theo never recovers from this loss: the novel describes his slow descent into increasingly reckless and criminal behaviour, depression and attempted suicide in the long aftermath of the art gallery blast.

Theo moves first to the Barbours, wealthy friends on the Upper East Side, then to Last Vegas with his father who has turned professional gambler and, finally, back to New York to live with Hobie, a restorer and dealer of antique furniture whose partner was also killed in the explosion. Theo is haunted both by his mother and by a painting – ‘The Goldfinch’. In the chaotic aftermath of the bomb blast, Theo stuffs Carel Fabritius’s small, bright painting of a goldfinch tethered to a shelf by a thin, golden chain, into his backpack.

The painting functions as a kind of safety blanket for Theo. After his father sells most of his mother’s belongings, it is a connection to her – to the moment of her loss (their last shared time together), and also to her identity, as it is one of her favourite paintings. It is particularly important to him during his desperately sad and lonely stay in Las Vegas, where he copes with his grief and his father’s neglect by drinking and taking an ever-widening variety of drugs. In this he is accompanied by Boris, the Artful Dodger (as Hobie calls him) to Theo’s Potter (as Boris nicknames him), another literary orphan with demons to conquer.

Boris is both very bad news and, on more than one occasion, Theo’s saviour. As Theo’s foil, he helps the novel to ask its two central questions: what is it to be American? And what is it to be free?

Theo identifies strongly as a New Yorker – in contrast to Boris’s rootlessness and, indeed, statelessness. The Polish-Ukrainian son of a violent mining executive, Boris has lived nearly everywhere, but claims no place as home. Both, in unique ways, represent the different faces of American identity.

The Goldfinch is a novel about America: geographically it is expansive. Theo lives in Las Vegas and New York City; the Barbours summer in Maine; Pippa, another survivor of the Met explosion and the ward of Hobie’s partner, moves, to Theo’s dismay, to Texas. On a long journey on a Greyhound bus across a swathe of the country, Theo passes through Kentucky, where his mother was raised. Even the novel’s only significant foreign setting - Amsterdam – is linked to Theo’s New Amsterdam/New York.

The book locates itself within an American literary and cultural tradition too, referencing, among many others, Edith Wharton, Irving Washington, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, the poet Gelett Burgess, Jack Kerouac and even Shirley Temple, the Grateful Dead and the Eagles’s ‘Hotel California.’ As much as the novel owes its form to Dickens, it is also in the vein of the baggy melodramas written by Louisa May Alcott before she became better known for Little Women.

However, The Goldfinch also points to its own constructedness: Theo, it becomes clear, is an unreliable narrator, existing, as he admits, in the ‘middle zone, the rainbow edge’ between truth and untruth. An art thief remarks to Theo that there is a ‘doubleness’ in Fabritius’s little painting: its loose brushstrokes draw attention to its ‘paintedness’ – its artifice – but it is, at the same time, an accurate representation of a goldfinch: ‘You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird.’

Put another way, the picture is in a constant state of becoming. The Goldfinch works in the same way. It draws attention to its literariness while presenting us with a story. It depicts a series of Americans trying to make and remake themselves anew. The novel asks quite fundamental questions about the country’s founding myths: it is possible to ‘follow one’s heart’ and become whatever one wants? Is that even desirable?

Echoing Franzen, the novel asks what it is to be free. Boris admits that his behaviour is dictated only by what he feels is right – as long as he feels that he is ‘acting out of love’ he has little or no interest in obeying laws or rules. But at the same time, he believes in a kind of divine providence: that he is part of a larger system too vast for him to understand. Theo, on the other hand, grapples with an existence in a universe that has no essential meaning for him.

But Theo does find meaning in things. The Goldfinch, like 19th-century realist fiction, is preoccupied with property and objects and money. Theo becomes an antiques dealer; the Barbours, his adoptive family, surround themselves with old and expensive art and furniture.

For Theo, the significance of ‘The Goldfinch’ is that it has taught him ‘that we can speak to each other across time’. The painting links up Carel Fabritius – who died in an explosion of the Delft gunpowder store in 1654 – to the many people who have owned or looked at the painting, to Theo’s mother and to him, and to others in the future. It collapses time into a single moment. Hobie suggests that that is precisely the point of caring for old things: they ‘connect you to some larger beauty’. He explains: ‘if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own’. The trafficking of furniture and art – both licit and illicit – is a trafficking in things that have accumulated histories and meanings. This trade helps Theo and Hobie to locate themselves in time and in space – to provide meaning to two lives once at drift.

The question for Theo is, then, how to use the freedom that this time allows. Part of the appeal of ‘The Goldfinch’ to Theo is that Fabritius’s little bird is chained to its ledge. Theo seeks throughout the novel some sense of connection – of home – and belonging. He wants, in other words, limits to his freedom – to be ‘inside the space of the frame’.

The novel is so rich and complex that this review can only open up some of its themes. That richness is almost a fault—The Goldfinch is by no means a perfect novel: it is far too long. Not only has Tartt tried to squeeze too much into it, occasionally stretching her readers’ credulity, but it is not always clear why she introduces new characters or sends old ones to new locations. At times, the novel feels like a series of linked-up vignettes – like one damn thing after another.

In a recent address at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on the future of the novel, the Nigerian-American author Teju Cole suggested that the 19th-century novel went in two directions in the 20th century: conventional, safe literary fiction on the one hand and, on the other, into experimental writing which pushed and played with form, asking always ‘what is a novel?’. He argued that it is the latter, ‘difficult’ novel that comes the closest to ‘elongating the perspective of human sensibility’ – the criteria according to which Joseph Brodsky evaluated ‘great’ novelists. Brodsky’s understanding of ‘greatness’ is more profound than the ways in which the ‘Great American Novel’ are defined. Here, it describes writing that helps the reader to understand or see human experience new and differently. For all its imperfections, The Goldfinch manages just this: it stretches the form of the 19th-century realist novel to encompass and interrogate the uncertainties and ironies of the early 21st century.
Sarah Emily Duff is a researcher in the medical humanities at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa.