Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

Last week, one of my classes went to the library to chose books to read for a project. We were presented with a baffling array of YA books, but I, being the YA disliker that I am, managed to convince the teacher to let me read The Goldfinch instead, a book I’d actually read a few years ago when it first came out. After all, the novel does deal with many of the themes present in those books: social class, loss, growing up. It begins with first-person narrator Theodore Decker at age 13, walking with his mother to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school. Ducking out of a thunderstorm into the shelter of an art museum, Theo’s mother, an art lover, takes him tscreen-shot-2017-02-23-at-7-27-59-amo see the works of the Dutch masters, among them The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1622-1654, the ‘missing link’ between Rembrandt and Vermeer). A terrorist bomb explodes in the museum, however, killing many including Theo’s mother. Theo survives and escapes, not only with his life but with the painting and with ring given to him as he comforts a dying old man (Welty). The ring takes Theo to an antiques shop where he meets Hobie, Welty’s business partner, who takes Theo under his wing.

The painting soon emerges as the force holding the center of the book (and Theo’s life) together, the still point of a world thrown into grief, chaos, absurdity, following Theo as he is first sent to live with a friend’s family, the upper-class Barbours, on Park Avenue, and then with his deadbeat dad and his dad’s girlfriend in Las Vegas. There, still traumatized by the explosion and his mother’s death, Theo makes friends with Russian expat Boris and in the absence of parental guidance, the two launch themselves into a spiral of drinking and drugs. Theo then goes back to New York, and the narrative skips ahead eight years, with Theo, now an antiques dealer with Hobie, embroiled in a tangle at which the painting is still the center – the intersection of old and new relationships, a criminal underworld, Amsterdam, the past weaving not-so-seamlessly into the present as our protagonist struggles to navigate himself.

The novel is often called “Dickensian” in a lot of reviews, and it’s easy to see why – Theo as the lost orphan, Boris as the Artful Dodger, the antiques store as the old curiosity shop, the old man with the cryptic message, etc, etc – but I find that what Tartt lacks in Dickens’ wit, she makes up for in her own powers of detail and ideas on art and life. Many, like James Wood of the New Yorker, have also criticized the novel as childish and cliché, but how boring would life be if everything was perfectly and 100% realistic?

The thing about a second reading is that it did allow me to see the validity of a lot of these criticisms, stuff I hadn’t picked up the first time because I was so absorbed in the story, and because at that point I was obsessed with The Secret History and quite frankly, would have loved anything Tartt touched. Although I think the amount of detail taught me a lot about a variety of topics, from antique to furniture restoration to New York and art (and drugs, maybe not so good) and helped absorb me into the novel, I felt that it could have done with a little more editing and excising of unnecessary information. I also found the pacing a bit strange – dragging on for about 500 pages in the middle and then suddenly speeding up in the last 100. There were a lot of loose ends, too, plot points that were dropped and then picked up much later, conflicts that were solved a little too neatly and quickly; the painting, for all its importance, went unmentioned for large chunks of pages.

However, for all its flaws, I loved its insights into art and beauty, how it deals with the idea of the way the past affects our present and the themes of fate and fortune, how Theo’s parents follow him like ghosts that thread through the narrative constantly, and Tartt’s descriptions of his grief. I also loved her descriptions of the desert and Theo’s rootless existence in Las Vegas, and I loved Boris as  a character – the sort of character that could exist only in fiction but not in a bad or underdeveloped way. I think the absurd is another theme I found threading through the book that Tartt deals with beautifully – i.e. what is the point of living, of “wad[ing]… right through the cesspool,” this “sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts,” why do we continue going on when something – a tragedy, a painting – alters the grain of life so much that we can no longer keep believing in the illusion that something better lies in “the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement,” the routine of daily life; how do we deal with that? – is it better to buy into the illusion (“ignorant bliss,” my philosophy teacher called it, the first stage of the existential journey) or to search for a more meaningful, deeper happiness?

These were questions that had been running through my mind recently before I picked up the book, and like Hobie says, a piece of art is meaningful to you not because of some grand, universal message it might carry but because it whispers to you as an individual, because of your own life experiences, because of how the work arrives in your life and appeals to something inexplicable in your soul. For all its flaws, I think Tartt’s novel, the first time I read it at the age of about 15, meant a lot to me – maybe didn’t touch me as much as The Secret History – but still, came at a time when I could relate a lot to Theo. For me personally, the last twenty or so pages of the novel affected me so much, both the first time I read it and now, that it sort of made up for all its shortcomings.

Anyway, I think if you’re willing to slog through about 800 pages for extended periods of time, you should definitely give The Goldfinch a try and see how you like it. If you’re also interested in art and the actual painting, I’d also recommend the Mauritshuis’s website for it, which has a lot of interesting background information about Dutch still life and Fabritius.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

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