19 May, 2014Issue 25.2FictionWriters

Email This Article Print This Article

Donna Tartt’s Paintbrush

Shahla Haque

Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch
Little, Brown Book Group, 2013
784 pages
ISBN 978-1408704943

Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch, inhabits a world blurred through the eyes of a young, male protagonist, and shares its realist, contemporary American backdrop with her previous works. The sense of place is this novel’s strength; its length reflects the breadth of its protagonist’s adventure. Theo Decker’s journey from 12 to 23 years old takes him from New York to Las Vegas, back to New York, and eventually to Amsterdam. We see these places through the eyes of the troubled Theo; his perception changes and he grows older. Indeed, his troubles start at a young age with his mother’s death and progress to adulthood with, ultimately, a disengagement from normal life. His mother dies in a terrorist attack when he is 12 years old; he grows up to become a criminal in the world of antiques and takes increasing amounts of inebriants. Tartt’s stunning prose charms for the book’s 800-odd pages and following the trope of replication through The Goldfinch makes for interesting reading, since it spans many aspects of the novel: the consistent references to painting, the plot style, and the work the characters undertake. However, there are some difficulties in plot and characterisation that make this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel difficult to situate, largely due to a jarring shift in genre in the course of the book.

Tartt’s fans have waited a long time for this book, leaving many to ponder endlessly about what was to come. Her first novel, The Secret History (1992), thrilled readers with its incredible story and ability to draw friendships against a realistic and bleak milieu. She has an ability to describe setting and inner lives completely in her prose, and her characters are enigmatic and impeccably drawn through plot, dialogue, and compelling narration. The Secret History was a bestseller, making Tartt the subject of online shrines; her reticence to speak about herself, her writing, and her well-known classmates at Bennington College, who included Brett Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem, surrounded her in mystery. Ten years later she published The Little Friend, a thriller set in America’s Deep South. After that, Tartt’s readership was on tenterhooks, once more, for another 11 years.

The Goldfinch is proof that Tartt is, technically, a brilliant writer. In order to discuss this long and eventful novel successfully, an overview of its sequence might be useful. The prologue shows Theo looking back on his life from an Amsterdam hotel. Chapter one opens with 13-year-old Theo and his mother visiting a Manhattan art gallery which houses The Goldfinch, a painting by which Theo’s mother is captivated. There is a terrorist bomb attack on the gallery; his mother dies but Theo escapes with the painting after being encouraged to steal it by a dying man–the business partner of Theo’s saviour-to-be, Hobie, an antique restorer, whom he goes to meet. Theo is saved from the authorities by the family of a school friend until his estranged, alcoholic father takes him away to Las Vegas. There, he meets Boris, who, like Theo, has a difficult relationship with his father. Boris and Theo develop a fast and lasting friendship; their lives detach and reconnect at significant points during the story. Throughout the book the stolen painting is a constant presence. By the end of the book, Theo finds himself on a gangster’s quest to recover the painting.

The name, Theo Decker, echoes that of Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, a film referenced by several characters in the book in relation to the nature of memory. Hobie’s restoration of antiques is described in great detail; matching veneers to the solid wood beneath and creating the appearance that the piece of furniture has always been whole rather than patched up – this is the skill of restoring. In the book, this is a metaphor for constructed lives, particularly Theo’s life as an orphan. Theo’s only constants are the painting and the death of his mother; he travels and gathers knocks which he attempts to patch up, using drugs for catharsis and becoming engaged to Kitty, an archetypal “Park Avenue Princess”. In Vegas everything is simulated; there are copies of places, from famous landmarks to sublime nature.

Tartt captures place beautifully. She is a master of concise and lyrical description, and her ability to convey the inner thoughts of a first-person narrator is compelling. However, the magic does not hold consistently. Half of the book is told by a 13-year-old Theo, who sometimes makes observations beyond his age, such as noticing that his psychiatrist “gave off the glazed vibe of exhausted young fatherhood”. The rest of the novel is from the viewpoint of the 23-year-old Theo, as he tries to address the residue of childhood events. While the young Theo and Boris’s adventures are some of the best parts of the novel, purely for their redolent descriptions of the post-housing boom Las Vegas landscape and the vastness of the sky in the eyes of young boys who are mostly inebriated, the older Theo’s voice is more convincing overall. That is, until Theo ends up in a pulpy thriller of a plot at the end of the book, designed to resolve the issue of the stolen Goldfinch. While the purloined painting works as a trope and metaphor, it does not provide a compelling reason for Theo to become embroiled in the criminal underworld. Is it enough that he wants to get the painting back because it reminds him of his mother and he feels responsible for having stolen it? There is also little sense to the violence at the novel’s end: is it designed to deepen the already-severe bleakness he feels after the terrorist attack left him bereft as a child? The final question raised at the end of the book is: why does Theo need to experience a bloodbath in the process of getting the painting back? However, the problem with the end is not the plot itself, but rather the genre into which the novel morphs. It feels part young adult, part thriller and does not quite fit into either. As a result, certain aspects of voice and story do not completely marry. Despite this, Theo is a compelling character and, while the situations he finds himself in do not completely ring true to the world of the novel, his reactions to them are believable.

While Tartt herself admitted during a launch event last year that if she could have any Old Master painthing, she would choose The Goldfinch, it would clearly be too simplistic to liken her obsession with that of Theo in the book. The central image of the novel–The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Dutch pupil of Rembrandt and teacher of Vermeer–depicts a beautiful finch, chained to a dark platform, against a very light background showing Fabritius’s replication of Rembrandt’s technique. It is the core of an interesting reflection on replication and copying in the novel. Fabritius’s painting, we are told, shows the seams of its construction. The feathers of the goldfinch are described as a combination of tangible brushstrokes as well as perfectly rendered feathers, showing Fabritius’s understanding of light and detail. And the description of painting itself in the book, the use of ekphrasis, imitates the way Tartt paints in prose and builds images: “the muted colours bloomed with life… the painting seemed transfigured”.

This subtext about replication is fascinating and it emerges in a number of ways: from characters and names to acts of copying and locations, spanning 19th-century novels, to fine art and 20th-century popular culture. The explosion in the art gallery–the way it impacts the characters and is subsequently discussed in the press–is clearly an allegory of 9/11, but there is an earlier allusion: Fabritius died in the Delft gunpowder explosion in 1654, the year he made the painting. Even the recent discovery of 1,500 artworks in Munich which were originally looted by the Nazis now echoes in Theo’s story.

Tartt’s prose is technically brilliant and elegant, her descriptions of place and painting beautifully redolent and compelling, and she has crafted a narrative voice which we trust. However, underneath the sumptuous prose, the characters can feel flat, and the story looks a little thin. At times, this novel feels like an elegant replica of a Donna Tartt novel, rather than an original.

Shahla Haque is a reading for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford. She currently lives and works in London.