Flying out of the past on broken wings
Fate is not kind to the narrator of Donna Tartt’s vivid, sad and often very funny third novel
Donna Tartt is no Dickens, but she does have a feel for character, manic description and the surging possibilities of narrative, particularly when, as it does here, it moves as fast and as messily as life tends to. Photograph: Fred R. Conrad / The New York Times
Theo Decker’s problems are complex and many; fate shows him little mercy, though there are glimpses of happiness as well as the enduring torment of unrequited love.
As a young boy he soon learns first hand the horrors of being caught in the middle of an unhappy marriage. His father, a failed actor and reluctant husband, is a drunk with a bad temper, while Theo’s mother, a pretty girl from Kansas, came to New York and was spotted as a model, but it failed to amount to much. When the boy’s father walks out, mother and son determine to survive. The 13-year-old Theo loves his mother, a dazzling, bird-like creature with a dreamer’s belief in love and art and life.
Many writers could have taken the bare facts of Donna Tartt’s third and finest novel and offered a sugary variation of David Copperfield crossed with Great Expectations. Tartt is no Dickens, but she does have a feel for character, manic description and the surging possibilities of narrative, particularly when, as it does here, it moves as fast and as messily as life tends to.
It all begins with a remarkable opening sequence that finds Theo, the narrator, in a very bad way in an Amsterdam hotel room. It is Christmas and he is alone, cold and drowsy, wearing most of his clothes in bed. He has dreamed about his mother. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.”
Theo’s life with his mother had been both simple and exotic; she gave him the world. Tartt sets the scene and quickly establishes Theo as a clever, observant outsider, an only child who considers his mother his friend. They are very close, yet Theo is already involved in the secret experiment of growing up and is in trouble at school. The day that he and his mother have to attend a meeting about his suspension from class, the rain is so heavy that they take shelter in the Museum of Modern Art. Theo’s mother needs to buy a gift for a colleague. A visiting exhibition of old masters has opened. The show includes The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. Theo’s mother is thrilled and recalls that it was the first painting she loved, having seen it in a book she used to borrow from the library.
It seems very natural, the way a chance visit to an exhibition can become something memorable. In Theo’s case, though, the little outing ends in tragedy. There is an explosion, and the boy, having caught sight of a young girl, is separated from his mother. The distraction caused by the girl saves Theo, who instead wanders alone through the bomb damage. The only person he meets is a dying man who sets him on a journey towards another dreamer, almost a male variation of his mother, who will have a huge influence on his life.
There are a number of connections and coincidences; Tartt knows how well these tended to work for Dickens, and she is equally unafraid to use them. Theo is grief-stricken, intelligent, angry, embittered and traumatised, and he begins an odyssey that introduces him to contrasting aspects of US life, with particular references to the social systems.
Tartt misses nothing; this is a very funny book, far funnier than The Secret History (1992) and far better, as well as funnier, than The Little Friend (2002). The Goldfinch combines biting observation and vivid comedy with many laugh-out-loud one-liners, exasperated asides and very sharp dialogue. It is a far more subtle, effective and sustained satire on the contemporary United States than AM Homes’s May We Be Forgiven (2012.)
Theo moves in with the wealthy family of a clever if socially inept school friend, Andy, one of Tartt’s most endearing creations. Already overwhelmed by the secret that he will carry into adulthood, Theo watches as the matriarch, Mrs Barbour, stage-manages her family and her social life according to a strict code of behaviour. The narrator is then whisked off to a surreal interlude in Las Vegas, during which he meets Boris, the crazed if resourceful son of another violent, heavy-drinking father.
In the character of multilingual and morally ambivalent Boris, Tartt unleashes a ball of frenetic energy that frequently spirals out of control. He is larger than life, and there is a risk that he could take over the narrative with his very physical, loud presence. Yet she allows Theo a similar, if somewhat more subdued, survivor instinct. Early in his life he has become attracted to beautiful things, and all of this makes sense in the chance friendship – chance is a vital theme through the book – he had formed in New York before his move to a satirically imagined Nevada. In true Dickensian style, our hero runs away and travels back to New York, by bus.
It is a huge book and very easy to read; an unabashed picaresque in which the comic does at times yield to the profound. One of the major themes is that of betrayal. Theo’s mind is a tormented hall of mirrors, ravaged by his escapist drug-taking. Yet he has interludes of stark lucidity, and his thoughts shift between grief, remorse and his love of beauty and beautiful objects. At the heart of his love of beauty, though, is the recurring image of the little bird – a prisoner, yet dignified and brave.
For a modern novel, which it undoubtedly is, there is an undercurrent of a stark intellect, which defers to the past, consistently pondering darker realities. “To understand the world at all,” reflects Theo, aware his fiancee loves a boyhood friend who had betrayed him years earlier, “sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look hard at what was close to hand . . . I thought of all the places I’d been and all the places I hadn’t, a world lost and vast and unknowable . . . far-drifting ash and hostile distances, connections missed . . .”
Yes, it is very good: vivid, alive and sad, even, at times, elegiac. Tartt writes great comedy but is essentially very serious. Theo is doomed and despairing yet alert and invariably believable and sympathetic, never more than when he openly hates himself. I was surprised at the number of British words used instead of the expected American usage: solicitor for lawyer, pub for bar, mathematics for math, fridge for refrigerator, mum for mom, pharmacy for drug store and so on. Are they Tartt’s choices or were they made for the UK edition?
Still, it is a minor criticism. At the end Theo explains why, and how, he has written his story with such detailed recall – a shrewd admission, as the reader will have already been asking. There is a final beautiful meditation on the painter Fabrititus and his haunting image of the little bird that speaks to us through the ages. Theo’s life has taught him many lessons, not least that art lives on, long after the hands and voices that have made it are no more.