Friday, January 31, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Straight up--I really liked this book. Which is unusual enough that I might as well say so up front.

This is a very long book, beautifully written, nicely observed, and generally absorbing. To be honest, I think it got a bit flabby toward the end, and a leetle bit self-indulgent in the last 50-ish pages. but overall definitely worth the time and effort to read. In fact, as distracted as I am by shiny things ( a word which here means "the internet") I have found it hard to read actual physical books. But this one was hard to put down.

At the heart of the novel is an exquisite painting by Carel Fabritius called "The Goldfinch," a real painting by a Dutch master painted in 1654.

Because this work actually exists, but its loss and recovery detailed in the book are fictional, one has to suspect that the painting has a symbolic/metaphorical value. This sense is heightened by the heavy debt the book owes to Dickens generally, and Great Expectations specifically. (Of course, it's been ages and ages since I've read Great Expectations, so someone else will have to do a better job than I can, tracking the influences).

So, the book moves in four great sections, giant blocks of narrative that carry us through the narrator's life from about age 13 to roughly his late twenties. The first sets up the baseline of his life, the normal that is irrevocably disrupted. The narrator, Theo Decker, lives in New York City with his mother, his father having recently abandoned them, mostly to Theo's relief. However, he has gotten into trouble at his prep school, and the book opens on the morning he has been called to a meeting with the principal and his mother to face suspension or expulsion for some breaking and entering of homes he has been doing with a classmate. The meeting is for late morning, and on the way they stop at the Met Museum to see an exhibit of Northern European master paintings--one of which is the Goldfinch.

These details are efficiently sketched but not dwelled upon--we get a feel for the pace of Theo's life, with glimpses of the stressors: his father's alcoholic unpredictability, his devotion to his mother, his chafing need to act out, his fundamental decency…when the bomb goes off.

Because the bomb is the engine that starts to plot, I had been aware of it and was waiting for it. If I hadn't known, I might have been surprised, just as Theo was. After all, the scenes in the museum are not obviously leading up to a Major Event like that--there is detail about some of the paintings, description of some of the people, the minor logistics of Theo staying in one gallery while his mother goes somewhere else. And there is a girl, roughly his own age, who Theo is fascinated by but afraid to speak to. All of this beautifully observed quotidian activity doesn't obviously point to a suitcase bomb, which would certainly be unexpected in real life, and maybe wasn't obviously telegraphed…

The gallery is destroyed, Theo is knocked unconscious, and when he comes to, he has a confused conversation with the grandfather of the girl he saw earlier. Both of them are likely concussed, if not lightheaded by blood loss. Somehow, the man convinces Theo to take the canvas of The Goldfinch for safekeeping (it had been blown out of its frame), then gives him a ring and cryptic directions: "Hobart and Blackwell. Ring the green bell" before he dies.

Somehow, Theo finds his way out of the museum by a side door, and goes home to wait for his mother.  Tartt is very careful about the details of how this happens without Theo being stopped by police, or given any emergency medical care. It is this careful writing that makes the outrageous plot device absolutely believable--and it shouldn't be--but has to be for the book to work. And the book does work.

Tartt carefully handles his dislocation and grief. He ends up staying for months with the Barbours, the WASPy family of an old school friend. The glamorous apartment, relentless achievement, and chilly emotional life of the family is reminiscent of a J.D. Salinger book. Meanwhile, Child Protective Services tries to find living relatives, including a father who clearly did not wish to be found. (Child support evasion do you think?) During this time, Theo makes the pilgrimage to "Hobart and Blackwell" where he finds the girl from the museum, Pippa, and Hobie, a gentle giant of a man who restores the antiques that Blackwell bought and sold.

Theo falls in love with Pippa (echoing Pip's love for Estella from Great Expectations) without actually spending much time with her. She was seriously injured in the blast, and is soon shipped off to live with an aunt. Theo finds a soothing peace in the furniture repair shop, and spends increasing amounts of time there with Hobie--they share an appreciation for old things, and they both miss Pippa. 

Just as Theo is about to fully integrate into this new life, his father shows up and again his life is disrupted. Larry Decker has a flash style, a Las Vegas girlfriend who goes by "Xandra," and sells everything from the apartment Theo shared with his mother in a matter of days. Theo is roughly transplanted to Vegas, where the Deckers live in a shoddy McMansion in an unfinished housing development. Theo's house is the only one occupied on the street, and the stink of the burst housing market is conveyed through the rotting garbage--no trash service, no pizza delivery, no buses, and the desert threatens to creep back in and reclaim the place.

Theo's father remains both flash and unpredictable. He claims to have stopped drinking, by which he means now he drinks only beer and he takes many different types of drugs. He gambles for a living, moving from baccarat to bookmaking on sports events, his manic behavior muted only by the odd hours he and Xandra keep. Theo is essentially abandoned in the house, feeding himself mostly on bar food Xandra brings home from her job at a casino. 

Theo manages to find another inappropriate friend--Boris, the son of a Russian mining engineer, who has lived all over the world. Boris enables Theo's genetic addictive personality, and soon the two of them are spending most of the next two years drinking and taking drugs, watching old movies and being wasted. 

Matters here come to a head as Larry's gaming losses mount. A couple of visits from an urbanely threatening enforcer embodies the looming catastrophe. One day, Larry screams and threatens until Theo calls a lawyer about transferring his inheritance into an account--presumably so Larry can pay off his debts. The lawyer (the Dickensian "Bracegirdle") says the money can't be transferred, only used to pay education bills, and Larry's transparent scheme is foiled. The next day, Larry dies in a one-car accident (suicide or murder?) and Theo panics. Unwilling to fall into the clutches of Child Protective Services again, he grabs Xandra's dog, the well-wrapped Goldfinch, and a few personal items and buses back to New York, where he turns up on Hobie's doorstep again.

Again, Tartt carefully describes the maneuverings that make this arrangement believable. Bracegirdle recommends boarding school, but instead, Theo manages to get into an early college program that allows him to stay in the city. Tartt describes this period as a time when Theo has the raw talent to succeed, but is so damaged by the combination of dislocation, trauma and drugs that he puts in the bare minimum of work, failing in a very believable way. But he's got a family of sorts--Hobie and the occasional visit from Pippa.

The book then skips ahead eight years. Theo has graduated from college, and has taken over running the antique sales business that Blackwell ("Welty") ran before his death. He has become a full partner in the firm, and is now engaged to Kitsey Barbour. The Barbour family has declined in the intervening years, and Theo's friend Arthur was killed in a boating accident with his disturbed father. (This section smacks rather of Brideshead Revisited in the way the family is less dazzling, and the narrator now feels enough of a social equal to marry into it.)

Theo has the good eye and reassuring manner necessary to be a successful antiques dealer--and seems to be so- but he remains morally corrupt. Pressured by the business's unpaid taxes and precarious finances, he begins to sell rebuilt pieces as original antiques. Carefully priced high enough to be believable, but low enough to be tempting as "a steal," he primarily sells these pieces to the nouveau riche--movie produces from California, oil men from Texas. Theo begins to exhibit the jittery megalomania of his father, torn between pride and guilt. 

Predictably, Theo is found out, by someone far more unscrupulous than he, who seems to be playing a larger game, and refers obliquely to The Goldfinch, which Theo still has, taped up in a mess of newspaper and packing tape, sitting securely in a archival storage room. This is when Boris reappears and Theo's life is again significantly disrupted.

Because Boris stole the painting back in the old days in Vegas, and now has a dodgy international business career that involves mob members and drug deals. The painting has been used as collateral on a number of major deals, and recently disappeared in a bust. At Theo's glittering engagement party (where he is mostly marginalized) Boris whisks him away to Amsterdam to retrieve the painting.

Theo ends up being driven around the city, disoriented, frequently drunk or stoned, and eventually sting armed by Boris into a confrontation in an after hours deli, where one man ends up dead. Subsequently, another set of thugs attack Theo and Boris in an empty parking garage, and Theo ends up shooting one of the men. He and Boris split up, and he spends the next several days in a fog of terror and foreboding, waiting to be arrested for the murder, and unable to leave, since Boris has his passport. The painting is once again missing, snatched by one of the criminals during the shoot-out.

Ultimately, and decidedly off-stage, Boris locates the painting and manages to lead the "art police" to its location, where a number of other important stolen works were stored. Boris delivers a suitcase full of reward money to Theo, who (in the epilogue) uses it to repurchase all the faked antiques he had sold. 

He doesn't quite get the girl--Kitsey is cheating on him with the man she really loves, Tom Cable, the schoolmate who got Theo into the breaking and entering at the beginning of the book. She still wants to get married, even though she doesn't love Theo, because they are well matched. It's not clear what Theo is going to do about that. Pippa remains his true love, but she is very clear that she doesn't love him. Theo is forced to realize that his feelings for Pippa are tied up with his grief over losing his mother, and that he needs to let them go.

The last 50 pages or so are the flabbiest of the book--the plot has been tied up, Theo is flying around the country doing penance by buying back furniture, and Tartt indulges in a sort of moralizing about the meaning of art and why it is Important. Skip those.

Luxuriate instead in the lovely writing she dedicates to the tempos and textures of Theo's life. The cold rainy winter morning in the City, where the miserable weather is redeemed by the beauty of the museum as a place of respite. She evokes the mote-filled light of a quiet antiques shop, as well as the frosty discomfort of an immaculate apartment that is photo ready and superficially chic, but not comfortable. Even the way the desert sunlight is different from the weaker sun of New York is deftly described. Theo's life is believable down to the details, because Tartt is so careful to observe and report all those details.

Looking back on this book, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Tartt is a maestro of the altered consciousness. Theo spends almost all of the book in some sort of clouded state, either through grief, concussion, drugs and alcohol, or fear. Perhaps that is Tartt's real subject--the way perception is impaired. Her first novel, The Secret History, had as its central showpiece the hazy perceptions of a Dionysian rite, followed by the corrosive effects of guilt on the participants and their relationships. The Goldfinch revisits many of those same emotions.

Why is this such an enjoyable book? What is the point of over 770 pages of this man child's life? I'm not sure I can answer that. Perhaps the secret is in the pacing, deliberate but not slow, and the smoothness of the writing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.