“The Goldfinch”: stars are beautiful because of the space between them

“…You are not mad, or wild, or grieving! You are not roaring out to choke her with your bare hands! Which means your soul is not too mixed up with hers. And that is good. Here is my experience. Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you. What you want to live and be happy in the world is a woman who has her own life and lets you have yours.” – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Boris, the Tweedledee to the protagonist’s Tweedledum, kind of has a point. Loving someone or someone too much usually comes with a host of unpleasant consequences. So it’s probably a bad thing, this love I have for The Goldfinch. A bad thing – and an irresistible thing.

Like most people, I first fell in love with Donna Tartt’s writing when I read “The Secret History,” a voluptuous, gorgeous, improbable novel. Unlike most people, I didn’t howl with rage at her unexpected follow-up, “The Little Friend.” It was an unsatisfying, brutal sort of book, but I respected what the author was trying to do with it. Living in Russia these last few years, I have gained new appreciation for “The Little Friend,” because of the idea that life is weird and abrupt, and not all sad stories have a resolution, and not all ends can be seen.

The one genuine complaint I had about “The Little Friend” was the recurring feeling that the author was firmly keeping her characters at an arm’s length, never inhabiting them fully. That kind of clinical approach worked well for Nabokov in his later years, but when it comes to a literary mystery, it makes the reader feel a little cheated. “The Little Friend” is a fine example of masterful prose that’s also a little too cold and shiny and, therefore, ultimately a bit lifeless.

So when the months of anticipation were finally over and “The Goldfinch” had arrived, I kept wondering, as I read, when Tartt might smack me over the head again. I steeled myself. I made copious notes as I read – waiting for the inevitable emotional letdown.

And then, of course, the sublime happened and kept happening.

Donna Tartt is one of the most important writers of our time, and important writers are always more than just skilled and precise. Their great works are always just a little crazy – all of that over-quoted stuff about Nietzsche’s internal chaos giving birth to a “dancing star” is no less true for being featured in too many Facebook profiles. And “The Goldfinch” is a deliciously mad, courageous sort of work.

Tartt’s prose still has that glinting edge to it. She hasn’t lost the hoodoo or the sarcasm. But “The Goldfinch” also covers great expanses – of joy, sorrow, the geography of the world and human love and longing – and does so fearlessly and with the kind of abandon that is reminiscent of the brush-strokes of its celebrated namesake, painted by Carel Fabritius shortly before his death at 32.

Out of all the motifs running through the book, one of my favorites (and one that I haven’t really seen many critics mention), is the repeated comparisons made between protagonist Theo Decker and Harry Potter, otherwise known as The Boy Who Lived. “The Goldfinch” is far from a fantasy – but in its references to Harry Potter, it recognizes the human need for the magical and fantastic, for what Kate Atkinson calls “the golden mountain, the fire-breathing dragon, the happy ending,” at the end of her own modern masterpiece, “Human Croquet.”

The magical in this instance is art, both high art in the traditional sense and the art of what Theo refers to as “beautiful things” (and is there really that much of a difference? The book seems to suggest that no, there isn’t). While nobody comes along to usher Theo into a parallel, Hogwarts-like universe – there is this perfectly articulated sense of the inevitability of being forced to step sideways out of one’s own existence, into a dimension that’s darker and stranger. Tartt’s instruments here are painful and powerful, and her ultimate scope is astonishing. I have the sense I’ll be thinking about this book for a decade (and won’t stop thinking about it when, hopefully, the next Tartt book arrives).

A lot of good novels are like monuments. The best ones are like old houses – humming with internal energy, lit up from the inside. “The Goldfinch” is one of those – the place you want to stay for a long time, and not because you’re escaping from anything. Within “The Goldfinch” you’re always moving toward some understanding, trying to bridge some distance. Like a great painting would, the book bends time – reaching out and addressing the reader. And it makes you feel as though these words are meant for you alone.

4 thoughts on ““The Goldfinch”: stars are beautiful because of the space between them

  1. Everyone should read Donna Tartt! She’s a goddess, after all. Although you do have to wonder if Boris is right in his assessment. I don’t think the author takes a side in that debate, per se.

  2. The last paragraph gave me goosebumps. Yes bridging the distance, bending time …”we are all for the captured time of our being” — Frank O’Hara

  3. “A lot of good novels are like monuments. The best ones are like old houses – humming with internal energy, lit up from the inside.”

    What a lovely picture you have painted in my mind’s eye! Love your creative thoughts!

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