Little Bird, Big Book

27 November 2013

Donna Tartt’s first novel in nearly a decade, The Goldfinch, is a breathlessly emotional coming-of-age tale of an orphaned boy adrift in New York and Las Vegas, with nods to the 19th century epics of Dickens and Dostoyevsky.

Mississippi-born novelist Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History, published in 1992 when she was in her late 20s, was a literary sensation and an instant classic of contemporary literature: a morbid, expertly plotted tale of five Classics students at an exclusive New England college whose close friendship unravels spectacularly when they kill one of their number. While the writing felt fresh and contemporary in its insight and world-weary cynicism, what was most remarkable about The Secret History was Tartt’s imagining of the riches and casual immorality of the languid monied elite. Though the novel is ostensibly set in the present day, Tartt imagines a world of WASP privilege straight out of Fitzgerald, James and Waugh. She lingers fetishistically on the material trappings of wealth: boozy lunches, cosy tutorials in dusty libraries, drunken afternoons in country houses, fountain pens, horn-rimmed spectacles, trips to Italy. It’s a seductive world, though she’s not entirely immune to its corrupting effects. In her expert essaying of the isolating and destabilising consequences of sin, Tartt channeled the moral seriousness of Dostoyevsky for the MTV generation. It’s a dazzling achievement, and a book I regularly re-read, both for the sheer pleasure of the storytelling and to admire Tartt’s astonishingly assured writing.

Since then, Ms Tartt has proved to be something of a fan of the long slow burn, with a most un-modern reluctance to engage with the world of letters. Unlike her attention-seeking mentor Bret Easton Ellis (who mentored her as a young writer), Tartt maintains tight controls around her public persona – famously disavowing interviews, Twitter, book clubs and press junkets, and emerging only once every decade or so with a new novel, dressed like a Victorian-era dandy in sharply cut suits, and a sleek, dramatically cut Louise Brooks bob.  It’s easy to imagine her pulling out a fob watch or writing with a quill pen, and it seems unlikely that she’d ever do anything as lowbrow as watch reality TV, eat a Big Mac or fill in a tax return. In that sense, she’s as gloriously and irritatingly pretentious as her backwards-looking characters, constantly dreaming of a happier world from long ago that probably never existed.

Her sophomore work, The Little Friend (2002) was a dense Gothic tale set in modern-day Mississippi, It begins sensationally with the child protagonist, Harriet, discovering her pre-teen brother hanged in a tree in their front yard, then restarts the story ten years later. As in The Secret History, Tartt shows a fascination with unpunished crime and the corrosive influence of murder on those left behind, though this time filtered through the naive perspective of a child. Harriet, who is precocious, pretentious and frequently irritating, goes on an odyssey of her own romantic devising, and stumbles into some very ugly adult situations, including white trash snake charmers and crystal meth labs. The Little Friend confirmed Tartt as a first-rate literary stylist and a dab hand at claustrophobic psychological states. It was a looser, more wide-ranging book than The Secret History – rambling and symphonic and crammed with evocative detail – but somehow it never took off. For all Tartt’s writerly skill, she couldn’t quite marry her Grand Guignol/Jerry Springer plot with her aesthetic sensibility. The result was a bit like a princess in a mink coat waiting at a laundromat – all dressed up but with no place to go.

Another decade on, and Tartt has produced her third book, The Goldfinch, which draws from and develops themes from her earlier work. It’s a return to the first person male narrative she used so convincingly in The Secret History, telling a tale of lost innocence and experience gainedand repeats something of the uneasy mix of psychological thriller and white trash drug narrative that made The Little Friend such a perplexing read.

Nearly 10 years in the writing and at a whopping 784 pages, it’s big enough to qualify as an instant “epic”, and has the kind of ambition and expansiveness of vision that makes most of her  contemporaries seem like ants foraging around in the soil, visible only under a magnifying glass. There’s a fascinating sense of self-imposed remoteness in her writing and a persistent referral back to the 19th century epics of Dickens and Dostoyevsky that gives Tartt the uncanny allure of a changeling, and marks her out, for better or for worse, from most other American writers of her generation. With just three novels under her belt, Tartt seems to ascended to that rarest of elevated states: a writer at the top of her game with nothing to prove to the literary world or anyone else, and apparently able to write the kind of work she wants to write with no need to pander to contemporary tastes.

Tartt’s intention appears to have been to make the The Goldfinch as sweepingly dramatic and unapologetically emotional as a Dickens-era tearjerker. For the first third of the book, she succeeds magnificently. In the first act, her protagonist Theo is a 13 year-old Manhattanite whose mother spontaneously takes him to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a weekday morning, en route to a parent-teacher conference at his private school. As they study a collection of old Dutch masters, featuring Fabritius’ famous painting of a chained goldfinch, a bomb goes off, destroying the museum and killing Theo’s mother. Theo survives, and prompted by a dying man he meets in the gallery, he takes the Fabritius painting with him and escapes unscathed. We follow Theo’s dazed post-traumatic stress disordered afterlife in New York, living with wealthy friends the Barbours, as he grapples with his grief and the strange mix of possessiveness and guilt he feels towards the painting. His brief connection with Welty, the dying man in the museum, leads him to Welty’s business partner Hobie, a kindly furniture maker who becomes a surrogate father figure, and Pippa, the girl Theo saw with Welty just before the explosion.

This first section is breathtakingly well written and utterly gripping throughout. Tartt’s command of language is so easy and assured, and her psychological insights and extraordinarily facility with extreme emotional experience are so convincing that she makes her rather melodramatic narrative seem not only plausible but completely relatable. Theo’s hair-raising scene with Welty in the ruins of the museum is especially compelling and heartrending.

The novel slumps in tone and energy as Theo’s estranged father appears on the scene with a flakey girlfriend Xandra, asserting his near-expired parental duties and moving Theo to Las Vegas. Theo ends up more or less abandoned in his father’s half-empty McMansion in a desert suburbia, while his father and Xandra work the casinos. In the laziest part of what’s otherwise a rigorously imagined novel, Theo becomes Tartt’s conduit for some fairly standard-issue Yankee snobbery about the cultureless desert states – it’s amusing enough but nothing that we haven’t read before in back issues of the New Yorker. Lonely and disoriented, Theo strikes up a friendship with another lost soul, Boris, a Ukrainian-born teenager with a peripatetic past, and the two develop a near-incestuous friendship amid some  Olympian-level drug use.

Things spring to life again as tragedy strikes again and Theo travels back to Gotham City. You can literally hear Tartt sighing with relief as Theo leaves the desert states behind and sinks back into Greenwich Village bohemia and chilly Park Avenue elegance. Theo moves in with Hobie and (after an ellipsis of several years) becomes his business partner, showing remarkable aptitude as an art and antiques dealer. Things get complicated when Theo meets a vindictive antiques dealer named Lucius, and then Boris turns up again, revealing the book’s major plot twist and propelling the story into very dark territory. An 11th hour Grand Guignol finale in Amsterdam is vividly imagined and written, but feels too much like the faraway musings of a passportless American who visits a public library than anything drawn from the modern world.

Tartt is nothing if not ambitious, fashioning a modern-day fusion of the picaresque coming-of-age tales of Dickens with the moral seriousness and ethical ambiguity of a Dostoyevsky novel. Dickens’ world of scrappy go-getting orphans is an appropriate touchstone for a nostalgist and literary stylist like Tartt, a writer who’s largely disinterested in the travails of middle-class adulthood that populates most contemporary American fiction. The Goldfinch succeeds, mostly enjoyably, as a contemporary retelling of Great Expectations, with Theo as the adventurous Pip, Pippa (geddit?) as a nicer version of Estella, Hobie as a Joe Gadgery figure, Welty as a well-upholstered Magwitch and Mrs Barbour as a bewitchingly strange and damaged Park Avenue-dwelling Miss Havisham.

The Dostoyevsky Part Deux theme works less well. In Boris, Tartt tries to create a modern day Rogozhin from The Idiot, just as Theo himself is meant to channel the guilt and anguish of Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov. (Just in case you didn’t get the references, Tartt has her characters quote awkwardly and anachronistically from both novels). Admirably unafraid of asking big questions in her fiction, Tartt uses Boris and Theo’s friendship to dive into some complex theorising on the nature of good, evil, guilt, fate and freewill – moral terrain that she handled with aplomb in The Secret History. In The Goldfinch, she’s only partially successful. The Dostoyevskian philosophising is put into long awkward speeches delivered by characters who are meant to be high on drugs and barely able to move, let alone ponder their own existence. Consequently Tartt’s finely wrought sentences and dizzying paradoxes sound more like a university English Lit term paper than the dialogue of pill-popping teenage boys.

Tartt is on safer ground when she posits Theo as an aesthete. She has some lovely moments as Theo describes the power and effect of great art, including the Fabritius painting which becomes the novel’s third major character and an integral part of Theo’s identity and journey to adulthood. Though many passages have the slightly hectoring tone of an art history lecturer who wants you to Get The Point, her love of and appreciation for art as a constant source of meaning and pleasure amid the messiness of life is presented with intelligence, wit and passion.

Though captivatingly narrated, the novel suffers from what I like to call “1st person-itis”. We see solely through Theo’s perspective, which is so lovingly and comprehensively rendered that the depth and complexity of the other characters are reduced by comparison. Tartt has demonstrated in The Secret History that she’s able to create a vivid stock company of supporting characters within the limits of first-person narration. But despite some vivid descriptions, the other characters in The Goldfinch never ascend beyond sharply drawn pencil sketches – a possible downside to Tartt turning up the emotional pitch of her narrative to such operatic levels. Boris in particular never really comes alive as a character. He feels too much like an over-stretched literary construction, popping up rather too conveniently to push the narrative forward and inject a sense of danger in into Theo’s somewhat pretentious WASP-cum-Dickensian world of antique furniture and fine art. Though he’s wittily written, Boris ends as he begins, as an unimaginative collection of Russian stereotypes – the long-haired hard-drinking fatalist Russian with mafia connections – rather than the living breathing human being the book needs him to be.

Through sheer effrontery and a dazzling command of language, Tartt (almost) pulls off her finale and gets to have her literary layer cake and eat it too – wrapping up all the loose ends neatly with a Christmas gift bow, like Dickens at his most dextrous and warmly humanistic, while still getting to drag her characters through Dostoyevskian gulags of guilt, despair and redemption. Despite doffing her cap to Victorian-era fiction, Tartt leaves Theo parked as a T S Eliot-style mid-century modernist: despairing of life as chaotic but redeemed by the transcendent power of art. It’s not an original perspective, but she mostly earns her right to sit at the table with the big boys of literary fiction she so admires.

The Goldfinch is a fine novel but far from a perfect one, with a number of writerly indulgences that Tartt’s editor really should have pulled her up on. For a start, it’s about 100 pages too long, repetitive in places and dragging in others. When I finished The Secret History, I was devastated to have to farewell the characters. By comparison, I crawled to the end of The Goldfinch with the weariness of a long-distance runner, almost relieved that the ordeal was over. Tartt’s story may be epic and there’s nothing wrong with thinking big, but any telephone book-sized novel has to justify its length, and in this case The Goldfinch could have been more powerful with a leaner, more disciplined edit. Length aside, Tartt’s seemingly endless littering of her literary sources screams like Starbucks product placement in Hollywood films and feels completely unnecessary. Even more puzzlingly, she spells out her Big Themes in agonisingly large print in the final chapters, as if she felt compelled to provide Cliffs Notes for those of us who didn’t get what it all means. We do get it, Donna – there’s no need to labour the point and then labour it again.

Mostly, though, we’re happily under Tartt’s spell. The Goldfinch showcases beautiful writing, a gripping narrative and an inexhaustible belief in the power of art – her own and that of her beloved Victorian novelists and Dutch master painters – to transform human experience. Cheerfully bucking the modern trend for minimalist, Cormac McCarthy-style literary prose, Tartt reminds us what’s possible when we ignore writing school mantras and “tell” as well as “show”. Tartt overwhelms the reader with a baroque flood of sensory detail, which for the most part is a glorious, invigorating experience. In terms of ambition, confidence and instinctive idiosyncratic vision, there’ll be few other novelists – male, female, Russian or somewhere in between – to touch Ms Tartt this year.

Rating: 4.5/5. Brilliant writing and impassioned insight that lacks the self-restraint and deftness of touch that made The Secret History a modern masterpiece. Highly recommended.


  1. Maybe I need to reread the Secret History, which I must admit i thought was enjoyable but, at bottom, an airport novel, albeit a superior one that recyled greater writers for shorter twentieth century attention spans without having anything new to add

  2. Airport novel? I’m sure that’s a first for Ms Tartt. I myself haven’t read many airport novels where the main characters sit around in libraries discussing the correct translation of verbs in Ancient Greek.

  3. Tartt had been reluctantly disclosing to her interlocutor the odd detail of her private life, when chance comes to her rescue: “Suddenly she spots, with delight, a whirling flock of goldfinches. ‘Look at these goldfinches – do you see?’ she cries. ‘Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down – they just fly around and they’re happy for a long time, and just sing and play. And only when it’s insanely late in the year, they kind of break down and build their nests. I love goldfinches,’ she sighs. ‘They’re my favourite bird.'” Like her narrator Theo, it seems, she held on to that idea, didn’t let it get away.

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