The Goldfinch: Dickens Meets Salinger for Drinks

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The Goldfinch is exactly the sort of novel that a good many people clamor for the chance to hate. Not only is the novel long (my edition is a whopping 864 pages), but above everything else, above all other themes, it is a novel obsessed with art. Not necessarily art in its full breadth, though there are hints of movies and novels within the pages, but primarily art as paintings, and the effect art has on our lives. The quote that begins part four, the final part, the denouement, is from Nietzsche: “We have art in order to not die from the truth.” And really, this is a quote that describes the entire arc of The Goldfinch’s complicated protagonist, Theo Decker.

The Goldfinch is first and foremost a coming of age novel. Theo Decker begins the novel as a 13 year old punk kid who loses his mother in a right-wing terrorist bombing of an art-gallery in New York. Separated from his mother before the blast, upon coming to, Theo stumbles upon a dying man who gives him a ring and tells him to take a painting (Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch”) from the gallery. In the midst of the chaos of the bombing, Theo slips out of the gallery and returns home with the painting, not realizing for a couple weeks that he is an art thief in a post-9/11 world, something with increasingly serious consequences. After learning that his mother was killed in the explosion (this is not a spoiler, it is the frame of the novel and is oft mentioned on the back cover of the novel, depending upon your edition), he is taken in by the rich family of perhaps his only friend.

This opening section is chock-full of references to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which, if you’ve read this blog much, you know I am not exactly a fan of. Throughout reading this novel, I kept joking to people who asked me what I was reading, “Oh, something I ignored the warning labels about.” The Goldfinch, in nearly every blurb and review of it, is described as a Dickensian novel in every sense. Yet, it is only in this opening section that it really carries the heavy weight and dense trudge of Dickens’ writing. As surprising as it may be to call a novel both Dickensian and fast-paced, there are not many other ways to describe The Goldfinch. And where it saves itself from readers like me, the kind of readers who just cannot stomach Dickens, is Tartt’s turn into blending of Salinger into Dickens.

While most of the novel finds itself deeply entrenched within the world of art and antiques, spending time with people who seem completely other to the average person on the street, there is a distinct side of the novel that this world is juxtaposed with through the eyes of Theo Decker, who, as he ages, becomes a drug addict and the type of person that just cannot help but find trouble in every crevice. While Theo does not quite hold the same depressed and cynical worldview that Holden Caulfield did in The Catcher in the Rye, there is a similar vein they both have in their mode of being, namely admiring people who deal with them in truthfulness, even if the truthfulness is ugly, while despising those that seem to have an air of falseness around them. For Theo, the quintessential example of this is his father, a man who abandoned he and his mother less than a year before Theo would find himself in a burning art gallery. His father cannot handle being a father, a husband, or a provider. His heart leads him to wander more than anything else. Tartt, in a move that makes the novel great, balances Theo’s character arc with that of everything Theo believes he hates about the man. While The Goldfinch is pitched to readers as the story of a boy dealing with the loss of his mother, the novel becomes almost the opposite of that. As the story concludes, Theo is not meditating on the loss of his mother, but the newfound understanding he has of his father, a man he hated throughout the novel, and maybe still does.

In the same way of The Catcher in the Rye, The Goldfinch finds its protagonist existing in this state of perpetual forthcoming darkness. What makes both novels so gripping is the sense of dread that every scene places over Holden and Theo. One cannot help but get the sense that Theo is making all the wrong decisions, that at his most basic sense he really is just kind of a broken human being and there is very little, if anything, he can do about it. All he really knows is that, like Fabritius’ single goldfinch standing on its perch, chained to a moment, he too, is solitary, and he must make of life what he can with only that truth in mind.

The Goldfinch is a wonderful novel that accomplishes everything it sets out to do. At times it drags – it would not be Dickensian if it did not – but these passages end up being rare, and at most points you will find yourself wholly caught up in Tartt’s prose and three-dimensional characters. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give it is that I did not feel its length.

Recommended to: Those prepared for a trek through a difficult life told through great, but at times dense prose. This is not the easiest novel you will ever read, but Tartt does not expect so much without due reward.

Avoid as if it is going to the gym on January 1st: Oddly enough, I can see a great many people not liking The Goldfinch, especially those who just cannot enjoy long novel for whatever reason. There are typical Dickensian clichés and conveniences, and the ending is not typical of supposedly great American novels, but this is a difficult novel to gauge people’s interest in.

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