When poet Lucille Clifton taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I took several of her classes. As my fellow students and I sat around a conference table to critique each other’s poetry, Clifton would direct us to first state what we loved about the poems. After finishing The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s novel about Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old boy whose life takes a tragic, criminal trajectory after surviving an explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which results in the death of his beloved mother and his theft of a masterpiece, I asked myself: What do I love about this novel? Well, anything that brings attention to art is certainly something to love, right? And Tartt does so by making Carel Fabritius’ painting “The Goldfinch” the hub of her story. That she was successful in attracting attention to his piece is evidenced by headlines like “’The Goldfinch painting drawing big crowds since Donna Tartt book release” on CBS.com and elsewhere. (Note: “The Goldfinch” is on display at The Frick Collection in New York until January 19.) She certainly writes well, giving us vivid characters and settings and a plot that keeps us turning pages. And in this day and age of sound bite attention spans and vapid voyeurism, what’s not to love about a book, any book, that’s receiving good reviews, selling well, and attracting readers?
Except I did feel like a voyeur. You know, not in a loose sense, but in that Merriam-Webster dictionary definition sense of “seeking the sordid or scandalous.” Reading The Goldfinch left me feeling like I had just watched a reality TV show and wondering, as Peggy Lee famously sang, “Is that all there is?” I didn’t know anything about Tartt prior to reading this book, but had I known, I would have expected characters who not only live in the moment, but who live narcissistic lives of indulgence (drugs, alcohol, greed); who lack moral centers (deceit, theft, forgery, murder); and who, ultimately, do not redeem themselves. Now I’m not a prude, nor do I think that all novels should be a story of good vs. evil, where good always wins, but we live in a world where not only can we watch such tales unfold on the Internet and in reality TV programs, but also in our very neighborhoods--so I guess I’m feeling saturated. I’d rather see a talent like Tartt give us a respite from this seemingly nightmarish world by providing hope for mankind in the halls of literature.
Okay, I’m off my soapbox! On to some elements that rang hollow: One, the point-of-view is first person in the form of Theo Decker at age twenty-seven, recounting in great detail the previous fourteen years. However, he sounds considerably older, for he has an impressive vocabulary, using words such as “cicatriced;” references people such as Carole Lombard, Dick Powell, and Bela Lugosi; and is comfortably knowledgeable about art. Not that men in their twenties can’t have impressive vocabularies and be knowledgeable of 1930s film stars and art, but Theo neither receives a stellar secondary education nor a degree in art and spends most of the book stoned or drunk. Is Tartt telling us that doctors and scientists are wrong, that drugs don’t kill brain cells? The novel’s voice is more in line with the character of Andy, Theo’s nerdy friend, with whom he lives until being sent to live with his father, an alcoholic gambler, and girlfriend in Las Vegas. Yes, Theo spends time grieving and watching Turner Classic Movies, yes he goes to college, but these events still do not seem to be enough of a background for the level of diction and arcane associations.
Secondly, it seems rather unbelievable that Theo could deceive, steal from (to the tune of 16K), and sully the reputation of a key character, James Hobart (who befriends Theo and provides both moral guidance and employment), and yet, at the end of the book, the two still enjoy a friendship and business relationship. Really?! There are also some places where the book drags on and Tartt comes across as snooty (What Americans call apartments “flats,” toilets “loos,” or ping pong “table tennis”?), which are minor complaints compared to the didactic final pages where Tartt, in Theo’s voice, tells us Why These Characters Are Who They Are and What This Book Means.
I do admire Tartt’s talent, but it saddens me that society’s wicked underbellies are not only being documented, but almost celebrated, in her work.