A lot has been made of how much Donna Tartts new book resembles a Charles Dickens novel, a comparison Tartt invites so eagerly she may as well be drawing a young boy into her house for play. One can imagine The Goldfinch released in serial form, and its structure, if not its plot, bears a striking similarity to novels such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
By ZAC GALL
Special to The Star
Theo Decker, barely a teenager, is made an orphan by the end of the first chapter his father, though alive, has abandoned Theo and his mother long before the opening pages when a bomb explodes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the interim between his mothers death and someone claiming young Theo, he finds a substitute home in what might as well be called The Old Curiosity Shop, a wilderness of gilt, gleaming in the slant from the dust-furred windows: gilded cupids, gilded commodes and torchieres, andundercutting the old-wood smell the reek of turpentine, oil paint, and varnish.
When Theos swindler father comes back on the scene and whisks him away to Las Vegas, Theo fantasizes about becoming a pickpocket, and while his English class reads Henry David Thoreaus Walden, the others read the one novel that might do him some good: Dickens Great Expectations.
Tartts characters have names like Win Temple and Havistock Irving and Platt Barbour. James Hobart, the antiquarian and stand-in father, describes his own deadbeat father as an Ebenezer Scrooge. At one point, Theo even has a dream in which hes visited by a ghost and, upon waking, realizes its Christmas Day.
But for all these similarities, the heart of the book beats not so much for Dickens. With cunning sleight of hand, Tartt threads into the narrative complex questions about fate and beauty and art. Allowing characters to hash out these and other issues for pages on end, The Goldfinch reveals a kinship closer to the Russian masters Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky than to Dickens.
In a surreal scene, when Theo comes to after the museum blast, he tends to a dying old man who urges him to rescue a painting, virtually invisible in the broken beams and rubbish, smaller than my laptop computer at home. Tiny yellow bird, faint beneath a veil of white dust. Theo escapes with The Goldfinch, one of only a dozen or so paintings by Carel Fabritius to survive the Delft explosion of 1654, an accident that killed Fabritius himself.
The painting is priceless, and after the window of time passes when Theo has the chance to return it, and emboldened perhaps by the idea that something more meaningful lies behind this bit of coincidence, he believes he is the paintings rightful custodian and savior, caring for it as if it were a living bird:
Quickly I slid it out, and almost immediately its glow enveloped me, something almost musical, an internal sweetness that was inexplicable beyond a deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness, the way your heart beat slow and sure when you were with a person you felt safe with and loved.
Under the aegis of James Hobart, an expert in refurbishing antique furniture, an implicit conversation begins to emerge about the purpose and existence of art. Hobie, as Hobart likes to be called, relishes restoring furniture and does so with such skill that people mistake his pieced-together works for bona fide Chippendales and Hepplewhites. But for Hobie, the purpose of restoring works to their former beauty is to find use for the piece again.
Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture, says Theo, in how he talked of pieces as he and she, in the muscular, almost animal quality that distinguished great pieces from their stiff, boxy, more mannered peers and in the affectionate way he ran his hand along the dark, glowing flanks of his sideboards and lowboys, like pets.
He finds joy in sharing the pieces with others, explaining their provenance and beauty. His storage spaces are stacked with antiques, waiting. The process was all about matchmaking, finding the right home.
But objects carry monetary value, too, and the line between aesthetic and quantitative worth becomes increasingly blurred for Theo. From the antiques shop, into the desert, to Amsterdam and near the origins of the painting itself Theos obsession with the painting grows as the walls close in around him.
He refers to it as my painting, while simultaneously mourning the loss and theft of other works chosen with no eye to value in the aftermath of the attack. As the bird is chained to its post, so, too, is Theo chained to the painting.
About Tolstoys essay What Is Art?, scholar and translator Richard Pevear writes that he discards the all-confusing concept of beauty and defines art as the human activity which consists in one mans consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.
In The Goldfinch, art transfixes and inspires, but its value also gives it the power to infect, to corrupt that reek of turpentine behind the gold. In this world, priceless universally loved and admired art becomes [i]possible to sell. But black market, barter currency? explains Boris, one of several unforgettable characters. Can be traded back and forth forever! Valuable, portable. Hotel rooms going back and forth. Drugs, arms, girls, cash whatever you like.
By employing the tropes of Dickens with an experts craft and skill, Tartt gives shape to a narrative concerning such classic themes as art, love, death and the way we live our lives. These make up the heart of the novel, the parts that, if all the shagginess and detail surrounding them were pared away, would remain a core of universal human experience.
But, as Hobart says to Theo, if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you dont think oh, I love this picture because its universal, I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind. Its a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.
Its in this territory that novels cease being strictly about art and begin to have the makings of art themselves. But is The Goldfinch art? By Tolstoys definition, yes. Books are objects, too (something you wouldnt forget should you buy the hardcover, which comes in at 771 pages), waiting for that perfect match.
And with The Goldfinch, Tartt has crafted a suspenseful, affecting tale filled with complex, well-drawn characters whose often messy, complicated lives define the human experience. Some of the themes come together a bit too neatly, sure; as in Dickens, the abundance of coincidence seems not just a lens through which the narrator sees the world, but a plot device that tips, at times, toward the absurd.
Who was it that said that coincidence was just Gods way of remaining anonymous? asks Hobie, as if in anticipation of this very problem.
But the lasting effect of The Goldfinch lies in the breadth and exhaustion of its inquiries, is couched in the intricate depth of its characters and contained in the beauty and surprise.
Zac Gall is a freelance writer who lives in Independence.