Here’s a conversation that you will have if you, at any point in your life, read a novel: You’ll dislike some aspect of it (let’s say the main character is flat and boring), you will voice this criticism of the novel (“the main character is flat and boring”), and then you will be told, no, that’s the point, he’s meant to be flat and boring, the book is an examination of the flat and boring. Well, sure (you say), but it doesn’t need to be a flat and boring examination of the flat and boring—no, no, that’s the point too—and so you descend into a circle from which there is no escape.
That brings us to Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch, which is made up of 771 lovely pages staring unblinking into the void. It is about a soulless and apathetic person, and it is also, I will suggest, a soulless and apathetic book. Whether or not you accept one of these statements as an excuse for the other will determine whether you think it a good book or a bad one.
The Goldfinch tells the story of a boy named Theodore Decker, a boy who accompanies his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day. There, he sees a strange and striking red-headed girl. While he’s thinking about the girl, terrorists attack the Met, his mother dies, he survives, and he sort-of-accidentally-on-purpose steals her favorite painting, the Goldfinch, as he flees the building. (The red-headed girl lives, too—more on that later.)
From here on, Theo continues to make dubious decisions: growing addicted to drugs, befriending Ukrainian criminals, selling counterfeit antiques, getting engaged to a girl he doesn’t love, and, eventually, killing a man. Insofar as the book has a clearly identifiable plot, it concerns what he’s going to do with that painting he stole, which, despite never looking at, he isn’t really willing to let go of.
Theo is a kind of voyeur, not just of other people’s lives, but of his own. He’s the kind of kid who would—and does—enjoy breaking into other people’s houses, partly to steal but mostly to see how they live. He picks up bad friends and blames them for his troubles, but a careful reading reveals how hollow those excuses are. He’s detached from his own life, and the curious thing is that he seems to have always been this way, even before the death of his mother.
Theo’s detachment extends into his strange, deeply selfish relations with others, notably the red-headed girl, Pippa, who is also his perfect woman (against whom all other women are found inevitably disappointing). They have no great, unforgettable conversations. There’s no undeniable, doomed chemistry. Instead, Theo just broods over her in quiet obsession, listening to her favorite music and hoarding clips of her hair and items of her clothes. He contemplates paying her boyfriend—whom she appears to be quite happily dating—to leave her.
It’s hard to think of a nastier littler man than Theodore Decker. Even when shooting and killing a man, he views it as an accident that’s not really his fault. The greatest parts of The Goldfinch come when Theo is forced into a moment of self-recognition; but these moments never stick, and Theo never changes. He ends the book as detached from his own life as he was before.
The curious meaninglessness of things in The Goldfinch might be best summed up in the titular painting, stolen by Theo, who then stuffs it in a pillowcase, locks it in a safety-deposit box, and then never looks at it again. The great drama of what to do with this painting is resolved by another character while Theo is stuck in a hotel room. The takeaway: In the end, the painting didn’t matter much. It was just a symbol of Theo’s attachment to his mother. That was why, I suppose, he never looked at it or thought about it for years.
This is all, as they say, the point. It’s possible—indeed, easy—to work yourself around to reading The Goldfinch as a book where everything in it can be explained in terms of artistic intentionality. Tartt’s prose has sufficient merit to encourage such a reading; she is an accomplished stylist, and passages from The Goldfinch are very beautiful. The plot, hinging on a series of connections that all come from one unpredictable event—the death of Theo’s mother—has a charm that’s led many reviewers to label the book Dickensian. (Though to place The Goldfinch alongside David Copperfield is to invite a comparison not much in Tartt’s favor.)
Thus: Of course no characters are allowed to voice a strong perspective different from Theo’s—he’s writing the book, he wouldn’t let that happen. Of course everything in the book is a symbol for Theo’s emptiness—he’s writing the book, and he’s a narcissist. Of course this narrative drags on for nearly eight hundred pages before abruptly ending—Theo would be incapable of writing anything less that wasn’t self-indulgent. But then, if Theodore Decker wrote a book, none of us would be reading it.
The Goldfinch stretches this way of reading a book—where every flaw is actually a virtue—out until it snaps. Books told from the perspective of unreliable narrators are as old as the novel itself. Just pick up Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or George Eliot’s The Impressions of Theophrastus Such. And many of these unreliable narrators are unpleasant people, who try to warp the narrative in a way that ultimately justifies them.
But what makes The Goldfinch distinct from these other books—and, in the final analysis, a failure—is its insistence on beating just one drum, and beating it straight into the ground, and permitting nothing else to have any say. The entire book seems to be built around one question, which is: What if you were a person with no soul? What kind of a book would you write? Well, you’d write this book.
The Goldfinch ends with Theo’s rambling explanation of his own philosophy of life, where nothing matters and nothing can be chosen. “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth,” he says, in the last couple of paragraphs of the book, which is both his explanation for why his life is the way it is and why he’s decided not to commit suicide.
In a world of meaningless actions, after all, suicide is just another pointless thing to do. Living is equally pointless, so as explanation for why Theo has decided not to kill himself, it runs a little thin. More interesting is that suicide is not presented, as it has been at other times, as an act of heroic self-determination or of shame or even a plain old sin. It’s just something to do. There’s no point in making meaning against the void anymore. There’s just the void, and the people not quite willing to look at it.
Theo has this reflection while watching It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie that’s mostly about how we can choose what we want, and while talking to a friend about The Idiot, a book where actions do matter. If you happen to know either of the works, then it’s the only moment in The Goldfinch where something like a contradictory voice is allowed to speak. Here are these other works of art that point in a different direction. But Theo isn’t really paying attention; he’s just using these things. And so, I suppose, is Donna Tartt.
There are plenty of things in The Goldfinch to appreciate. It’s frequently beautiful, and beauty can go a long way, and its flaws are such that they make for good conversation. But the conversation goes in a circle, and it can only be about whether it’s beautiful enough to justify its own emptiness. The Goldfinch leads nowhere outside of itself. Maybe that’s the point. But if it is, it’s not a very good one.
B. D. McClay is a graduate of St. John’s College. She is also a regular contributor to the St. John’s College student blog, Johnnie Talk. Image from Wikimedia Commons.