The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s keenly anticipated third novel, was inspired by Carel Fabritius’s painting of the same name – a mini-masterpiece whose fusion of hyper-realism and trompe l’oeil blurs the lines between art and life. Tartt’s Goldfinch attempts something similar, but does so by expanding Fabritius’s canvas a trillion per cent. Whereas the painting is modest (the goldfinch is no bigger than a goldfinch), the novel is vast: 771 pages. Yet, despite its scale, this extraordinary work manages to remain intensely intimate, thanks largely to Tartt’s microscopic powers of description. The Goldfinch exults in using three adjectives where one might suffice. The effect in the opening pages is challenging but oddly gripping, as if fictional time has slowed to that of real life.
The novel progresses by exploring how matters of a moment unfurl unpredictably over time. For our narrator, 13-year-old Theodore Decker, this begins with the shock of an explosion: a terrorist bomb destroys the wing of a New York museum. The device deftly reminds us of Fabritius’s own death almost four centuries before, setting in place what Theo later describes as a “dreamlike mangle of past and present”. Tartt’s forensic prose is intent on tracing the unforeseeable consequences of the museum blast – not only for the characters who were present, but those yet to appear.
Theo and his mother arrive in front of Fabritius’s masterpiece just in time for the detonation. Theo survives. His mother does not. Disorientated, he crawls through the rubble, comforts a dying elderly man, who passes him a ring and Fabritius’s priceless painting, which he keeps. Tartt is brilliant at portraying how vulnerable young lives are to sudden shocks, and especially to the sudden death of a loved one.
Almost every teenager in the story has suffered parental loss of one form or another, fitting for a novel that consciously echoes the realist novels of the 19th century. Theo’s journey towards adulthood contains hints of David Copperfield (little of that Holden Caulfield crap, though) and a remixed Great Expectations. There are violent fathers, kindly paternal surrogates, stern but caring lawyers, wild but loyal best friends, and competing love interests blessed with different Dickensian ideals.
Tartt isn’t pastiching the realist novel so much as updating it for our times. Her own version is filtered through existentialism, the Beats, and Frank O’Hara’s closely observed verse. This synthesis of old and new is made flesh when Theo learns furniture restoration from his genial guardian, Hobie. Hobie updates “ancients and honorables”, working “by hand like one of the old masters”. The resulting hybrid skirts originality and imitation, confuses what is genuine and fake. Tartt shines a neon light on all this during a wonderful, wild section in Las Vegas. Here even magic is an illusion: Theo is re-cast as Harry Potter by his friend Boris, neither quite realising they are really Rimbaud and Verlaine.
Like Fabritius, Tartt’s conceit is to create a work of art that strives to be realistic, but knows that the harder it tries, the more its contrivances are exposed. The Goldfinch teases with its own artifice: Theo’s mother is a model who takes a bad photograph; his temporary foster family stage themselves like “Broadway plays”; Tartt puns repeatedly on the word “picture”.
This self-consciousness isn’t empty meta-fiction any more than Theo is a post-modern unreliable narrator. Instead, his close reading of reality enacts the gradual revelations of his unspoken story. Initially, we take it on faith that he’s a bright kid with a keen eye and vivid visual imagination. But gradually, holes in his narration begin to appear. Who is Jerome? Why has Theo failed to mention his drug dependence? And just what is all that detail covering up?
Theo’s skill at “misdirection” inspires some cunning plot twists, but the real mystery is revealed to be his enduring grief and guilt for his parents. In this, the slow accumulation of Tartt’s obsessive narration becomes profoundly moving. The Goldfinch asks how humans facing the “fundamental chaos and uncertainty of the world” restore themselves after loss. By burying problems, or by searching for the sustaining consolations of love, art and friendship? This meditation contends with other questions. How do we measure value in a world where reality and representation are almost indivisible? How do we take responsibility for our actions when cause and effect seem ever more random and unfathomable? As one character observes: “The moral of the story is, who knows where it will all take you?”
At a time when so much literature is either contemptuous of plot or enslaved by it, The Goldfinch is a gripping page-turner and a challenging, beautifully written account of modern life. Moving but unsentimental, funny without being trite, all human life is here. Or at least, quite a lot. The Goldfinch will doubtless be a contender for one of 2013’s best novels.