The Transformational Nature of Literature


The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt


Imagine a book written in the twenty-first century with pen and pencil in notebooks, work on the novel taking place over ten years. What would such a book be like? How long would it be? What impact would it have on readers? Judging by sales charts in the New York Times and others, this 770 page book is wildly popular. But why would so many readers tackle such a book in this, the age of thirty-second attention spans? I may not adequately answer the pithier of these questions, but here goes.

Ms. Tartt has created a bildungsroman here, its first-person narrator and principal character a boy named Theo Decker. Theo’s father has wandered away from his parental responsibilities, his mother has died in a museum explosion that Theo not only survives but he walks out with a priceless painting, The Goldfinch. He manages to hang on to the painting (or he thinks so) through life with a rich, troubled New York family, then with his father in Vegas, a friendship and drugs with a Russian boy alienated from his father (mother dead), and finally college and apprenticeship to a New York antique restorer. The painting’s presence in Theo’s life allows him to hang onto his mother and his childhood until he realizes that it’s wrong to cling to the past, that it must be returned to its rightful place in society.


Tartt’s voice here is stupendous; her Theo consistently presented, and her narrative descriptions of New York’s busy hustle, Vegas’ barrenness, and Amsterdam’s freewheeling life are among the best I’ve ever read, seemingly tossed off as if in conversation over a glass of scotch. But she isn’t satisfied to depict the seaminess of youthful drug taking, abandoned children, the danger and depravity accompanying the art underworld. At book’s end, she gives us a philosophical treatise on the true value of art and of life itself. We may never understand life as we live it, but the true artists of each age allow us to see bits of life in perspective, as Carel Fabritius did by painting his goldfinch, a beautiful bird, but chained to its perch by a chain so finely rendered that a viewer may not at first notice it. Art, then, reveals the patterns and fixtures in life that both free us and imprison us, as family does, as childhood freedom does, as romance and marriage do, as education and career may do as well.

No novel is perfect, and one may select certain passages to fault here, but the value of literature isn’t in the precision of its grammar, the lapses in inspired prose, it’s in the energy that drives the life of the novel. So of what artistic value, then, is Tartt’s The Goldfinch? What impact does it promise its readers? In a certain sense it transforms the pre-Victorian urges of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into those of a postmodern, existential reality. In doing so, Tartt has proven that art is perhaps the better depiction of ethics and wisdom than those of religious texts and dogma. As times change, but as the underlying patterns of life remain a safety net between us and existential collapse, literature adjusts, it paints the picture anew for each age.


My rating: 20 of 20 stars


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