A Canary in a Coal Mine: A review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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Paulus Potter, An Old Horse and a Dead Horse, Mauritshuis. Fair use for review.

In the Mauritshuis where the original painting The Goldfinch (1644) by Carl Fabritius hangs there is also a print by Paulus Potter titled An Old Horse and a Dead Horse (1652).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a novel that is either dead or old and tired. I believe she strove to write something special, and the result sure got the hide marketed out of it, good for someone I guess, but this novel lies there on the floor — thick, dull, unspeaking — let this dead thing of a book be a warning to stay away.

Yes, I’m a complete sucker for buying this book because I had already figured it would be gunk, but I was on vacation visiting a tiny bookstore that had a very small selection and I needed something to break my routine of reading Saul Kripke.

Diligent is the word. This novel is diligent in the sense that it is persistent and attentive. Most of the book is a coming of age short story about Theo (the painting is hardly mentioned) that is forced into novel form by sheer diligence in what I suspect was the result of a “must write more,” as in “must eat brains,” form of diligence. The last third of the book attempts to be a clever art theft crime novel but that ends up messier than a toddler eating a sloppy joe.

The plot concerns Theo Decker the adolescent (ugh, not another book about teens growing up) who is flattened in a Met museum blast, who steals a painting (guess which one), whose parents die, and who meets a new best friend. Next up are the sorrows of young Decker who eventually becomes the older Decker who meets some rich people, and who finally gets mixed up in some pseudo Russian mob work. Voilà! The painting in question is returned and Theo gets rich off the reward. That overview is probably clearer than the book although I give myself kudos for certainly making the overview as dull as the book.

First I’ll give credit where credit is due. Tartt is a master at checking off all the tick boxes of upper middle class expectations for this sort of “mass pseudo-literary” non-literary novel in which dropping brand names and boring with extensive descriptions are substitutes for writing quality.

I believe Tartt tried to mash together Dickens’ Great Expectations with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to nobody’s credit.

Theo sees the little red haired girl (yes we recall Peanuts but we should be thinking of a nice version of Estella, don’t worry though, Theo doesn’t get together with her at the end) at the Met, right before the blast. Her name is Pippa, called Pip. Get it? Thud. Crickets. Theo is somewhat cynical except when he isn’t; he likes reading and school except when he doesn’t like to read and when he hates school and only wants to do the bare minimum. You see, his character changes so much we lose any sense of his identity. We are dragged along in the Bildungsroman first person narration, often to the demise of the story. After the blast, Theo talks for a few pages (random dialogue like most of the dialogue through the entire book) with a dying man who hands him a ring, tells him the name of a business, and tells him to deliver the ring there. No it’s not one ring to rule them all even though there is mysterious writing on the carefully described ring; there is no reason behind the ring at all and we need never need worry about that ring again. At times Theo knows way too little, at other times he knows way too much, at other times he is forced to comment upon himself, creating terrible openers like, “I seemed to spend…” when the author goes back in time to tell more of the story she neglected to tell us the first time through. “I suddenly found myself looking…” Theo says in a figure of speech that beginning writers do when not able to figure out a clear voice — characters find themselves doing all sorts of things as though they are not themselves and looking upon themselves. Suddenly, I found myself typing this review!

Theo ruminates obsessively but surprisingly he hardly ever ruminates on the purloined masterpiece that plays no particular role in the plot for at least the first half of the book. As Theo bumps through meaningless events there is the incessant T. D. -IOUS dialogue. Whatever seems to occur to the author enters in as dialogue and no stone is mentioned without excessively detail data dumping and more tedious dialogue. When this isn’t enough Tartt adds backstory, speculation, and dreams. If anything, this book proves why Dickens was a great writer and imitators are not. I recall Dickens writing in Oliver Twist, “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best part.”

Tartt tosses in all the old cliches. The rebellious boy, the orphan, the evil stepmother, the secret mystery, rain outside when there is bad news, the aloof altruism of the rich, all set in a world of essentializing stereotypes where Russians are all alcoholic and part of mobs, police and firemen are all Irish, and dads have affairs and leave. Theo’s estate manager is a kindly older man and Hobie acts like the town shoemaker from The Elves and the Shoemaker. Is this reliance on cliches what Disney imprinting causes? Theo’s friend Boris knows excellent English until it’s efficacious for him to speak in broken, pronoun-less, Russian tinged English as a second language. These are all not good things, but again I think they are tick boxes allowing for predictable responses from readers. It adds up to a USA based novel as Pulitzer “awards bait” a brilliant phrase used by Brian Tallerico in his review of the movie based on the book. And, to be clear, basically everything Tallerico writes in his pan of the movie on rogerebert.com is absolutely applicable to the book.

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Carl Fabritius, The Goldfinch. Mauritshuis. Wikimedia Commons. (My edits).

Tartt’s style is uneven. At times it’s in that Americanized “transparent style,” at other times it’s closer to interior dialogue and stream of consciousness, at other times it drops fully into maudlin Dickensian language,

“‘Ah,’ cried Aunt Margaret, ‘are you crying? Do you see that? She said to the young nurse (nodding, smiling, eager to please, clearly under her spell).

‘How sweet he is! You’ll miss her won’t you?’”

Here’s another example,

“Quickly, Pippa looked up at him — clearly she recognized my name, even if she didn’t recognize me — and the friendly surprise on their faces was such and astonishment that I began to cry.”

How quaintly 19th or even 18th century.

Theo’s long gone, alcoholic father shows up (maybe he smells money from Theo’s mother’s non-estate) to take Theo home but once Theo arrives in Vegas he is not taken care of, dad is away, and no food is ever prepared. Theo goes to school in dirty clothes, skips school, shoplifts, has no money for food and yet he eats at school (huh?) and nobody notices, not anyone from school, no CPS a-knocking. Daddy gambles (gee what a surprise) and step mommy Xandra (so witty) works nights doing something not quite mentioned. Dad, in hock to a stereotypical mannered and well dressed loan-shark luckily dies in a car crash. Theo decides to flee to NYC. A cab driver gives Theo some sage advice, along the lines of ‘magicians misdirect,’ the secret to magic. Thanks grandpa, say all the third graders who must be impressed with the old saw. By the way, we’ve suffered nearly a hundred pages with no mention of the eponymous painting.

A major through-line problem with this book is that it feels entirely 1980’s, which was later tweaked to take place the 2010’s. So we get lots of references to things only 80’s kids would understand: the Glenn Gould movie making the rounds in NYC, Stolichnaya, Arvo Pärt, apartments being turned into condos — and these are situated alongside computers and iPods and iPhones (although the texts are presented in pager font rather than today’s iPhone font).

Theo takes a bus cross country. “I read late, creamy paper yellowed in a circle of weak lights, as the unknown darkness sped past, over the Continental Divide and out of the Rockies, Popper content after his romp around Denver and snoozing happily in his bag.” Novocain might help ease the pain of writing like this. By the way, Popper is the dog, aka Popchik or Popchyk depending on the page. Once back in NYC Theo, surprise!, runs into one of the novel’s earlier characters on the street, a one in a 15 million chance, but hey, this is Dickensian. “Something will turn up” as Wilkins Micawber frequently said.

Now and then, ok quite frequently, Tartt introduces dreams, “At night I dreamed of…” and after however long we, now cranky, are muttering, just get back to the story. At the end of one dream, the author writes, “I woke up,” which is exactly what beginning writers learn not to do around the same time they learn that dreams about things of the past or things that never happened detract from the story. For Tartt, these dreams are the way to get in more meaningless dialogue and descriptive data dumps. Get this: At night, (because I don’t normally dream in the day when I’m awake), I dreamed that Tartt’s writing would be ripped to shreds by MFA seminar students.

On page 444 Mrs. Balbour, the rich old lady, meets Theo,

“She patted the brocade coverlet of the bed. ‘Come sit next to me. Please. I want to be able to see you.’”

And we’re reminded of Pip visiting Miss Havisham,


‘Mr. Pumblechook’s boy, ma’am. Come — to play.’

‘Come nearer; let me look at you. Come close.’”

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Pip entertains and waits upon Miss Havisham. Marcus Stone, 1862. Wikimedia Commons.

There are other references to writers, drinks at the White Horse Tavern (Dylan Thomas) and a woman named Ulrika (Ulrikke, a short story by Borges), “White noise, impersonal roar” (Delillo) but greatness does not arrive by way of osmosis, as one of my professors was fond of saying.

Later we learn that Theo has had two affairs, ongoing, so clearly he is keeping the more interesting parts of his life hidden from us. I guess we are asked to imagine a whole other life outside of the life we’re witnessing, that is going on simultaneously but which we hear nothing about. And this is a simmering issue with the book.

We feel we’re not quite in the story, we’re kept at a distance as though hearing about events second hand with half the story left out.

Next, including the drinking we already knew about, we learn that Theo has been using heroin and a whole lot of other drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and Morphine. None of this was mentioned before but neither do all the drugs seem to affect him much. Of course Theo’s character changes with the wind and chapter so we’ve given up looking for consistency in thought or action.

Theo is suddenly going to marry Kitsey Balbour (we never heard a peep about them dating) but don’t worry, there will be a back-in-time moment where we get a bit of it of it wedged into his already crammed full life of the past. Such flashback passages start with phrases like, “It had happened really fast…” (re: the dating) or “It had been eight months since I left Reeve…” (re: the painting and Lucious Reeve’s sudden appearance stating he knows about the stolen work. ) There’s a seminal moment when Theo eventually says “Kitsey, Kitsey, Kitsey” like “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” from The Brady Bunch. Wracked with guilt, Theo wants to confess to Hobie his sin of stealing the painting, and he starts in the entirely usual over-written way.

“‘I — ‘ I reached to make sure that the chair behind me wasn’t sticky before I sat.

‘Hobie, I’ve made a stupid mistake. No, a really stupid one,’ I said, at his good-natured, dismissive gesture.

‘Well — ‘ he was dripping raw umber into the saucer with an eyedropper — ‘I don’t know about stupid, but I can tell you it wholly ruined my day last week to see that drill bit coming through Mrs. Wasserman’s tabletop. That was a good William and Mary table. I know she won’t see where I’ve patched the hole but believe me it was a bad moment.’”

Don’t worry, Theo doesn’t get around to confessing.

Guess who appears — about the only person not yet dead. Yep, Boris. This signals the art crime section of the book. Theo gets into a deal gone bad and the whole last of the book is a pulpy mess that doesn’t deserve comment.

The Goldfinch remains only a diligent book. It clearly sits alongside other equally diligent, long, overhyped, generally shallow and unmemorable upper-middle time wasters that include: Until I Find You by John Irving, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Nobody I know, including me, finished the any of these books and while I ground through Tartt’s travesty to the end I regret doing so. It’s no surprise to me that the reviews of the movie based on this novel used words like “wan” (The New Yorker) and “labored” (Variety). And more-so, when I think of all the paper wasted on these books, along with all the time people spent floundering in them, I get a little sad.

Near the end of the book Tartt has Theo say, “It’s a long story. I’ll make it [as] short as I can.” It’s too bad Tartt didn’t take her own advice. Finally, the last ten or so pages are actually fairly decent, a section that would have been even better as full on stream of consciousness, but unfortunately I’d been bludgeoned by her writing way too many times to give it the charity it may have deserved.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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