Saturday, March 15, 2014


   It took me forever to finish reading THE GOLDFINCH (Little, Brown, 2013), and then it took me a slightly shorter version of forever to sort out my thoughts about it enough to be able to review it. I'm finally ready to give it my best shot.    
     Almost the first thing the adult Theo Decker tells us about himself in this novel is: "Things would have turned out better if she [his mother] had lived. As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me to someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life."
     And while that is undoubtedly true, and we learn soon how affectionate and devoted thirteen-year-old Theo and his mother were to each other,  we also learn more disturbing things about that "before" period - before the terrorist explosion in the unnamed New York art museum which killed Theo's mother - that make us question how differently his life would have turned out after all.  Because by the age of thirteen, Theo had already developed a pattern of following another boy's lead into engaging in petty crimes - burglaries, small thefts - about which his mother knew nothing.  He attributes this problem to the recent sudden and total disappearance of his abusive, alcoholic father.  Maybe.  The fact remains (and the adult Theo has some awareness of this, although the child Theo has none) that no matter how much he and his mother adored each other right up to her death, irreparable damage had already been done.
     As if to underscore this, the author makes a point of letting us know that there is not one character in this almost-800-page novel who is exactly what he or she seems to be.  Even Theo's mother, whom he had grown up thinking of as an open book, turns out to have apparently had some sort of ambiguous, undisclosed relationship with an older lawyer named Mr. Bracegirdle.  Even the uncompromisingly decent Hobie, who eventually becomes Theo's de facto adoptive father, has a seemingly quasi-marital relationship with a married woman that Theo doesn't quite understand.  And even Pippa, Theo's fellow child-survivor of the museum blast and the object of his blind lifelong worship, turns out to have secrets of her own.
     The only creature in this novel who is precisely what he seems to be is one who exists solely in a painting: Karel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch."  Theo knows this painting of the intrepid little bird intimately, because it left the chaos of the museum just after the explosion in Theo's possession, and continues to follow him through his improbable, Dickensian journeys. But before those journeys begin, Tartt forces the reader to know exactly what it feels like to be a thirteen-year-old boy in New York City whose mother has met a violent death, whose father has fallen off the map, and whose only other relative is a grandfather who lives far away and who openly dislikes the grandson he has met all of twice. And if any reader has failed to fall in love with Theo before seeing him left utterly alone and helpless in his motherless apartment,  that failure will be remedied instantly in this part of the story.
     Once Social Services discovers Theo's predicament, he (and the painting) end up, almost fortuitously, living with the Barbours, the old-money-society family of his friend Andy. Maybe even more importantly, he meets and gets to know Hobie, a middle-aged, highly skilled furniture restorer and rather incompetent antiques dealer. Theo slowly begins to recover from his trauma, and to adapt to his new life. But just when he begins to show signs of actually thriving (because, remember, we're in Dickens territory), his father, long missing and presumed possibly dead, shows up at the Barbours' with his bizarre girlfriend Xandra to claim Theo like a mislaid package, and sweep him (and, of course, the hidden painting) off to the outskirts of Las Vegas.  I mean, where else, right?
     In Vegas, Theo has a roof over his head, but is otherwise left completely on his own.  And that is when and where he meets Boris, and forms with him a two-member tribe of Lost Boys, wandering drunkenly through the desert moonscape, that ensures their mutual survival. Boris: he is such a brilliant invention that words fail me before I can even begin trying to describe him. Boris has lived everywhere and nowhere, experienced nothing and everything, and has seen more of life's seamy side in his fifteen years than anyone since the Artful Dodger. Scofflaw. Alcoholic. Thief. Opportunist. Philosopher. Degenerate. Charmer. Friend. All these, and so much more. Thanks to Boris, Theo's life again becomes bearable.
     And then things start going very wrong for Theo's father, who ends up committing suicide-by-truck on the highway, and Theo has to leave town in a hurry to avoid falling into the hands of Social Services again. Toting everything he owns as well as Xandra's neglected miniature dog, Theo escapes via buses back to New York City, where he winds up on Hobie's doorstep.
     Nine or ten years pass. And although, under Hobie's benevolent influence, Theo has grown up to be a more-or-less law-abiding citizen (if you don't count a serious addiction to painkillers and the fact that he's never told anyone about the priceless work of art that he keeps hidden in his room, wrapped in a pillowcase and packing tape), it's clear, just from the sheer incongruousness of Theo's life so far, that it could still take other turns. Which, as we soon learn, it already has; the antiques business evidently provides a lot of opportunities for shady dealings, if one is so inclined. And if you've read this review carefully, you can probably guess who suddenly shows up in New York one day, calling Theo's name in the street. Yeah. It's Boris, and he's not there by accident; he has some very important, very unwelcome news for Theo. And that's when things get really complicated. Because, in Boris's own words: "this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can't get there any other way?"
     Ah. That's the question, isn't it? If good leads to evil, and evil to good, how does one distinguish between the two? Is it even possible to live a moral life in a world such as Theo's, and ours? What matters: our intentions, or the results of our actions? What matters: life, or art? The goldfinch itself, still existing through the alchemy of art some four hundred years after its own death and the death of the painter? Or is it only the rendering of it on a wooden board that matters, because art is true and vital in a way that life itself is not?
     I hope you're not looking to me for these answers. Read THE GOLDFINCH. When you reach the end, you still won't know the answers, but you won't be able to forget the questions.

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