One of my favorite things to see in a painting is a passage where the artist straddles a divide. On the one hand, your conscious mind knows you are looking at marks on canvas, yet you also see the simulation of a three-dimensional object. Just yesterday I was at the Frick in New York looking, from about 6 inches away, at a hand painted very loosely by Rembrandt. Four fingers, made up of four flesh-colored slashes and four umber slashes –four fingers bent down at the knuckle.
Nearby was another knockout piece of illusionism, Carel Fabritius’ little painting of a goldfinch chained to a feed box. Its presence in New York is apparently pure serendipity, but there was a buzzing cluster of awe-struck viewers around it, courtesy of Donna Tartt. This lovely object is the centerpiece of her third novel, and what still has my head spinning is the way she walks that line of double vision for 700-plus pages. She lavishly provides both story-telling and food for thought. Yes, you can read The Goldfinch for the adventure, the plot, the love story, even the violent denouement. (I’m counting the days until the announcement that it’s been sold to some high-flying Hollywood production company.) But at the same time, while you follow narrator Theo Decker through his tumultuous young life, you can also hover a step away and muse on the literary references, the moral quandaries, the broader themes like art and loyalty and desire.
As a boy of thirteen, Theo is at the Metropolitan Museum with his mother when a terrorist bomb goes off. His mother is killed. Theo is trapped several rooms away and shares the dying moments of an old man. The man thrusts a signet ring into Theo’s hand, with a name and address. I know, I know — it sounds like Harry Potter but it reads like life. And somehow Theo burrows his way out of the wreckage clutching the signet ring and this tiny, beautiful painting of the goldfinch.
Thus the adventure begins. On the one hand, Theo is a private-school kid from New York City. He is taken in by a WASPy Park Avenue family (last name? Barbour) until his ne’er-do-well father comes to claim him and whisk him off to Las Vegas. Tartt’s powers of observation and ear for dialogue are fabulous, that’s a given, but the way she imagines herself into the desolation and incomprehension of this wounded boy…. that’s something extra. Then — Vegas! Talk about desolation! Theo’s only friend is Boris, a post-Soviet mongrel child being dragged around the world in his heedless father’s wake. Two young teenage boys, virtually unsupervised in a half-built neighborhood of “luxury homes” in the Nevada desert, all but feral, dining on potato chips and warm vodka, moving on to drugs of every description; at this point I began to wonder if maybe we were doing a remake of Dante’s Inferno. Happily, not.
But Theo’s life is not an easy one. How could it be? After Vegas he returns to his refuge in the New York antique store where he landed just after the Met explosion. If Boris is The Goldfinch’s Mephistopheles (and I’m not at all sure about that), Hobie, the shop’s owner, is Theo’s conscience and guardian angel. Which doesn’t prevent Theo from embarking on numerous illegal ventures only some of which include extravagant consumption of a wide array of chemicals.
Then there’s the painting, the hard, physical object that follows Theo around. It’s the McGuffin. It’s his soul. It’s a stain that can’t be removed. (Think of it: possession of a priceless painting lost in an explosion? Worldwide search for it? You’re a teenager and think everything is your fault?) It’s his link to everything that’s bright in the world, and everything that’s dark.
The goldfinch painting is mysterious: Fabritius died in an explosion in Delft in 1654, but he signed and dated this picture. Very unusually for the era, he brushed the bird freely, with dashes of paint standing in for the feathers and a bold slash of yellow on the wing. You see the bird, you see the paint. You see the artifice, you believe the deception. It’s completely absorbing. It’s been through a lot. It glows. Read the book.