At the Wall

Jonah Siegel

The title of Donna Tartt’s latest best-selling novel comes from a painting of a small bird by Carel Fabritius that hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. A student of Rembrandt’s and an influence on Vermeer, Fabritius had his career cut short by a gunpowder explosion in 1654 that also destroyed almost all of his works. The Goldfinch, one of his few surviving paintings, is the first of several elements in Tartt’s novel that are evidently intended to create a sense of intellectual heft for the reader.

The novel, told in the first person, begins with its 26-year-old narrator, Theodore “Theo” Decker looking back on his younger self from a hotel room in Amsterdam, where he is lying low for reasons unexplained until the last third of the novel. Fabritius’s relatively obscure masterpiece enters the story, more than a little improbably, as the favorite painting of Theo’s mother, a former model who studied art history in college. It comes into Theo’s possession through a bolder stroke of novelistic inverisimilitude. During a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, where the painting is on temporary display, a bomb goes off on in the museum, killing Theo’s mother and leaving the 13-year-old Theo in the wreckage of the European galleries. In the chaos that follows the explosion, he walks out of the Met with Fabritius’s invaluable painting and without a mother. This is the most finely detailed and fully realized part of the book; with its confusion of authority as societal structures are torn apart by violence, the long section draws on memories of 9/11 to evoke a now familiar but always disturbing blend of pain, numbness, and disorientation.

The next 600 pages are shaped by Theo’s grief at the sudden death of his beloved mother and by the burden of secretly owning a masterpiece, along with a few failed friendships, an unsatisfied romance with a young woman who was also damaged at the Met that day, some stray adventures with gangsters, and Theo’s eventual shady work in the antiques trade. The most important of the gangsters is Boris, a young Russian whose friendship provides a form of consolation to Theo as a miserable teenager, and who subsequently, and fatefully, reenters his life at a later stage. Boris’s cheerful amorality cuts through Theo’s mopey confusion, much as his accent, which appears faithfully copied from that of Boris Badenov from Rocky and Bullwinkle, offers relief from the otherwise fairly monotone notes sounded by Theo, a narrative voice with a wistful knowing tone located somewhere between the sensibility of a smart-ass adolescent who has lost a beloved parent and a cynical 20-something disoriented by drink and panic.

Successful badly written books are the mainstay of the best-seller list.

That The Goldfinch has sold a great many copies in spite of being poorly written is not particularly remarkable. After all, successful badly written books are the mainstay of the best-seller list. Still, Tartt’s novel is intriguing for the ways it occupies the category of quality fiction while not managing to be particularly distinguished—indeed while being, in many respects, positively bad. In that sense, quality becomes a descriptor (like detective novel, or romance, or Scandinavian mystery), not a mark of merit. Stephen King called The Goldfinch a “smartly written literary novel” in the New York Times. And there’s no denying that if referencing other works makes you literary, The Goldfinch more than qualifies. Theo’s erotic frustrations are evidently designed to evoke those of Pip longing for Estella in Great Expectations, and his pathetic longing for his mother is a shadow cast by Proust.

There is no question, also, that the story moves; a powerful narrative engine rattles and hums under the hood of this large American novel, as one anxiously follows the fate of the orphan boy and the artwork he can’t quite manage to return to the authorities. The surfaces of my home are littered with far better books, unfinished despite their comparatively scant length. Tartt expertly propels the reader through most of the 771 pages of the book, generating all kinds of local and wider forms of dread: Will Theo be adopted by his horrible grandparents? Will his father steal his inheritance? Will he be caught sneaking a dog on a cross-country Greyhound bus? Will he be killed by gangsters? Will he marry that horrible, cold woman who is clearly having an affair with his best friend from high school? What will he do with that painting? And so on.

<i>The Goldfinch</i> by Carel Fabritius / Wikimedia Commons

The Goldfinch is long but gripping, it’s got a fascinating painting in it, and it references some great novels. Why, then, is what the Washington Post referred to as a “masterpiece” such poor work? It comes down to questions of form. For a start, the novel is not well served by taking Theo as its narrator. Henry James wrote about the “terrible fluidity of self-revelation” of narratives using the first person. “Suffice it, to be brief,” he explained in the New York Edition preface to The Ambassadors, “that the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness, and that looseness, never much my affair, had never been so little so as on this particular occasion.”

Looseness is very much Tartt’s affair. At every point the text leaves strands untied or lets them unravel. For example, though the novel begins with a deadly explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, it never addresses the reasons for this dramatic bombing, nor does it return to the event as more than a source of trauma. Rather, the precipitating crisis is simply folded into the general melancholy that envelops Theo. It bears saying that this reticence may indicate something interesting about the place of terrorism in culture today. Perhaps we have thrown up our hands and decided political violence is like earthquakes or lightning strikes, a category of phenomenon that calls for no reflection on cause, agency, or responsibility.

The thoroughgoing thinness of this fat book is evident not simply in Tartt’s unwillingness to consolidate elements of her story, but also in her depiction of characters. So, the improbably wonderful dead mother finds a symmetrical counterpart in the form of Theo’s vain, alcoholic father, who comes back into his life when she is gone. This is a man so bad that he pilfers his dead ex-wife’s jewelry for his vulgar girlfriend and tries to steal his own child’s inheritance. But the deplorable acts of this selfish parent don’t really lead anywhere; he is pleasant enough when there is money around, and dies in a random car accident just when things might have been getting intolerable.

Perhaps we have thrown up our hands and decided political violence is like earthquakes or lightning strikes.

The loosest end of the book is the one that needed to be most carefully connected. Theo’s obsession with the Fabritius painting becomes a kind of vacant center for the novel. He carries the canvas to Las Vegas and elsewhere, but it’s not clear how its movements add up to anything, nor what the work means to Theo or to those around him. The painting accrues more value late in the novel, in the hands of criminals, than it ever has in Theo’s. But Tartt makes little of this potentially interesting disparity.

Rather than dwelling on the limp emotional logic of the novel or the broad structural flaws of its plot, however, I’d like to try to address a more difficult topic: its bad prose. Here is a quick instance of what I mean, the two moments that constitute the description of the minor character Myriam: “a lean steely-eyed woman, slim-hipped in black jeans,” or as Theo puts it a little down the page, “with long limp hair and a long, elegant black-clad body like a python.” If Myriam were elegant and large-hipped, that would be interesting—and such an observation would tell us something about Theo, the man who is seeing her this way. That Myriam’s hips are clad in black jeans could, I suppose, be taken to explain their slim appearance. But the “steely” quality of her eyes puzzles me. I take it that the adjective is meant to indicate their hardness, not their color. But it’s difficult to say. And listen to the expression “Black-clad.” Swish that cliché around in your ears for a bit and you’ll notice how the inelegantly jangling phonemes in the two monosyllables, the a’s, l’s, and hard c’s, bump up against each other in their rush to do their job and then get out of the way of the python that is just ahead of them. But they are kept from moving at the rate they want by the clinging alliteration of the various l’s that surround them (“lean steely-eyed woman, slim-hipped in black jeans … long limp hair and a long, elegant black-clad body like”) This is language that is uncertain if it wants to be on show or if it wants to efface itself in order to show us something.

We might remember James’s warning here. By writing in the first-person, Tartt has committed to the simultaneous representation of two things: the world Theo is experiencing, on the one hand, and the inner life bound to be revealed through the language he uses to describe it, on the other. Faced by the unlovely prose of this novel, which is often elaborate when it should be simple, and vague when it needs to be clear, I kept feeling the uncomfortable sense that if one attempted to grab hold of the worlds this novel aspires to describe, they would start to disintegrate even before my hands closed, leaving only a thin, unpleasant, artificial residue on the fingers.

When Theo reaches for language that goes beyond simple clichés Tartt gives him a frame of reference that would seem to have little to do with a semi-educated young man coming of age in the 21st century. Here is Horst, a ruined young aristocrat and heroin dealer, who has the accent of a character from a wartime Hollywood movie—but I’ll let Theo tell us himself:

 

With his ripped jeans and combat boots he was like a scuffed-up version of some below-the-title Hollywood character actor from the 1940s, some minor mitteleuropäischer known for playing tragic violinists and weary, cultivated refugees.

 

The bad style here arises from the combination of cliché, recondite information, and ostentatious world-weariness. The knowing repetition of some is particularly grating, especially when followed by the baffling passive “known for.” Who knows? In what sense knows? And how does this young man know? Above all, what kind of revelation of character do we get from the language? “Below-the-title?” “Mitteleuropäischer?” You’ll remember that his film-loving mother died when he was 13, and Theo has spent the years since in Las Vegas and New York, not in the cafés of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Who is speaking here? Whose voice are we hearing?

When juxtaposed with the novel’s aspirations, and especially with its use of the Fabritius painting, the infelicities of its prose help us get at what is interesting about the failures of The Goldfinch. These failures lie in its alliance with a visual medium very far from the laborious, tactile one of oil paint: the glossy visual and narrative one of movies on television. The novel is run through with evocations of film, but they tend to feel like something once big, now reduced, perhaps “formatted to fit your screen.” The obsessive references to Hollywood movies in the book, which Tartt grounds in the love that Theo and his mother shared for them, contribute to The Goldfinch’s claustrophobic quality. The novel is peculiarly at odds with the culture in which it is set, and with its young narrator: the things he notices, the figures of speech he uses, his frame of reference: they all belong to a person who does not get out much. Is this the “terrible fluidity of self-revelation” warned of by James, the first-person narrator standing in for an author who wants to tell us so much about herself that her desires squirt out around the edges of the character who should be filling our field of view? And what is revealed to us as we attempt to focus on Theo and his story? The Goldfinch describes lots of things, but it does so as though it were written in a cork-lined room furnished with well-thumbed copies of the major works of Charles Dickens, a translation of Proust, a subscription to Turner Movie Classics, and an Internet connection.

The novel is unable even to represent its central location with any kind of authority: Tartt’s is a bizarrely timeless and uninteresting version of New York. It has less texture than Woody Allen’s Rome or Barcelona, let alone his Manhattan. This is the city pretty much as it would be known by someone who had seen lots of romantic comedies, an Upper East Side world of prep schools, doormen buildings, and museums, where Greenwich Village is the artsy part of town and bohemians still haunt its bars.

There is a long tradition of looking to Dutch painting for models of how the act of representing the world may be charged with meaning. The canonization of Delft School painters such as Vermeer and, more recently, Fabritius, and the appreciation of the evocative ambiguity and technical mastery of these painters’ work is a late and somewhat avant-garde development within this tradition. It bears saying that the subject of Fabritius’s Goldfinch is unclear and more than a touch disturbing: a beautiful little bird chained to the wall. It is an emblem, we suspect, but of what? And how does its implied symbolism relate to what may strike us as the cruelty of the unusual subject? In order to see this painting we need to get impossibly close to a vulnerable animal that would flee us in real life. If we can approach without any concern that the goldfinch will escape our scrutiny it is not only because of the bird’s permanent residence within the realm of artifice, but because of the slender gold chain that constrains its motion to a very narrow range. Are we comfortable standing here this way, with the luxury of scrutiny the painting affords us? 

<i>Young Woman with a Water Pitcher</i> by Johannes Vermeer / Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of artists in different media reaching out to each other in emulation, adaptation, and friendly rivalry is a long one. Poems are inspired by art objects; novels are written about painters; painters adapt old stories or are inspired by music or poetry. The topic has only become more interesting as more media have entered the mix. What makes such projects compelling is not their relative success in carrying out the impossible project of translation from one art form to another, but rather the ways they allow or promote reflection on the limits that constrain the possibility of such translation, and therefore on the unavoidable force of medium or form itself.

Through familiarity with the Impressionists and their followers, the public has learned to associate the kind of brushwork we find in Fabritius’s Goldfinch with a kind of material honesty—with respect to the medium and to the world—that resonates with foundational modern concepts about the value of art. The bold touches that form the face of the bird make us feel we are dealing with an artist who is at once in complete control of his tools and so engaged with the world around him that he can unhesitatingly capture what he sees with a few strokes. If these marks on the canvas move us, it is not because of the speed with which they were carried out, but because we sense behind that speed a lifetime of training and practice that has culminated in a moment of astonishing responsiveness to the world and to the medium.

Both the moments represented by these brushstrokes and the long years of practice behind them are present in these few inches of paint. But we experience a third kind of time when we find ourselves in front of a great painting from an earlier era. To stand before a work of art is to contemplate something extraordinarily fragile that has been saved from the ravaging effects of history, removed from the stream that otherwise carries everything in it to oblivion. The controlled environment of the modern museum exists to protect the fragility of what has been rescued from the past. By opening her novel with an explosion that destroys that protection, Tartt plays brilliantly on an exposed nerve of modern culture: our overwhelming sense of the fragility of precious things, and our dread suspicion that we have acquired an unasked-for responsibility we are too callow to fully assume but too attentive (or too neurotic) to completely avoid.

When I visited Fabritius’s Goldfinch while it was on loan to the Frick Collection this past winter, I noticed an odd shape a few inches to the left of the bird. A seat, I thought at first, a little bird seat. But of course that made no sense. A more perceptive friend pointed out that the shape was simply the mounting apparatus that kept the bird’s perch attached to the wall, its pair being lost in the shadow cast by the little animal.

Decades ago, Auden suggested that the Old Masters were never wrong about suffering, because of the way they insisted on the world’s broad indifference to even the most extraordinary calamities: horses scratch their itches while a martyr dies; ploughmen plow as Icarus falls to the sea. The poet found in this expansion beyond the central figure on the canvas the kind of powerful commitment to the world that we see in Fabritius’s determination to capture the little hinged flange with nail holes that fastened the bird’s perch to the wall and, behind it, the dense reality of the wall itself—the world outside the painting’s subject.

In Tartt’s Goldfinch there are no walls of the kind Fabritius painted, none of the kind of contingent texture that makes his small painting so moving. Nobody, I suppose, ever decided to become an artist because of a wish to see and paint walls. That, I take it, is one reason why, in contemplating Fabritius’s Goldfinch, the imagination is affected in ways entirely distinct from the response provoked by reading Tartt’s novel. In front of this lovely object rescued from the indifference and violence of the world, one encounters a practice that measures the fabric of the world against the artist’s medium and marks both where these two incommensurables fit together—and where they can never fully match up.