Donna Tartt’s new novel proves that she has thrived at a remove from literary scenes
Google “Bardo State,” which appears on page 749 of The Goldfinch, and you will find it’s a Tibetan term for an intermediate period. It is also the name of an obscure Dutch musical duo whose influences include two composers — Erik Satie and Arvo Part — who are played on repeat throughout the book, which is named for a painting by the Dutch master Fabritius, and which moves from Manhattan to Vegas to Manhattan before maxing out elegiacally in Amsterdam.
In a more stylish contemporary novel, these layers of allusion would definitely signal intent. In The Goldfinch, however, intent feels more like fate. Donna Tartt is now 48. She wrote The Secret History — a cult classic about a cult of classics students — while a student at Bennington, and at 27 found herself famous. She disappeared; she bought a house in Virginia. Her second novel, The Little Friend, came out when she was 38. In the last decade, she has published no short stories, no essays, almost no criticism, and no journalism. She has not been photographed at what anyone would call an “event.” It is unknown whether she enjoys any contemporary fiction, but safe to say she has no opinion on David Shields and has never once shortened the word “alternative.” Donna Tartt does not do free-floating signification, fragmentary code-speak, or anything reminiscent of hypertext. She does urtext.
The Goldfinch is so Dickensian that after it Bleak House sounds like Tartt. One gray morning, Theo Decker goes to the museum with his mother and exits without her. The bomb that leaves him motherless also leaves him illegally in possession of The Goldfinch (1654), the last painting Fabritius made before dying in the Delft Explosion. And, as if all that weren’t bad enough, he’s in love—with fellow blast survivor and redheaded orphan Pippa, from whose Christmas-spirited uncle, Hobie, he’ll learn to make a living in antiques.
It will not be an honest living. After a spell on Park Avenue with the Barbours, a schoolmate’s wealthy family, Theo is stolen away to the edges of Vegas by his gambling, profligate dad and Dad’s Floridian new girlfriend, Xandra. When he returns to New York, it’s as a thief in the night. What follows is a life made possible by fraud after trick, lies after fraud, whiskey after lies, and opiates after whiskey. The novel turns Russianate and noirish; the painting weighs like a corpse. Whether he is hiding The Goldfinch or seeking it, Theo cannot escape the feeling it holds his worth.
All this makes for a one-third Disney, two-thirds Grimm fairytale of New York — and a masterpiece. Lots of contemporary writing is like slightly too candid photography, or worse, when you get into Brooklyntellectual metafiction, like the director’s commentary on a barely watchable film. Tartt never even bought a camera. Her prose, regal and figurative, is so thickly lacquered it glows. It doesn’t crack. No flash spoils the result of 10 years at work and remove, and by “remove” I don’t mean isolation from contemporary life — which she knows well enough to compare first to disintegrating film and then, years later, to a video game — but from the trappings of literary scenes. Only someone born a writer, but unbothered with the business of being one, could make a novel this unanxious about either its influence or its form.
“Time warp: a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice,” explains Theo from the cave of Hobie’s shop, a world as deliberately out of date as Tartt’s ornate New York. Here the “warp” is not in time, but of time on antique wood. “Just as my dad’s rituals, his betting systems, all his oracles and magic were predicated on a field awareness of unseen patterns, so too the explosion in Delft was part of a complex series of events that ricocheted into the present. The multiple outcomes could make you dizzy.”
Could, but won’t. For Tartt the world never spins faster than it can be described, and her descriptions add up to a power you can trust. The book is altogether elegant; the plot, too symmetrical by half. At more than one implausible turn of events — low-chance encounter on a street; propitious knock on the door — Theo himself disbelieves. But disbelief can be its own suspense. Trained in post-isms, you wait for the unreality to shatter, and the longer you wait (it doesn’t crack) the stupider your expectations seem. Why must everything — anything — contain its own critique?
Set The Goldfinch against the year’s other, major novels of stylish and narcotized New York: Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Tao Lin’s Taipei. In the former, Pynchon reconstitutes the year 2001 as one woman’s spacey odyssey down Silicon Alley into the underweb, with 9/11 as anticlimax. “Tuesday morning … Maxine heads for work, puts her head in a local smoke shop, and finds everybody freaking out and depressed at the same time. Something bad is going on downtown.” This is the plainest language in the book, and what it shows is that beneath the drift of information that passes for accuracy, or the in-jokes signifying intelligence, there is truly almost nothing to get.
Like Tartt, Pynchon is famous for his absence from any writerly milieu. Like The Goldfinch, his latest novel attempts to weigh a decade. Yet where Tartt is a listener, Pynchon is a semiotician, and so Bleeding Edge feels more like 1991’s idea of the future than a current imagination of 2001. Plus: For all Pynchon’s moral effort vis-à-vis the book’s literary superiority, it might as well have crawled out from under Ethan Hawke’s bed in the ’90s. Here, for example, is Pynchon’s Park Avenue:
Park Avenue, despite attempts at someone’s idea of beautification, has remained, for all but the chronically clue-free, the most boring street in the city. Built originally as a kind of genteel lid to cover up the train tracks running into Grand Central, what should it be, the Champs-Elysées? Sped through, at night, by stretch limo, let’s say, on the way to Harlem, it might register as just bearable. In broad daylight, however, at an average speed of one block per hour, jammed with loud and toxic-smelling traffic, all in advanced states of disrepair, whose drivers suffer (or enjoy) a hostility level comparable to that of Maxine’s driver here—not to mention police barricades, Form Single Lane signs, jackhammer crew, backhoes and front-end loaders, cement mixers, asphalt spreaders, and battered dump trucks unmarked by any contractor’s name let alone phone number—it becomes an occasion for spiritual exercise, though maybe more of the Eastern type than anything connected with this radio station, now blasting some kind of Christian hip-hop.”
Pynchon has long confused stuff with material, but at least he once had the right stuff. Christian hip-hop? “The most boring street in the city?” In its glib listiness, a passage like this inadvertently argues for literally anybody’s idea of beautification — of prose, that is.
In Taipei all streets are boring, or bored. Lin’s semiautobiographical protagonist, Paul, does not go anywhere near Park Avenue, so let’s pick him up at 22nd and 10th:
In his tiredness and inattention these intuitions manifested in Paul as an uncomplicated feeling of bleakness — that he was in the center of something bad, whose confines were expanding, as he remained in the same place. Faintly he recognized in this a kind of humor, but mostly he was aware of the rain, continuous and everywhere as an incognizable information, as he crossed the magnified street, gleaming and blacker from wetness, to return to the party.
This could be any street anywhere. The material world is subjugated to Paul’s vague, “uncomplicated” feelings. Now, here is Tartt’s Park Ave.:
Andy’s room … faced Park Avenue. Horns cried in the crosswalk at rush hour and the light burned gold in the windows across the street, dying down around the same time as the traffic began to thin. As the night wore on (phosphorescent in the streetlamps, violet city midnights that never quite faded to black) I turned from side to side, the low ceiling over the bunk pressing down so heavily that sometimes I woke convinced I was lying underneath the bed instead of on top of it.
This is not how Park Avenue looks. Nor is it how Park Avenue feels, I bet, to most New Yorkers. It is how Park Avenue sounds if you have never been to New York and you whisper it to yourself and maybe I’m a kid still, but this is why I read novels — for the sense that all material is imagined.
It’s common to say that fiction teaches empathy. It also teaches a certain responsiveness to the world, and a responsibility for your place in it. A lucid and specific imagination grants a feeling of control over life’s most illogical sequences.
Compare too Tartt’s characters to Lin’s. Like Theo, Paul is a young man in want of a fortune, if only so he can spend it on pills (or acid, or mushrooms, but in Taipei it all feels like pills). Unlike Theo, he has no capacity for secrets. Theo, beset by death and survivor’s guilt, knows how to weigh a suicide when the consequences call; Paul can only suggest it, so depthless is his mind. To analyze by term-search: “Guilt” appears twice in Taipei, both times next to “shame,” which appears three times. “Guilty” never appears. “Anxiety” appears seven times; “anxious,” five; “embarrassed,” eight.
These hyper-current moods seem merely accurate. Shame concerns how we live in relation to others; anxiety, whether we are living well; embarrassment, whether we look well. Paranoia is the state-sanctioned gestalt of it all. But guilt—only guilt feels for immanence and concerns our right to be. Theo, standing in Central Park, where “[his] mother’s bench, the Rendezvous Point, alone of all the benches . . . had been given a more mysterious and welcoming message: EVERYTHING OF POSSIBILITY. It had been Her Bench since before I was born.” Re-reading this I think of Chris Kraus, in Aliens & Anorexia: “Who makes your life possible? I want to scream.” That is the scream of guilt, in the sense of a debt you can’t repay. It reverberates rarely anymore.
In 1999, Elizabeth Hardwick compared the literature of guilt, with its “private and serious drama,” to the newer literature of paranoia. “Free-floating, drifting in his absorption and displacement, the paranoid is not a character at all,” Hardwick wrote, subtweeting the early works of Pynchon and DeLillo. “Most of all he comes to resemble a person with a cerebral stroke and shows peculiar, one-sided losses, selective blocks and impairments, unpredictable gaps.”
Hardwick could also be describing Lin’s Paul, or Ben Lerner’s Adam in Leaving the Atocha Station, or Joshua Cohen’s Mono in “Emission,” the short story that opens his Four New Messages. The major inventions of these acclaimed post-systems novelists are glitchy, impotent ciphers who live like human existence is a phase. This isn’t wrong. We are each guaranteed a digital life after physical death. But the impermanence of my end is exactly the thing I both choose and resent about living online. (Mostly I’m a social-media apologist, demographically aligned with Lin, yet I share the wish of 66-year-old Lila, in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, to literally disappear without a trace). When we come to this after, I miss calling it the beyond — and am sure its totalizing absence is all that gives our time here its worth.
The Goldfinch is a brace against the void. Where in the abyss her contemporaries see echo and static, Tartt sees a rich unmitigated black: Theo’s inheritance, his father’s lucky color. Only black is not a color, but a want of color that makes color possible. “My dad at the baccarat table, in the air-conditioned midnight,” he thinks near novel’s end. “There’s a pattern and we’re a part of it. Yet if you scratched very deep at that idea of pattern (which apparently he had never taken the trouble to do) you hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light.” The invocation of emptiness is no refusal of meaning. The sky, we know, is only blue for the black behind it. Tartt’s unfashionable refusal of multiple meanings, multiple interpretations indicates, at bottom, the deepest authorial craving for meaning there is.
So the novel is optimistic. For all its superficial tendencies toward nihilism, it is too beautiful to not survive its outlook. And though there’s no empirical reason to think we have this many generations left in us, The Goldfinch feels made to be taught in future high schools, to the graduating classes of 2112, like Dickens was to me in 2003.
“Style is fate,” said Hardwick. Objects are fateful, says The Goldfinch. Since the modern novel is more than ever an object, in its style it seeks to save our time; we have not evolved past the urge to preserve things of beauty. Donna Tartt’s realism feels not just traditional, but also speculative: The Goldfinchposits that objects have a metaphysical truth beyond human finitude (or that humans too are objects, no more/less real or knowable). It gives you the sense that a perfect painting, or piece of furniture, or term like “bardo state,” can be flipped over to reveal a provenance linking it to two other objects across time, far beyond their owners, their authors, us. Finishing — twice — all 771 pages, I felt an exultant rejection of all the afterlives: physical, spiritual, digital. There can’t be anything more than this.