ows_138203116777579Like so many others, I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in a single day, or nearly. For weeks I hadn’t been able to get past the first fifty pages, and nearly gave up on finishing it. Then I picked it up again and didn’t put it down until it was finished. It kept me up all night, and it made me babble about it to friends. I caught my breath at the unlikely perfection of single sentences; I cried on the subway at harrowing passages. In short, it evoked every reaction that a masterful novel is supposed to evoke.

Except that I hated it.

So many reviewers have compared Tartt’s 800-page opus to Dickens, and I find this comparison accurate, though perhaps not for the same reason other reviewers have done so. What The Goldfinch shares with Dickens — as well with another equally high-school-canonical novel, namely Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — is an obsession with the particular, pervasive anxiety of money. The great nineteenth century novel was a result of the Industrial Revolution. The marriage plots that drove and defined these stories were economic narratives, not love stories. The center of Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy’s world is not the heart but money. As in life, much of what purports to be about love is actually about cash.

In a capitalist society, life events assumed to be highly intimate and purely emotional are often overwhelmingly about money. Weddings, as a symbolic ritual of love, come down to the negotiation of a massive bill. Marriage exists most concretely in financial logistics. Love as represented by marriage is a high-end commodity.

Death, too, specifically the death of a loved one, is an economic event. The storm’s eye of howling loss is surrounded by taxes, bills, and questions of inheritance. Death changes the lives of those left living, but it often does so by way of their finances.

The Goldfinch is a grand nineteenth century novel in that it is an 800-page chronicle of capitalism, a paean to the ways in which the world turns on the questions of who can or can’t pay for what, and how these abilities and inabilities mold us over time. Like the life events and relationships it depicts, it purports to be about love but is actually about money. This portrayal of twentieth century North American society is accurate, but also, just as in life, both exhausting and demoralizing. The Goldfinch kept me up all night. but anxiety keeps you up all night, too. It wasn’t the joyful insomnia that I associate with being a lonely child reading all night under covers, galloping through books eager to consume more and yet more of their worlds. Rather this was the insomnia of adulthood, a similar skin-itching wakefulness concerned with wondering how the bills will get paid and if I’ve offended anyone I love.

All this might suggest only that Tartt has achieved her purpose effectively and that I was annoyed by the effectiveness of that work. But The Goldfinch isn’t set up as a critique of capitalism, as a condemnation of small-minded and dirty-fingered people masquerading in good clothes. It strives to be a novel of the heart, and to conclude with the kind of ambiguous yet full-throated redemption that pulls together a novel such as Crime and Punishment. It purports at last to be concerned only with matters of heart and of loyalty. But none of its romantic or even personal plots are really so much resolved. These aren’t left open-ended so much as they seem to be forgotten, to dissolve into afterthoughts. The only true resolution is a financial one, an affirmation that makes the rest of the ending seem unimportant, a footnote and a short muddle of vague prose. All novels don’t necessarily need to be concerned with or concluded by redemption in the way Dostoyevsky’s famous work of financial anxiety is in order to be great, but the thesis of The Goldfinch, despite its gorgeously composed arias in praise of humanist amorality, seems more than anything to be “Fuck You, Got Mine.”

It difficult to love something the way so many of us loved Tartt’s explosively successful first novel, The Secret History. It is a book beloved in that boneless and consuming way we love people who come at us sideways from the edges of our lives. It creates the least healthy kind of loyalty, the kind that inspires blindness and that forgives future wrongs in the hope of preserving that first soap bubble of perfect infatuation. Both lover and beloved suffer at the hands of this devotion, the lover by accepting ever-diminishing returns, and the beloved by never being forced to be better. A generation of writers intensely lionized for their early work has begun to produce third, fourth, and fifth novels, and this kind of love seems to have done them a disservice. I’m no more privy to what went on behind the scenes in The Goldfinch’s journey from draft to publication than I am aware of the ins and outs of similar processes for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But I know that all three of these novels (and there are many other examples) read as though their editor had been afraid to touch them, and had left early, baggy drafts unchanged. Later work from those with early success often suffers, dulls, and gives in to less noble preoccupations. There are perfect sentences in Tartt’s novel (though fewer and further between than there perhaps should be to justify its length), but they demonstrate a rather cold and perfunctory mastery of the form. The Goldfinch performs all of the requisite effects of a large, great novel — I read it compulsively and extremely fast, various sections moved me to tears, and, as I’ve mentioned, it left me wanting to talk about it with others — without ever adding up to any profound meaning. It leaves one feeling as though the book is a beautiful party, attended by no one.

We live in a brutally capitalist world. That Tartt’s true preoccupation is with money and the ways in which money determines class, love, opportunity, and loyalty, is neither unexpected nor inaccurate. Wanting a novel about the basic economics of our emotional lives to transcend the nauseating worship of those economics may be unrealistic. Nevertheless, fiction in the league in which Tartt writes, or at least to which she aspires, grapples with a sense of transcendence. At its very best, literature raises the banality and awfulness of the everyday into some kind of larger, compelling and cohesive meaning. Tarrt’s novel seems to live and die on the bottom line of the bank account. One wants it to be love, but finds it to be a transaction. The novel neither critiques this cramped and unpretty truth, nor rises above it, and therefore feels like a waste of exceptional skill, and at times like we are another victim of the con artist main characters’ cons. That it naturally raises comparison, even a negative one, to authors such as Dostoyevsky, speaks to the author’s skill. That it comes this close to that kind of greatness and yet still rings hollow stings all the more sharply.

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HELENA FITZGERALD has published fiction and non-fiction with The New Inquiry, Vice, The Rumpus, Bookslut, Brooklyn Based, The Brooklyn Rail, the Notre Dame Review, and Soon Quarterly, among other places. Find her on twitter @helfitzgerald.

4 responses to “Review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

  1. jessica says:

    You are absolutely right. I feel like I’m being tortured trying to wade through the clichés and poorly written characters. I just met Theo’s Russian friend, who despite being jn AP English and having a slight Australian accent, seems to speak like a James Bond villian?! I hate everything about this book, and it is ruining my vacation. Read the piece they did in Vanity Fair – brilliant.

  2. Katerbak says:

    Your review starts with how you read an 800 page book IN ONE DAY… Couldn’t put it down after slogging through the first couple chapters, (I agree, they were hard to endure) then went on to point out how you hated The Goldfinch. Right there your review lost any validity for me, but like your efforts with the book, I continued to read.

    My conclusion is, like your reading, you skimmed over the point. Donna Tartt’s book isn’t about ‘the bottom line of a bank account’. It’s about how society makes everything disposable, including a little boy. The Goldfinch is the only constant in his life, so much so, it becomes part of his identity. It relates the theme that only things survive, objects which romanticize life in a way we want to view it, not the way we experience it. (Yes, this is a Readers Digest version of my thoughts) Still, I think it’s what makes the book so relatable to the so called “illiterate masses”.

    A point, the proclaimed high priests of the literary world might have registered if the book had been read with soul and not with an open text book on proper sentence structure, grammar and correct literary composition.

    The fact still remains, the book has a throng of beloved followers – which includes me. I’m insulted when a select few tell me I don’t know what I like, or my praise is not genuine. I sincerely loved the book and related to it on a visceral level – Thank you Donna Tartt.

    Maybe it’s time the literary elite “get with the times”. On this, I agree with Stephen King. Ever wonder why shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad are so popular? Yes, they come from a different medium, (the most popular in the U.S.) but they tell us Nihilism is a relatable theme in 2014. (Just read the news and any person not living in an ivory tower will understand why.) Another point of good literature is reflecting the perspective of our time.

  3. kate says:

    glad to hear that Katerbak (above) “sincerely loved the book”. she seems to be quite bitter but when one reads reviews one should be prepared to have one’s buttons pushed.
    anyway, i came to this site because my cousin just let me know she’s reading Crime & Punishment . apparently there’s a film out & she wanted to read at least part of the book before going to the movie. i am at the tail end of Goldfinch (it is a page turner!) and have often been reminded of C&P, which i read as a moody teenager (loved it & all Dostoyevsky)… so i googled C&P/goldfinch and Bingo! your review. Good review, i will reread, and maybe some other things on your blog. if we’re looking at the money trope, the world of great literature is full of books that follow delve into that access point to the modern psyche.
    i agree with Jessica (above) re the way Boris sounds, like a James Bond character. this is maybe my major criticism. could that have been improved? probably not to difficult to do. Tartt does capture the voices. the gangsta voice of Theo’s dad is also cartoonish, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me. the novel seems to teeter on the edge of slick/spoof of deep penetrating insight/ post–post-modern coming of age. i mean, we really didn’t need the sketch of his first affair with Julie – but it was well done. probably a lot of those virtuoso sketches that were edited out for lack of space.
    one of my favorite bits was the ‘uptown’ scene at the art/drug dealer’s den. can’t find his name right now but he waxes so poetic about the The Goldfinch painting that he saw as a 12 year old boy in Europe. part painstaking trompe l’oeil and parts are painted with vigorous almost abstract expressionist brushwork. this became my trope for reading the novel. Tartt works in all of these genres – very fast, very virtuosic. much of the material is hoovered in from pop culture, just the same way we suck it all up until we are barely able to digest any of it, it hangs on like particles. the chapter title “the Idiot” (after Dostoyevsky’s book??) maybe is trying to emphasize the redemption aspect.
    of course i have another hour or two of reading, and am dying to know what will happen!! it’s got to be Pippa – pure, sweet, untainted, and crippled, his true love. and i suspect that because he never took care of himself, that Theo will die, maybe in her arms. that’s my guess. hopefully not a spoiler.
    but we have to read the redemption stuff in the 21st century perspective. which means there’s all this other crap coming at us. we filter out most. either way, i see it as very even – like Seurat dots. the good, bad, ugly. no judgement of any of it. muddy color, pure color. Yes, we all want Pippa to come forth more, the get closer!!! but Theo finally accepts her as she is and even maybe prefers that – idealizing her. in the end. Theo moves through his assigned (by the author) role a little robotically. this is what severe trauma at impressionable age can do. same with Boris. even Pippa is a bit stuck. so, i relate to all of that pretty personally. my best reading of this novel is that it reflects pretty well the world we live in: larger than life, built of small details, most of them a blur, and some rendered with so much skill that we can lose ourselves in a square inch of painted canvas – and find ourselves, our soul –
    this is why i meditate, and read good books.

  4. lisa miller says:

    Odd that person replied w/o having finished the novel. Wonder if her opinion stayed the same.

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