Like 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.