Reading Donna Tartt’s ravishing time warp of a novel, The Goldfinch, which is just out today (though several enraptured critics slipped their shackles and reviewed it weeks ahead of release, eager to gild this deserving bird with their own praise), I recalled the unmooring sensation I felt this summer when I read for the first time George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street. The eerily destabilizing effect of that book came down to this: it seemed to have been written by a keen-eyed visitor from a later century, with the voice and mindset of a more modern age. New Grub Street, set in London in the Victorian era, and published only thirty years after Great Expectations, twenty years after Middlemarch, and the same year as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, showed none of the sentimental, melodramatic flourishes or humorous padding of Dickens and his contemporaries. Gissing avoided Eliot’s ponderous, stately scruples and minutiae, shrugged off the moral questions that tied Hardy and his heroines in knots, and in general, appeared not to give a fig for the conventions that readers of 19th-century fiction might suppose had obsessed all of England in the author’s day. Gissing wrote briskly, with the unfancy fluency, straight-up assurance, and bottom-line logic of one of today’s financial bloggers. How strange it was, in a book set in the 19th century, to encounter the language and mores of the 21st; and to meet careerist characters—journalists and literary people—who spoke not like the rambling ink-stained wretches of The Pickwick Papers, but like today’s social-media-wise millennials—baldly admitting that to support themselves by writing, they needed to serve not the muses, but the masses. “There’s no question of divine afflatus,” one of Gissing’s anti-heroes declared: “Let us use our wits to earn money, and make the best we can of our lives.”
The Goldfinch flips the Gissing effect. With this novel, Tartt has created a contemporary masterpiece that seems to have been written by a visitor from an earlier century, and whose language conveys the voice and mindset of a more eloquent age, though its action occurs entirely in the post-9/11 world. It positively billows with “divine afflatus” (a term Gissing borrowed from Cicero—meaning, more or less, inspiration sent by the breath of God), while at the same time, speaking compellingly to earthbound readers whose interests run not to Roman oratory or oil paintings, but to video games and recreational drugs. Any literary-minded reader who happens upon this novel a hundred years from now, reads it in ravishment, and rushes to find other novels from the same period, expecting to discover similar glints of this coruscating sensibility, will be confused to discover how singular this voice is, how unlike other novels of this decade. The Goldfinch proves Tartt to be a rara avis; her own species, willingly chained to her demanding muse.
Her protagonist, a dark-haired, pale loner named Theo Decker (who wears glasses that make him look so much like Harry Potter that his friends actually call him “Potter”), lost his refined, light-hearted young mother when he was thirteen, in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mother had taken him there to admire the painting of a captive goldfinch, by the Dutch master Carel Fabretius, when the explosion occurred. Amidst dust, smoke, and carnage, his mother dead under a pile of rubble, Theo ducks out of the museum with two relics: the goldfinch painting—a lifeline to his semi-protected earlier life— and a gold ring that was pressed into his hand by a dying man who rasped at him, wizardlike: “Hobart and Blackwell,” in his final moments, adding cryptically: “Ring the green bell.” Alone in the world, Theo makes his way home to the doorman building where he and his mother had lived, and stows the painting and the ring. Both will alter his life immeasurably; the stolen painting—in which he finds “support and vindication,” and “sustenance and sum” eventually will draw him into mafia gun chases in Amsterdam; the ring will lead him to an antiquarian’s shop, where he will find a friend, a protector, and a vocation.
But all of those consequences arise much later; for the long moment of most of the novel, Theo is a lonely minor, at the mercy of child services and fate, whose outward communications give no clue of his rich, nuanced internal monologue. For a while, he finds refuge at the Park Avenue home of one of his wealthy school friends, Andy Barbour, whose dysfunctional family finds his presence oddly stabilizing. Theo is, essentially, an orphan, à la David Copperfield: his mother is dead; his surly, thieving, alcoholic father had vanished long before—to Theo’s and his mother’s relief; and his cold-hearted faraway grandparents make J.K. Rowling’s muggle Dursleys look like George and Mary Bailey. The Barbours seem to want to make him their permanent ward; and when Theo sneaks downtown to the West Village curiosity shop, “Hobart and Blackwell,” to return the ring, he finds further adult protection in the form of a gentle, gifted furniture restorer, named Hobie, whose transformative touch brings battered antiques to life, “until they looked as if they’d had pure, golden time poured over them.” For a while, it looks as if the Boy Who Lived will find safe harbor. Waking at the Barbours amid nightmares of the museum explosions, he lulls himself back to sleep by thinking of Hobie’s antique shop, “where without even realizing it you slipped away sometimes into 1850, a world of ticking clocks and creaking floorboards, copper pots and baskets of turnips and onions in the kitchen, candle flames leaning all to the left in the draft of an opened door.”
Enter Theo’s deadbeat dad, Larry, who has returned to New York to fetch his orphaned son, sniffing opportunity (the boy has a small trust fund), with his tawdry, hard-abbed drug-dealer girlfriend Xandra in tow, all “bullet eyes, blunt little nose, tiny teeth.” Off goes Theo, far from Park Avenue, far from the antique shop, off to a desolate, lifeless Las Vegas suburb, where he befriends a devious young Ukrainian grifter named Boris. The two of them stop time and skip school for numberless months, inhaling mountains of painkillers and oceans of vodka, until Larry Decker’s death allows Theo to leave Vegas, hop a bus to Manhattan, and slowly attempt to construct a life he can stand…with his talismanic art treasure safely hidden (or is it?) in storage. But what is the life Theo can stand, he wonders. Is it “health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues?” Or is it “a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” The time warp he inhabits allows him to see the advantages, and disadvantages of both, giving him “a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.”
Picaresque, philosophical, magical and engrossing, The Goldfinch, like the small painting that inspired it, Carel Fabritius’s immortal, unflinching, tethered bird, is “not about outward appearances but inward significance”— what Theo calls “a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand; ” it’s a “glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.”