Donna Tartt’s third novel, ‘Goldfinch’, was published at the end of last year. She is not a prolific novelist and it is eleven years since she published her second novel, ‘The little Friend’, in 2002. Her first novel, ‘The Secret History’, was published ten years previously in 1992. I suppose one could describe the genre in which she writes as the literary thriller. It is interesting that ‘The Secret History’ is dedicated to Brett Easton Ellis, author of ‘American Psycho’. Along with Tom Wolfe, they are probably the best known current writers of novels that use pretty sensational plots to comment on contemporary US society. These form part of the genre sometimes known as, ‘State of the Nation’ novels. Perhaps because a new novel from Tartt doesn’t happen very often it becomes something of a literary event.
I have to own, that I too was very excited to discover a new novel was to be published and bought it soon after publication. After ‘The Secret History’ I have always approached her novels with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. I’m anticipating an enthralling plot and a substantial read, but I expect that I will be put through a story that is disturbing and anxiety making. ‘Goldfinch’ is no exception. It has received almost universally good reviews but they differ somewhat on what the novel is actually about because, as with her previous novels, it does feel like a parable. That it is open to several interpretations does link to the inevitable question, ‘What is she trying to tell us about the the world we live in today?’. It would be easy to say that her view is simply about US society and has nothing to do with ‘old world’ Europe and indeed some of the extremes she writes about perhaps seem very alien to us.
As the book is a kind of thriller I am going to try and give away as little of the plot as possible, so as not to spoil the experience for anyone wishing to read it. As with her previous novels, ‘Goldfinch’ has themes that are particularly interesting for those interested in psychotherapy and, dare I say it, philosophy.
The premise of the book is interesting in that it pits an actual priceless painting against an imaginary event. There is a painting called Goldfinch but there has never been a bomb attack on The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Actually, it is never fully identified as the Met and is simply called the Museum. It is also never revealed what the bomb attack was about. All of this takes place within the early chapters of the book. The protagonist of the book, 13 year old Theo, is visiting the museum with his mother because she has loved the painting since she first saw it in a book, and it is now on show in New York as part of a visiting exhibition. Theo survives the attack relatively physically unscathed but his mother dies. He regains consciousness and in the aftermath is given the Goldfinch by a dying old man.
This may appear to be a lot of the plot that I am giving away, but this all happens within the early section of the book. What Tartt goes on to explore is the nature of loss and what ‘value’ is placed on loss. The loss of the painting by society is attributed as being a loss beyond monetary value and irrecoverable, but the loss of Theo’s mother is something that the ‘authorities’ feel he should recover from. The therapy and social work he receives or, perhaps, is subjected to, do not appear to help at all. Theo becomes a ‘problem’ that must be sorted. It is only now that I am writing this that I realise that the reason for the bombing is never explained nor is there anyone brought to justice. The loss of the incredibly valuable painting remains frequently in the news despite the passage of time.
Theo becomes a ‘displaced person’ and along the way he meets other displaced and ‘lost souls’. He forms a strong bond with a young motherless Russian boy, called Boris, who is probably the most fascinating character in the book. There is a kind of sexual tension between them that is never fully expressed, but the bond they have is certainly love, but it is a negative identification. This relationship is destructive and sets the tone for a kind of ethical bankruptcy which is a major theme running through the novel. The world that Theo finds himself in and indeed partly creates for himself is where worth is nothing more than money. It is a world of selfishness, greed and betrayal, and the honourable are few and far between. The novel offers little of redemption however hard Theo tries. There are two characters who are the exception to this but I will not name them as the novel does not make you feel secure that this will be the case. It is a grim picture of a world that is nomadic, where any sense of loyalty has become perverse. This is particularly true of the extraordinary Boris who it could be said is a kind of a metaphor for the new capitalist class of the former Soviet block.
Tartt seems to be demonstrating on an International scale that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This is a bleak view and the world in which it takes place may feel alien from our own. But is it? Are we in danger in a consumerist society of valuing the material over the personal? I would hope not. From a psychotherapist’s perspective, are both Theo and Boris engaged, singly and in a ‘folie à deux’, in a manic defence against loss? In a very moving sequence at the end of the book, it is clear that Theo has never been able to begin grieving for his mother. Additionally, both the boys are presented as homeless, but only Theo brings this into consciousness. Boris has converted his homelessness into a kind of amoral bravado. Once again, Tartt has written a compelling and challenging novel where there are no comfortable endings but there is much to ponder.