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Selected Reviews
(2007-2014)
BY TED GIOIA

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Eleanor Catton [
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Marisha Pessl [
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Michael Chabon [
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Zadie Smith [
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Bruce Machart [
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Jonathan Franzen [
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Matt Ruff [
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Ryszard Kapuściński [
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Roberto Bolaño [
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Jack Kerouac [
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John Leland [
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Ian McEwan [
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Khaled Hosseini [
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Don DeLillo [
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A shrewd observer of the movie business recently confided to
me that the new formula for the
femme fatale in film is, put simply,
ladies who kick butt.  According to this way of thinking, sexy
alone isn't enough anymore; audiences wants sexy with abs of
steel and martial arts training.  If Audrey Hepburn were starting
out nowadays, she would need to carry a machete to the screen
test.

Well, I must admit I've noticed a similar tendency in literary fiction.  
Lady authors are increasingly kicking butt too. In the old days, the
body count on the page correlated directly with the testosterone
level behind the typewriter. Ah, times have changed, and
nowadays the women are sowing their wild (Joyce Carol) Oates,
and matching their male counterparts blow for blow, gunshot for
gunshot.  

The last three novels I've reviewed by current-day
female writers—Marisha Pessl's
Night Film,
Eleanor Catton's
The Luminaries, and Donna
Tartt's
The Goldfinch—have each demonstrated
this engagement with violence in different ways.  
But Tartt is perhaps the most interesting, given
the very personal spin she applies to this
element in her writing.  From the very start
of her illustrious career, she has specialized
in the juxtaposition of
violence and refinement.  
Let other authors shed their characters' blood
on the battlefield or in a dark alley; Tartt, in
contrast, kills them off in more rarefied settings, a sleepy liberal
arts college or a venerable art museum.  No, I wouldn't want to be
a Donna Tartt character, and if I was an actuary I would refuse to
underwrite a life insurance policy for even her bit players.  But
when they go, they go out in style. They won’t flame out on a
motorcycle, but rather behind the wheels of a Lexus or, better
yet, while taking the family yacht out for a spin.  As F. Scott
Fitzgerald might have said: "The rich are different.  They get to
destroy a lot of expensive accessories when they die."

In other words, Donna Tartt is the literary equivalent of Audrey
Hepburn with a machete.  


SEE ALSO:
Donna Tartt: The Secret History (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
Marisha Pessl: Night Film (reviewed by Ted Gioia)


The protagonist of The Goldfinch, a young man named Theo
Decker, is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a
bomb explodes, killing his mother and leaving the youngster
with minor injuries and in a state of shock.  In the aftermath,
he leaves the museum dazed and confused, but also with a
famous painting—The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, a Dutch
artist of the mid-17th century—in his possession. The heist is
an unwitting, rather than premeditated, theft. But in the
succeeding days, Decker is so overcome with grief for his
dead mother and uncertainty over his own future, that he
forgets about the painting.  He later realizes that he needs to
find a way to return it to the museum, but by this time he is
uncertain how to do so without getting himself in trouble—
especially since government authorities already seem intent
on putting him under their 'care' as a ward of the state.

In its opening stages,
The Goldfinch seems to follow the
formula of those sprawling Dickens novels  of a bygone day.   
As with Dickens—in
Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great
Expectations
and other works—we begin with the endearing
youngster, bereft of a parent, trying to make his way in a
crooked, hazardous world.  And Tartt rivals Dickens in the
unhurried pace with which she proceeds in the first half of
The Goldfinch.  Interludes that might last 20 or 30 pages in
the hands of another author, are here stretched out to five
times that length.  Characters can disappear for hundreds of
pages, and then move back into the center of the plot.  While
other authors are trying nowadays to write novels in Twitter-
sized bites, Tartt bucks the trend, giving each scene and
section enough space to resonate, and imparting a kind
of contradictory realism to characters, always in the process
of redefining themselves in this book, that Dickens, whose
protagonist tended to be bigger-than-life rather than true-to-
life, never cared to achieve.

Like Oliver Twist, Decker falls among bad influences—perhaps
the worst is his father, who shows up to claim the youngster
and bring him to a new home in Las Vegas.  Dad eventually
immolates himself in a car crash (yes, this is a Donna Tartt novel,
so it's a luxury model), but demonstrates charm and duplicity in
equal doses before leaving the scene.  Pop's girlfriend Xandra,
a casino worker and small-time drug dealer, is hardly a better
role model, but like almost every character in this book has a
few quasi-angelic qualities mixed in with the more sordid ones.  
But the strongest influence on Decker during this Las Vegas
interlude, comes via his intense friendship with a Russian
schoolmate named Boris, also living in a broken household
with a dysfunctional dad. Together they try their hand at a range
of transgressions, from shoplifting to dropping LSD.   

Tartt plays a bold psychological game with her readers over
the course of these pages.  After eliciting sympathy for her
young orphan, she forces us to follow his moral decline and
decide for ourselves whether this boy-turned-crook is qualified
to serve as hero of his own story.  Returning to New York, Decker
takes a job with a sympathetic father figure who trains him in
the antiques business, but the young man rewards this trust
by scamming customers with fake merchandise.  He keeps
his stolen painting locked away in a storage facility, and it’s hard
to avoid labelling his continued possession of the work as anything
but a blatant crime, even if it started out as the innocent mistake
of a distraught adolescent.  Meanwhile, much of the cash he
makes from his antique sales fuels his drug habit.  Theo
increasingly leads a compartmentalized life, marked by lies
to his closest friends, even lies to himself, especially with regard  
to his muddled love life.    

From Dickensian innocence we have shifted to Dostoevskian
intrigue, and a miasma of existential guilt and malaise settles
over the second half of
The Goldfinch.  It's no coincidence
that Dostoevsky's
The Idiot is repeatedly referenced in these
pages, nor that our protagonist has the same name (albeit
Anglicized) as the author of
Crime and Punishment. Adding
to the Russian flavor of the shifting plot, Boris reappears,
and shows Decker that the infractions and passions he has
been experiencing in the New York antiques world are small
potatoes compared to what his old friend has been up to in
global gangland.  The pace of the book, relaxed almost to an
extreme up until this point in the narrative, now accelerates
manically.  

Tartt saves her best for last, and in the final two hundred
pages manages a remarkable balancing act.  Even as she
mimics the trappings of the action-oriented crime novel she
infuses the story with complex questions of culpability, redemption
and responsibility—responsibility both to others as well as to
a posterity we will never see.   What seemed like a quasi-
Victorian sprawling novel becomes as taut and intense as
a psychologist’s case study.

My biggest gripe with contemporary fiction is how unwittingly
cinematic most of it has become.  We are so beguiled with
visual narratives that we shy away from those dramas within our
psyches that the novel, preeminently among all forms of story-
telling, is so well suited at conveying.  Tartt, however, reminds
us in these pages that both facets—of outer action and inner
turmoil—can resonate simultaneously, if the author is daring
and capable enough to see the levels at which they intertwine.  
How fitting that the real protagonist in this book, a tiny painting,
remains hidden from view throughout most of the tale!  Out of
sight does not mean out of mind, at least not in the world of
Donna Tartt. One could hardly find a better symbol for the kind
of drama, in which the secret ingredients and exposed elements
are in constant dialogue, that Tartt has made her specialty,
and nowhere with more authority than in
The Goldfinch.  


Ted Gioia writes on books, music and popular culture.  His next book is a
history of love songs, to be published by Oxford University Press.
The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

Reviewed by Ted Gioia