Saturday 25 November 2017

Magnum opus The Goldfinch is Tartt's finest offering

Declan Hughes

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Little, Brown €20

On the one hand, a book every two years or so, augmented with short stories, light journalism, maybe a play or some poetry; much interviewed, always accessible, fleet and facile with opinions and beliefs on the Issues of the Day, risking the contempt familiarity breeds, banking on momentum and will to keep the muse compliant and the wolf from the door: the author as smiling public man.

On the other hand, three novels in 21 years, each one an event since the debut became that rare thing, an international bestseller that blurred the lines between mystery and literary fiction; the stakes higher each time, especially since the second book was less than rapturously received; the life lived in privacy, secrecy, even, to a playbook retro-fitted from Salinger, Pynchon, Harper Lee; the writer as myth, as enigma, as cult: Ladies and gentlemen, the particular and intriguing case of Donna Tartt.

'Evelyn Waugh meets Dostoevsky' was how REM's bibliophile guitarist Peter Buck described The Secret History, Donna Tartt's first novel, back in 1992. Add a shot of Greek tragedy and a splash of Patricia Highsmith and you had the recipe for an elegant, disturbing, melodramatic tale of a clutch of elitist, erudite classics students at a Vermont college and the group murder that destroyed their lives. It sold in its millions and made its author's name.

Ten years later, The Little Friend saw Mississippi-born Tartt go back to her roots with a Southern Gothic adventure story redolent of Stevenson, Faulkner and Harper Lee. If in parts as brilliantly written as her debut, the whole was less persuasive, and the ending unsatisfactory. Still, Tartt is the kind of writer who has not just readers, but fans. So expectations were high, first that there would be another book, and then that it might be a match for The Secret History. As to the former, Tartt has approvingly invoked William Styron's remark about having five books in him; she has now delivered three, so it's safe to assume we can expect two more. How good is the new one? Reader, The Goldfinch is the best thing Donna Tartt has ever done; I can't imagine there being a more absorbing, entertaining novel published this year, or next even; it is a triumphant vindication of the form.

A Bildungsroman in the manner of Great Expectations, to which Tartt specifically alludes, The Goldfinch begins with Theo Decker holed up in a hotel in old Amsterdam, on the run for offences as yet unclear. He dreams of his mother for the first time in ages, and recalls her death in an explosion that rips New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art apart. His feckless, alcoholic father having already fled the family, 13-year-old Theo is taken in by the white-shoe, Park Avenue Barbour family, whose son is a distant friend, and schooled in the stylish, well-intentioned, emotionally strained manners of high-end Manhattan.

Meanwhile, through a ring bequeathed him by a dying man in the museum, Theo has established a midtown bridgehead in the house of the dead man's partner, the learned furniture restorer and aesthete James 'Hobie' Hobart. Here Theo meets his Estella, the unattainable red-headed Polly, who distracted him from his mother at the Met and thereby inadvertently saved his life.

Through Hobie's informal tuition in this house of antiquities, Theo comes to realise how much he loves beautiful old things, especially the old masterpiece – The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius – which he rescued from the bomb-torn museum and has somehow neglected to surrender to the authorities.

Just when it looks like the Barbour family are about to adopt him, his father resurfaces, skanky girlfriend Xandra in tow, and Theo sets off to complete the second stage of his sentimental education in a drink and drug-fuelled teenage haze in Las Vegas. His mentor this time is Polish-Russian teenage alcoholic, drug addict and petty criminal Boris, and their comic misadventures in the sun-blasted Nevada desert climax with Theo's gambler father, having failed to extort his son's alleged fortune from him, dying in a car crash on the run from the gangsters to whom he owes money.

And so back to New York and forward in time, with twenty-something Theo Decker passing furniture brilliantly faked by Hobie for his own amusement as classic vintage work and selling it for millions. Threatened with exposure unless he surrenders The Goldfinch to a society blackmailer, who should come back into his life but Boris, now a fully fledged Eastern European hood. The stage is set for a finale that is as thrilling as it is philosophically rich.

Throughout The Goldfinch, Tartt is working from a very rich palette indeed. The atrocity at the Met is a prose tour-de-force: 'The ground was tumbled and bucked-up with heaps of a gray substance like moon rock, and blown about with broken glass and gravel and a hurricane of random trash, bricks and slag and papery stuff frosted with a thin ash like first frost.' Her descriptions of Hobie's working methods, of the Barbours' upscale, pinched generosity, of Theo's myriad substance dependencies (she conveys brilliantly the cinematic quality of an acid trip) are equally fine. But crucially, Tartt understands that not every sentence should make you want to stand and applaud, a maxim some literary novelists would do well to remember; pace, proportion and balance are just as important.

Anthony Powell said that with every writer, there's always something you have to put up with; I found Theo's expressions of love for Polly on the swoony teenage girl side, and Tartt's tendency to work a theme to its limit sometimes over-explanatory; the closing pages' meditations on ethics, art and mortality read like the answers to questions already dramatised. But overall these are quibbles.

The Goldfinch has the breadth, scale and ambition of a Victorian novel, but it is in no sense a pastiche or an homage; it is as modern as it is timeless, and enthralling from beginning to end. It is Donna Tartt's masterpiece.

Sunday Independent

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