This novel is a real challenge. It is not for the faint-hearted, depicting as it does, the dysfunctional youth culture which gave us tragedies as far apart as that of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the invasion of rural Ireland by the silly, but for some, self-destructive fad of “neknomination” – and all the aberrations of the post-modern adult world in which they have their roots.
Hoffman, a 46-year-old actor, was found dead in his New York apartment after injecting himself with a dose of Ace of Spades, a lethal mix of heroin and a powerful anti-cancer drug which has already claimed dozens of lives. There has been a huge rise in heroin use in the United States, and particularly the boosted materials like Ace of Spades – used by the young, the affluent and the middle class.
On the other side of the Atlantic two Irish lives were sacrificed on the altar of youth hedonism in the latest instance of the ‘neknomination’ game. The craze originally began in Australia and involves social media users ‘downing’ a drink – which are sometimes lethal cocktails – on camera, before nominating a friend to do the same.
But despite its depiction of this disturbing contemporary American underworld this is a superb novel. If its author tells us that the reason it took 11 years to write is that this is what it takes her to do justice to what she wants to write, then we will take her at her word.
Our regret is that it probably means that we will only get two or three more novels of this quality in her writer’s lifetime. She began her first novel, The Secret History, at 19 years of age and finished it about ten years later in 1992. The next, The Little Friend, appeared in 2002. Both of these have been translated into over thirty languages. They are both great books but neither of them rises to the level of transcendence of The Goldfinch.
This novel is above all else – and it is many things – an eschatological discourse. The basic plot has been well-flagged in reviews: a 13-year-old boy from a broken home is effectively orphaned when he and his mother are victims of a terrorist’s bomb in a New York art museum; she dies, he is traumatised; he staggers from the wreckage but takes with him, prompted by an encounter with a dying man, a small painting of the eponymous goldfinch. It is the work of a Dutch master, Carel Fabritius (1622-54) who also died in an explosion shortly after painting it.
The existence of this painting and Theo’s possession of it, his possessiveness about it, pervade the novel from beginning to end, in one way or another – both as a source of inspiration and as a curse. The beauty of the object, its history and the tragic life of its creator haunt him. But his obsession about it and mysterious attachment to it also corrupt him in a way which makes him vulnerable and ultimately slide into a drug-fuelled world where deceit, disloyalty, betrayal and degradation are standard behaviour.
This story, unfolding over 700-plus pages, is at times infuriating, as Theo moves from boyhood to young manhood, blundering from one catastrophe to another, mostly self-inflicted. In the end, however, without spoiling (I hope) the denouement, a wisdom descends and Theo’s reflection on his life, its meaning and mystery, rescue him – and us – from the pit of despair towards which for most of the narrative we seemed to be heading. There is a great deal of misery in this novel – but is not of the ‘mis-lit’ genre. He tells us towards the end:
“I’ve had time to think about (such as what’s worth living for? what’s worth dying for? what’s completely foolish to pursue?) I’ve been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that strike the heart and set it blooming like a flower, images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend you whole life looking for and never find”.
This realisation comes after what Theo calls his “big shift”. This shift is the one “Between wanting and not wanting, caring and not caring.” He is describing essentially the radical difference between the poverty of possessiveness and attachment and the poverty of detatachment, in a word, freedom. After the shift, he tells us, “Things are stronger and brighter and I feel the edge of something inexpressible… Even my sadness can make me happy”.
In this free-spirit mode Theo, speaking of his purgatorial transit through hotels and air terminals around the world, says: “But even those soul-free, sealed-off places are drenched with meaning, spangled and thundering with it.”
He again recalls the words of Hobie, his only true friend and kind of guardian angel, Catholic and practically the only really good person in the entire novel. Hobie pointed out to him once how “beauty alters the grain of reality”. This leads Theo to reflect on what he calls “the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.”
Theo’s struggle with the problem of suffering, the meaning of life and existence, and his emergence from a black and apparently nihilistic despair brings him to a vision which can only be compared with that of St Teresa of Avila or St John of the Cross. This occurs after he has failed in an attempt to persuade his childhood companion and friend to leave the self-destructive path of drugs and alcohol on which he is travelling. He reflects on what he calls
“A great sorrow and one I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.
“Because – isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture – ? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: ‘Be yourself.’ ‘Follow your heart.’
“Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted -? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?”
Tartt doesn’t preach but implicit in this is a sharper critique of western cultural degeneration than you are likely to find anywhere else in modern fiction. Theo is asking questions which secular America and the wider Western world refuse to ask. Dennis Prager, an American Jew, in a recent radio discussion about “Faith and Freedom in the Public Square,” with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, said that rather than asking what is right, young people today ask themselves “how do I feel about it? We live in the age of feelings. There was an age of reason, there was a renaissance. This is the age of feelings. ‘How do you feel about it?’ It is everything.”
Theo and his friends lived this to the limit. In the end he comes to a point – well, suffice to say that the colour of the life he has lived and his passage through this world comes to be seen by him as not just St. Teresa’s “bad night in a bad inn”, but a very, very bad night in a very, very bad inn. His final epiphany is described as follows:
“Some time in October, right around Day of the Dead actually, I stayed in a Mexican seaside hotel where the halls flowed with blown curtains and all the rooms were named after flowers. The Azalea Room, the Camellia Room, the Oleander Room. Opulence and splendour, breezy corridors that swept into something like eternity and each room with its different coloured door. Peony, Wisteria, Rose, Passion Flower. And who knows-but maybe that’s what’s waiting for us at the end of the journey, a majesty unimaginable until the very moment we find ourselves walking through the doors of it, what we find ourselves gazing at in astonishment when God finally takes His hands off our eyes and says: Look!”
Finally he concludes,
“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. But the painting has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time-so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
The painting, to which crowds are currently flocking in the Frick Museum where it is on exhibition, is I think a metaphor for Truth in the novel. Theo’s love for it, purified from that corrupting possessiveness which he did not understand and which afflicted him throughout the narrative, now liberates him. It is a figure of nothing less than that mysterious and ineffable bond which unites all those who abandon themselves joyfully to the mystery of the Truth and Love which govern our very existence, even if we do not know it.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer based in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.