What do people mean when they call a novel “Dickensian”? A large cast of vividly drawn characters, some of them grotesques with comically descriptive names and odd tics of speech and behavior; a plucky orphan who overcomes a childhood blighted by humiliating poverty or simple lower-class misery; numerous and ingeniously interconnected subplots; panoramic shifts of location; a narrative that makes the reader finish each chapter eager to begin the next. But like “Kafkaesque,” “Dickensian” is only a partial description of the writer’s work. Often missing from so-called Dickensian novels are the aspects of Dickens—his originality, his intelligence, his witty and precise descriptions, the depth and breadth of his powers of observation, his cadenced, graceful language—that can temper the urgency of our impulse to keep reading with the desire to read passages aloud, preferably to another person.
More than a few admiring reviews of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch have described it as Dickensian. Certainly the novel features plenty of colorful eccentrics bouncing in and out of a plot that spans decades and moves from Amsterdam to New York to Las Vegas. The suddenness of its young hero’s plunge into homelessness and panic—his mother is killed in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art—makes the trials of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit seem like gradual, toe-in-the water dips into misfortune. Like Dickens, Tartt employs the sort of foreshadowing that can snag the reader’s attention. (“It was a fantastic night—one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite what happened later.”)
After a brief introductory chapter in which we meet Theo Decker, the twenty-seven-year-old narrator who is too paranoid (or too imperiled) to leave his chilly Amsterdam hotel room, the novel proper begins. Theo recalls how when he was thirteen his volatile alcoholic father had decamped to “start a new life” without bothering to leave a forwarding address. Mother and son have been getting by, dependent on her job at a small advertising agency, “doing our own laundry down in the basement, going to matinees instead of full-price movies, eating day-old baked goods and cheap Chinese carry-out (noodles, egg foo yung),” though thanks to a lucky break more probable in a novel than in Manhattan, they’ve held on to a rent-stabilized apartment in a doorman building on East 57th Street.
It’s not exactly the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, but we understand how bleak Theo’s existence must look in comparison to the lives of his wealthy fellow students at the Upper West Side private school he attends, on scholarship. One of Theo’s classmates has lured him into some bling-ring-style mischief, snooping around empty summer houses in the Hamptons; and Theo and his mother are on their way to find out how much trouble he is in when a sudden rainstorm causes them to take shelter in the museum where the terrorists will soon set off a bomb.
What’s left of Theo’s luck runs out when the explosion turns him into an Upper East Side Oliver Twist, surrounded by bad influences and adults who don’t want him. Like the children whose poverty and powerlessness so haunted Dickens, once a poor and powerless boy himself, Theo is in freefall, and the reader is relieved when his first landing is a soft one. He is invited to stay in the spacious Park Avenue apartment of his nerdy schoolmate, Andy Barbour. Even in his damaged state, Theo brings Andy out of his shell, and Andy’s grateful parents invite him to spend the summer at their house in Maine.
Theo’s future looks almost promising until his shiftless father, accompanied by his ditzy cokehead girlfriend Xandra, arrives to claim him. Torn from his bright dream of sailing off the New England coast, Theo awakens to the darker reality of Las Vegas, and to his house in a ghost-suburb of over-air-conditioned, Spanish or Moorish dwellings built during the real estate bubble, many already in foreclosure and being repo’ed by the desert. The consolation is that Theo’s father has exchanged his alcoholic nastiness for the mellow haze of Vicodin and beer. The bad news is that dad’s become a professional gambler, with debts.
Beyond the edge of the known world as delimited by the distance that the pizza delivery man will travel, Theo embraces the numbness of his new life, a stupor from which he is roused by Las Vegas’s version of the Artful Dodger. A savvy Ukrainian kid who has lived all over the world and speaks several languages, Boris becomes Theo’s best friend and his tutor in some basic survival skills: how to drink, take drugs, and curse in Russian. But when Theo’s father dies in an auto wreck, he is again on the run, hoping to evade the clutches of Child Protective Services.
Almost eight hundred pages long, The Goldfinch has so much plot that one feels free to reveal just a little more. Theo has rescued—or stolen—a painting that was on display at the museum when the bomb went off, and that he found in the rubble. The delicate seventeenth-century portrait of “a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle,” was the work of the artist Fabritius, who, like Theo’s mother, was killed in an explosion—in his case, the gunpowder magazine blast and subsequent fire that leveled Delft in 1654.
It’s fortunate that a reproduction of Fabritius’s masterpiece appears as a frontispiece, since Tartt’s descriptions make the painting difficult to visualize, which in turn limits our ability to understand its power over Theo. “Almost immediately its glow enveloped me, something almost musical, an internal sweetness that was inexplicable beyond a deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness….” Even when the painting is safely hidden behind the headboard of his bed, Theo is comforted by its proximity:
I liked knowing it was there for the depth and solidity it gave things, the reinforcement to infrastructure, an invisible, bedrock rightness that reassured me just as it was reassuring to know that far away, whales swam untroubled in Baltic waters, and monks in arcane time zones chanted ceaselessly for the salvation of the world.
Later, wondering how much the work reflects its creator, Theo thinks, “There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn’t move, time that couldn’t be called time.”
Time that couldn’t be called time. A deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness. An invisible, bedrock rightness. Arcane time zones. The novel contains many such passages: bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase, metaphors and similes that falter beneath the strain of trying to convince the reader of a likeness between two entirely unrelated things. Unable to enjoy or appreciate his early-college program, Theo reflects:
It was as if I’d suffered a chemical change of the spirit: as if the acid balance of my psyche had shifted and leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair, or reverse, like a frond of living coral hardened to bone.
On finding the antiques shop to which destiny has brought him, Theo feels “a strange thrill, as of unseen cards falling into place.” The thrill of unseen cards falling into place sounds less like any known emotion (or thrill) than like a pop version of a Zen koan.
Throughout The Gold- finch are sections that seem like the sort of passages a novelist employs as placeholders, hastily sketched-in paragraphs to which the writer intends to go back: to sharpen the focus, to find a telling detail, to actually do the hard work of writing. If we readily grasp a scene that Tartt is setting, it’s often because her streetscapes and interiors are not merely familiar but generic.
From a cab heading up Park Avenue, Theo looks out on “worried-looking people in raincoats, milling in grim throngs at the cross-walks, people drinking coffee from cardboard cups and talking on cell phones and glancing furtively side to side.” Further down the street, “people streamed around us on the windy corner: schoolgirls in uniform, laughing and running and dodging around us; nannies pushing elaborate prams with babies seated in pairs and threes.” A summary of daily life at the Barbours omits whatever might distinguish their household from those of their neighbors:
Often, in the afternoons, perfume-smelling women with shopping bags dropped by for coffee and tea; in the evenings, couples dressed for dinner congregated over wine and fizzy water in the living room, where the flower arrangements were delivered every week from a swanky Madison Avenue florist and the newest issues of Architectural Digest and the New Yorker were fanned just so on the coffee table.
Strictly speaking, this is not even grammatical: are the women smelling perfume or do they smell of perfume?
Tartt doesn’t bother to fend off clichés. Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is “only the tip of the iceberg.” A dying man “grappled and thrashed—a fish out of water.” After the explosion, the bomb site is “a madhouse.” The shock of seeing the girl Theo loves is “like a dash of cold water.” Mrs. Barbour assigns Theo to share Andy’s room “without beating around the bush.” The choice of adjectives is no better. Within a few pages Theo has a “skull-cracking headache,” “a tooth-crunching headache,” and “a splitting headache.” He finally reports that “my headache was bigger than anything else in the room.”