After Great Expectations

Mauritshuis, The Hague/Scala/Art Resource
Carel Fabritius: The Goldfinch, 1654

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 Goldfinch 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.”

Not only lengthy but dense, The Goldfinch takes quite a long time to read, and for the weeks during which I carried it around, on the subway, in various waiting rooms, on trains and planes, I ran into a surprising number of people who were reading it—and enjoying it immensely. Their enthusiasm echoed that of many thoughtful critics, and of friends whose opinions I respect. I kept hearing that The Goldfinch—which has risen to the top, or near the top, of the New York Times best-seller list—was the kind of book that readers look forward to returning to at the end of the day.

Couldn’t I just relax and let the story sweep me along? Was I the only reader who, a few pages into the novel, was stopped cold by a sentence describing how people react to Theo’s half-Irish, half-Cherokee mother? “In the slant of her cheekbones there was such an eccentric mixture of the tribal and the Celtic Twilight that sometimes people guessed she was Icelandic.” Could I really have been the only one thinking, “Sometimes? Just how many people guessed she was Icelandic?”

Such things don’t happen in Dickens. He can spin out a long sentence or a paragraph, load it with similes and metaphors, and tie on strings of subordinate clauses without making us wonder what he means or why something sounds so wrong. And when he makes “mistakes”—dropping plot threads, leaving questions unanswered—we hardly notice or mind, because his work has already given us so much pleasure.

Below is a passage from one of his novels, which I’m including to remind those who may have forgotten what “Dickensian” actually suggests—the well-known description of Miss Havisham’s room from Great Expectations:

Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber; or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and was dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse, out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not complaining because a modern novelist doesn’t sound like a Victorian one, or because she doesn’t write as well as Dickens. It is just as telling to compare a few sentences from Tartt’s book with a passage from a contemporary novel, Bad News, by Edward St. Aubyn, whose subject matter is broadly similar to Tartt’s: a boy who has suffered a terrible trauma grows up and, after some disastrous mistakes, manages to escape the prison of his past (the bombing in The Goldfinch, sexual abuse in St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels).

Both Theo Decker and Patrick Melrose go through periods of heavy drug use in New York City. Reading Theo’s inventory of his substances of choice is a bit like paging through a doctor’s prescription pad:

Oyxs, roxys, morphine and Dilaudid when I could get it, I’d been buying them off the street for years; for the past months, I’d been keeping myself (for the most part) to a one-day-on one-day-off schedule…but even though it was officially an “off” day I was feeling increasingly grim….

Soon after, Theo discusses the good and bad effects of pharmaceuticals:

It was a myth you couldn’t function on opiates: shooting up was one thing but for someone like me—jumping at pigeons beating from the sidewalk, afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder practically to the point of spasticity and cerebral palsy—pills were the key to being not only competent, but high-functioning.

The literal-minded may be puzzled: At what point does PTSD cross over into cerebral palsy?

When Patrick Melrose thinks about narcotics, the passage is as crammed with metaphor as any in Tartt’s novel, but is considerably more lucid:

Heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster’s wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.
The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time.

I’ve cited these contrasting passages to explain why I found it difficult to respond when strangers assumed I was “loving” Tartt’s novel as much as they were, and to make clear why my curiosity about Theo’s future was so often diminished by the limitations of his sensibility and by the careless and pedestrian language with which he responds to the world around him.

Reading The Goldfinch, I found myself wondering, “Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?”—a question I would have been less likely to ask were I reading a detective novel. But The Goldfinch is being talked about, and read, as a work of serious literary fiction. It ends with what may be the longest sermon in literature since Father Mapple ascended to the pulpit in Moby-Dick. As if Tartt is hoping to make sure that we understand what all this means, what these hundreds of pages have amounted to, Theo ruminates at some length on the significance of his experience, a foray into metaphysics that suffers from the same murkiness, the same false emotion, the same inexactitude of language and thought that have characterized the novel:

And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loveliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.
Because—what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.

Such fantasy about a painted bird seems merely sentimental. But when we look at Fabritius’s painting (now visiting the Frick Collection, as it happens), we still understand a truth about visual art that we seem to be forgetting about literature and the language in which it is written: what moves and delights us, what makes us return, again and again, to discover what a work of art can tell us, is finally not the image, but the artfulness with which it was created. Theo’s mother says something similar about Fabritius’s work—“I started off loving the bird, the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted”—only a few pages before she is blown out of the novel.