Donna Tartt's New Anti-Epic

By Greg CwikOctober 30, 2013

Donna Tartt's New Anti-Epic

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD that Donna Tartt writes at a less-than herculean pace: it took her eight years to write The Secret History, 10 for The Little Friend, and 11 for the vehemently-hyped The Goldfinch. Each novel is around one hundred pages longer than its predecessor, considerably vaster in scope, but more firmly rooted in a specific place and time. Some have complained that she writes too slowly, that 10 years is too long to wait for another novel (Dwight Garner wrote a particularly silly piece on slow writers, specifically name-checking Tartt, Franzen, and Eugenides, for the New York Times two years ago). But it may take an Argus-eyed reader 10 years to fully comprehend Tartt’s intricate, densely-layered works; to understand the myriad references to Greek tragedies and the Aristotelian allusions and the florid hijinks. The first time you read Donna Tartt, you appreciate her prose for its overt beauty, for her meandering but controlled verbosity. By the second or third time, you’re trying to ascertain why it’s so important a character drinks Rolling Rock instead of scotch.

Tartt became a bona fide literary star in 1992 when The Secret History, her grandly ambitious debut, sold a massive first edition run of 75,000 copies. As with her youthful contemporaries Michael Chabon and former Bennington classmate Bret Easton Ellis, Tartt was a product of the embryonic generation of workshop-engendered writers — a new breed of literary superstars, ubiquitous and beautiful, their names adorning newspapers and magazines and their novels scaling the pantheon New York Times bestseller list. The Secret History eventually sold over a million copies, and was translated into 28 languages. Tartt, along with Chabon, Ellis, and Jay McInerney, was deemed a literary prodigy — re-animator of the big philosophical novel, a gender norm–defying heir to Homer, and not yet 30 years old.

The Secret History depicts the knavery, ecstasy, and agony of a small, exclusive galère of classics students at a liberal arts school in Vermont. These are erudite students with lofty aspirations, whose collective thirst for edification is seemingly insatiable, and inevitably leads them to evil. Within the first 20 words of the novel we learn that they’ve killed their friend (“friend”), and we realize we’re reading not a whodunit but a whydunnit — what A.O. Scott calls “a murder mystery in reverse.” Our sapient narrator, Richard, is a middle-class nobody from California who flees his turgid home life and ends up at Hampden College (a translucent stand-in for Bennington). Against the advice of his advisor, Richard decides to major in classics. The other five students in the program are brilliant — well, four of the five are brilliant; one is simply rich and bored — and have developed a familial relationship with the only professor in the department, a wise and wizened old man whose affability and good nature (antipodal of his views regarding humanity’s inherent state) blind him to his students’ iniquitous hobbies. Richard assimilates into the group fairly quickly, consuming copious drugs and drinking himself silly and drunkenly reciting poems in Latin, and it is through Richard that we become privy to the sinister secrets of a liberal arts education.

Richard is kind of a banal narrator, devoid of passion, and apparently lacking any hobbies except for drugs and drink. He is, in a way, a prototypical freshmen student — a blank canvas upon whom his professors and peers can paint. He speaks articulately but offers surprisingly few opinions. His recollections are sepia-tinged and occasionally permeated by rearview mirror wisdom, not unlike Daniel Stern’s voiceover work on The Wonder Years. Anyone who’s spent even a semester at a small liberal arts school, cut off from civilization and feeling isolated in a static pastoral scene more replete with trees and squirrels than humans, can appreciate Tartt’s details:

It was a part of town I had never seen, and worlds away from the part I knew — maples trees and clapboard storefronts, village green and courthouse clock. This Hampden was a bombed-out expanse of water towers, rusted railroad tracks, sagging warehouses and factories with the doors boarded up and the windows broken out.

At the time, Tartt’s novel seemed a revelatory effort that channeled Barrie, Eliot, Dick, and Waugh. Tartt’s logorrheic prose is a far cry from the Carver-lite asceticism favored by her contemporaries Ellis and McInerney; her style is lush with verbiage, but rarely veers into pleonasm. Her sly slipstream sentences percolate with tragedy. She’s told interviewers that she will fuss over a single paragraph for days, for weeks, perhaps debating the placement of a comma, as Oscar Wilde once mused.

The Secret History is a surprisingly swift read for a 500-page treatise on bacchanals and rich liberal arts students/ Tartt’s fervent fans clamored for more; but Tartt rarely gives interviews (although she did record an audio book for True Grit). In her most revealing interview, a 1992 conversation with Bomb Magazine, Tartt said she had 80–100 notebook pages filled with notes on her next novel. Years passed, rumors of mental breakdowns and writer's block swelled and died, someone claimed she bought an island off Tahiti, and her book mutated into the accursed long-awaited novel. Ten years after her Bomb interview, The Guardian wrote a profile, describing her as enigmatic, consciously aloof, and purposefully projecting the mysterious persona conjured by fans and critics. 

And then, rather abruptly, it appeared, like a match struck in a darkened room: The Little Friend, another tragedy bound in another beautiful Chip Kidd cover. Fans could rejoice — should have rejoiced, but, of course, the first (and sometimes only) thing most readers asked was, "Is it as good as The Secret History?"

It seemed impossible to discuss the novel without also discussing The Secret History. It soon became obvious that Tartt's debut will always be the yardstick against which all of her subsequent works will be measured. And not without reason: her novels are all kindred, the same thematic and aesthetic material revisited, reformatted, updated and matured, like Philip Roth, or Homer, approaching the same unanswerable questions from different angles.

The Little Friend delves back into murder and treachery, again exploring innocence as a lens through which we see the cruelty people possess. Tartt's characters are enigmas bound in flesh, trying to scour their souls. But gone is the first-person narrator; instead we’re given a roaming, penetrative, omnipresent third person. Tartt still possesses a penchant for foreshadowing, but now our hero knows as little as we do. In the novel’s gorgeous prologue, a family in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi is having a Mother’s Day party. Young children run around and adults mingle and chitchat while someone, insidious and unseen, watches. We meet five-year-old Robin, flame-haired and tenacious, and his rancorous grandmother, Edie, who loves Robin and seems to simply tolerate everyone else. Here, Edie snaps the last photo anyone would ever take of Robin:

Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him — almost visible — in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.

The next time anyone sees Robin he’s dangling from the tree, his copper-red hair “the only thing about him that was the right color anymore.”

Twelve years later, Robin’s sister Harriet, only a baby when Robin died, tries to unravel the mystery. Who killed Robin? No one wants to know, but she persists, and her curiosity unveils the awful things humans are capable of. Her detective work abrades her innocence. Harriet is colorful in all the ways Richard is bland: eccentric, a voracious reader, dismissive of Dark Shadows, and possessing a progressive mind decades beyond her age, stubborn and aggressive, a leader at 12 years old. She explores the sun-scorched plains and the social stagnation of Alexandria, Mississippi, a backwards, backwoods town where racial tensions percolate, and Sunday school teachers squeeze their meth-peddling tenants for a little extra cash; where redneck drug dealers, a far cry from the Walter Whites of the world, collect poisonous snakes and fire guns at black people, for fun, the way kids skip stones.

It's more traditional in its linear progression, but it still eschews obligatory red herrings and manipulative misdirects. Tartt always plays fair. There are no unreliable narrators or metaphysical twists or Tyler Durdens. As with The Secret History, Tartt opens the novel with death and then works her way backward, filling in gaps and prodding us with clues. The reader always knows more than Harriet. It’s an old Hitchcockian notion, the knowledge of the bomb being scarier than the actual boom.

And like The Secret HistoryThe Little Friend focuses on the effects of death. We want to know why Robin was killed, but we spend more time witnessing the ripples cast by his murder, the slow unraveling of his family, and the cruel secrets of Alexandria. Death isn’t an end; it has consequences, and those most severely affected tend to be the young. The epigraph to The Secret History’s epilogue, a quote from John Ford’s The Broken Heart, could be the mantra for Tartt’s career:

Alas, poor gentlemen,
He look’d not like the ruins of his youth
But like the ruins of those ruins.

In a way, Tartt’s characters never get to leave adolescence. Like Tartt, they keep revisiting their pasts, but theirs is a cryptic, self-destructive nostalgia — memories etched in acid. Their pasts cling to them like barnacles, dragging them down, holding them back. They are ruined.

The Goldfinch is a sprawling anti-epic, longer and denser than her previous novels, and Tartt's most intimate and mature work to date. It ebbs and flows, following the singular rhythm of an indiscernible metronome, wavering between that classic, poetic Tartt style, and a new, more casual narration. It's accessible and rewarding, and though it wanders like a drunk in a foreign city, Tartt always has control. It's a big hyperbolic novel that spurs hyperbolic reactions.

Our narrator is Theo Decker, a bright 13-year-old who lives with his mother in a small apartment in uptown Manhattan. Before the novel begins, Theo's deadbeat father takes off with their money — and his mom’s favorite earrings — to Las Vegas, where he’s assumedly drinking and gambling his life away. Theo’s first Thanksgiving dinner post-father consists of canned food and soda, but it’s the best Thanksgiving he can remember. He’s friendly with the sassy Latino doormen of his apartment building (his father, in so many words, was not) and his mother calls him ”puppy.“ All in all, Theo’s life, despite the various financial difficulties, is good, and he's finally happy.

Then his mother dies in a bombing at an art museum, and Theo’s life is thrown into chaos.

The 20-page scene of Theo waking up in rubble will more than likely recall those images of New Yorkers caked in white at the World Trade Center. Even though 9/11 isn’t discussed in The Goldfinch, this New York is undoubtedly a post–9/11 New York, paranoid and economically fractured, where getting a passport is an arduous endeavor, and authority figures aren't so heroic (a disoriented Theo, covered in dust and blood, approaches a cop to ask for help, and is instead shoved to the ground by the cop and told to go away).

The first sentence of the novel is vintage Tartt, steeped in corrosive nostalgia, teasing, like a single finger sensuously beckoning: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”

Already, the questions begin to proliferate. Tartt knows how to hook a reader, when to dangle bait, and when to deliver a bite. The novel feels at once familiar and strangely foreign, like a vague recollection of a memory that you can't quite grasp. There are digressions and long, circuitous cogitations on morality and mortality. There are deaths and tragedies and remorse and characters trying to escape haunted pasts. There are allusions to Dickens, Wharton, and Proust, more Homeric afflictions and enigmas entwined with enigmas, deaths, addictions, and, ultimately, a crescendo of epiphanies. The less fortunate and scruffy are again contrasted, and eventually assimilated, with the wealthy and educated, and our main character is again an arts aficionado, well-read and articulate and prone to self-destruction. The novel covers familiar ground and offers little in the way of new thematic material; but The Goldfinch is inexplicably more enlightening than Tartt’s previous novels. The Secret History, as blasphemous as it may sound to fans, feels clunky by comparison, — cocksure — whereas The Goldfinch is subtly confident.

Tartt renders minutiae profound, and the quotidian sublime. Human lives have weight, but no two people have the same value; some people die and it’s devastating, and some die and life seems to get a little better. Tartt has woven a hyperrealistic tale set in a fantastical, socially autonomous world that looks and sounds familiar but feels detached, phantasmal. Tartt gives us post–9/11 New York as metropolitan gothic, and Las Vegas as a neon-drenched purgatory.

Eventually, Theo wakes up alone in the devastated museum among bodies missing limbs, crushed under fallen concrete. He wanders out of the wreckage, all the way back to his apartment, not realizing he has Fabritius’s The Goldfinch under his arm. Even after he sets the painting where his mother can see it when she walks in the door, he remains only vaguely aware of its presence, likening it to “a school project left unfinished."  As the story progresses, the painting takes on a larger-than-life quality, and Theo becomes more and more obsessed, seeing in its wide rough brushstrokes his mother's soul, and a life that could have been.

Tartt takes her time describing Theo’s subsequent depression — self-pity; grandiose fear of death; an almost solipsistic way of looking at the city and how every street corner, every traffic light, reminds him of his mother, of things they’d done and seen and that she’s never coming back — and his inability to cope with the loss. The thought of returning to a normal routine seems “disloyal, wrong…Every new event—everything I did for the rest of my life—would only separate us more and more." The depiction of depression and anxiety is far more vivid and earnest than Richard’s problems in The Secret History. Theo’s post-traumatic stress permeates every page, every conversation, for the next 700 pages; but, eventually, it does get a little annoying, reading Theo turn every conversation and every image into a morbid longing for his mother. He dismisses anyone who tries to help him — social workers, teachers, police, therapists, friends, and parents of friends — in his sorrowful internal monologues. Theo internalizes the bombing so much, the bigger picture is lost on him. He barely tells about the other people killed, or the effects it has on New York (a bombing in New York would have massive consequences for everyone, but Theo treats it like his own personal loss, like he's the only victim).

This is another sign of Tartt's maturing. Annoying or not, this is exactly how it should be: you may have to remind yourself that, despite his vast vocabulary and articulate speech, Theo is only 13, and of course he’s going to be this way. Thirteen-year-olds cry over stolen Pokémon cards and being denied dessert; Theo's mom has been violently ripped from his life, and his reactions feel genuine. More than Richard, more than Harriet, Theo is a flawed and conflicted character; his rear-gazing narration illuminates the self-centeredness that pervades a typical 13-year-old boy. Even during his most self-righteous moments — and they only become more legion as the book goes on, growing more afflictive as Theo becomes an adult — there’s an underlying sense of regret and a longing to understand. By showing us his selfish thoughts, both as a child and as an adult later in the novel, Tartt, by way of Theo, creates a character trying to understand himself, trying to understand the vicissitudes of fate. The deeper into The Goldfinch you get, the more lucid Theo becomes. Casting Theo like a cipher wouldn’t work here; he needs to cry and bleed and hurt and feel bad for himself and hyperbolize his losses, his life, the One Who Got Away, because that’s what any normal person would do. People have inexplicable, illogical crushes, people have a hard time letting go and moving on, people are selfish. Theo’s attempts to rationalize his problems, and his Epicurean internal arguments, ring true in a way than just wouldn’t work for Richard’s more classical tragedy, or Harriet's Southern Gothic.

The supporting cast is vast, but each character is fleshed out — Tartt has given herself a gargantuan length of almost 800 pages to weave subtle character details into ostensibly inconsequential conversations. Tartt spends a lot of time with each character, and each character has long-term effects on Theo. There's Tom Cable, Theo’s best friend, who starts to avoid Theo after the bombing. Theo is, of course, confused and upset and doesn't understand why his friend is avoiding him, but that’s the nature of childhood friendships: they’re ephemeral. And when social services asks him if he has any family or friends with whom he can stay, he tells them about Andy Barbour, a brilliant math nerd with no social graces or personality — a “planet without an atmosphere” — who loves Starbucks and Dungeons & Dragons. He hasn't hung out with Andy in months, but Andy's family welcomes Theo with arms calculatedly open. Andy’s family acts as a foil to Theo’s relationship with his mother: they’re proper and wealthy, but unhappy; Andy’s father is bipolar; his mother gets her hair done every day and spends virtually all of her time having lunch or shopping; and his brother has some sort of behavioral problem, drinking a lot and slamming doors and yelling at everyone.

Later, through some intricate happenstances related to the bombing, Theo meets Hobie, an older man who repairs fine wooden furniture in the Village, and Hobie’s adopted daughter Pippa, who also survived the bombing at the museum, and for whom Theo develops a life-long love.

All of these characters permeate the narrative ethereally, appearing as memories, as fleeting thoughts, as dreams and nightmares, running into Theo on the New York streets and meeting at parties, and the time we spend with them always serves a purpose. No character is filler.

Tartt displays two writing styles in The Goldfinch: the usual poetic style for which she’s known; and a more informal, fluid internal narration. During the more poetic scenes, Tartt writes like Andrei Tarkovsky directs: scenes are long and slow, as if captured with deep static shots, and time squirms by. Tartt gives us every last detail:

When he opened the door, the shades were down, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dark, which was aromatic and perfume-smelling, with an undertone of sickness and medicine.Over the bed hung a framed poster from the movie The Wizard of Oz. A scented candle guttered in a red glass, among trinkets and rosaries, sheet music, tissue paper flowers and old valentines — along with what looked like hundreds of get-well cards strung up on ribbons, and a bunch of silver balloons hovering ominously at the ceiling, metallic strings hanging down long like jellyfish stingers.

But most of The Goldfinch is told in a more casual, digressive, natural voice, replete with irreverent side thoughts, and humorous musings. Theo mocks people in his mind, not least of all himself; he makes little jokes and wry observations, and goes on occasional tangents. There are two main ways in which Tartt has most obviously altered her established aesthetic. First: it’s her most modern book: everyone has an iPhone, characters reference Blade Runner, and Harry Potter plays a crucial role. Whereas the cultural references in The Secret History are almost exclusively classic literature and Greek tragedies, The Goldfinch is sated with modern pop culture as well as the classics — The Idiot, James Bond, Aristotle, Carole Lombard, and Nabokov and Heidegger and Fred Astaire. And, as one might ascertain — given the title and cover art — the fine arts are well-represented, from Rembrandt to Vermeer to Caravaggio, as are furniture artistes like Affleck and Chippendale and Hepplewhite, and musicians from Radiohead to Glenn Gould. Reading The Goldfinch is a brief lesson in art history, as well as a long discourse on the proverbial human condition. (That may sound pretentious, but Tartt rarely veers into pretension.) It’s kind of weird to see mixed CDs and iPhones mentioned in the same paragraph (how fast technology ages), and Facebook is almost entirely absent, as Theo briefly mentions that he avoids social media out of paranoia, probably because Facebook didn’t exist when Tartt started the novel. But this is by and large a modern New York.

Second: Tartt’s dialog feels, for the first time, authentic. Once fairly stiff but completely apt for a rarefied group of classics student, the conversations now flow naturally, and each character has unique speaking patterns and habits, particularly characters with accents of varying thickness. In Las Vegas, Theo meets Boris, a Russian boy and amateur philosopher. Boris, quite simply, is the most singularly fun character Tartt has created. He’s done more drugs by the age of 15 than Pete Doherty, “[drinks] beer the way other kids drink Pepsi” and calls Theo “Potter” (as in Harry) because all white kids with glasses look like Harry Potter to him, the way all candy bars are Nestle bars. A typical conversation between a typically stoned Theo and Boris may go:

“Let’s watch weathers,” said Boris, wading on his knees across the living room. “Want to see the weathers in New Guinea.”
“You’ll have to find it, I don’t know what channel.”
“Dubai!” exclaimed Boris, collapsing forward on all fours — and then, a mushy flow of Russian in which I caught a swear or two.
Angliyski! Speak English!”
“Is snowing there?” Shaking my shoulder. “Man says is snowing, crazy man, ty vyezzháesh?! Snowing in Dubai, a miracle, Potter! Look!”
“That’s Dublin, you ass. Not Dubai.”
Vali otsjuda! Fuck off!”
Then I must have blacked out.

Like Richard and his friends, Theo and Boris are perpetually some kind of inebriated, whether they’re doing bumps of coke, or stealing vodka, or chain-smoking joints while watching Dr. No. But unlike Richard and his friends, whose drug usage becomes frequent and casual to the point of triviality, Theo and Boris become full-fledged addicts by adulthood. Theo becomes more self-centered, more resentful, more stubborn and withdrawn the older he gets. Boris, self-aware and completely honest, admits his addictions: if anything will kill me, he says, it’ll be alcohol and drugs. Theo, on the other hand, spends a good amount of time telling us how he can totally function on drugs, and he can stop whenever he wants.

You could consider The Goldfinch to be the more overt spiritual successor to The Secret History that fans wanted The Little Friend to be. Both novels are permeated by the same mordant ghosts, the same unfulfilled longings. In certain sections, particularly in the final couple hundred pages, Theo even feels like a grown-up Richard, removed from academia and thrown into the real world, where coke binges have real-world corollaries. Tartt keeps revisiting the same notions and ideas, trying them out in new settings, at new ages; like Richard and Theo, she will never be able to escape the shadow of her past. The Secret History will always be the novel people associate with Donna Tartt. Like Richard, like Theo, she’s infatuated with the classical mind and the innate nature of tragedy:

For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.


Greg Cwik is a writer, critic, and journalist based in New York.

LARB Contributor

Greg Cwik has written for Reverse Shot, Mubi Notebook, Slant, The Brooklyn Rail, Vulture, and elsewhere.


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