Having seen the movie, which I think is terribly flawed and underlines by contrast the greatness of the book, and having reflected on the book from the perspective of what is now nearly six months, I am more and more convinced that this is a great book.
It is a classic Hero's Journey story (see below) and it is a battle between the forces of life, represented by Boris, and the forces of death, Freud's destrudo, represented by the narrator-protagonist, Theo.
I have only recently finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book about a disaffected boy at college and the terrible secret he becomes involved with and the guilt and death it brings. Except that the disaffected boy starts younger and ends older, a man, in The Goldfinch, it has all the same elements.
It starts with a bang. Tartt started The Secret History with a Prologue that described a murder in which the narrator was involved; this provided a compelling hook. The hook in her The Little Friend is the death by hanging of an eight year old boy. She does much the same in this book; in the first part of the first chapter the narrator is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel and it becomes instantly clear that he has been involved in a crime. In the fourth part of the first chapter the narrator, Theodore Decker, visits a New York art gallery with his mother only to become the victims of a terrorist bomb.
His mother dies; he is physically unscathed. In the rubble an old man gives him a ring and urges him to save a painting from possible flames; concussed and dazed he somehow escapes from the building unnoticed by rescue workers with ring and painting. The ring he returns to a charming furniture restorer in Greenwich Village but he hides and keeps the painting (The Goldfinch, truly a key painting in the history of art being painted by Fabritius who is supposed to have been the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer thus providing the link between these two masters) until he realises that it is too late to return it; other paintings stolen during the bomb attack have brought their thieves long prison sentences and whopping fines. So through the remainder of his childhood and into his early manhood he is pursued by guilt over the death of his mother, PTSD from the bombing, and fear of being discovered as a thief.
Soon he is shipped out to Las Vegas to live with his gambler father and father's bar hostess girlfriend; with new friend Boris, son of a mining engineer, he has a perfectly feral adolescence, drinking heavily and smoking weed, stealing food from supermarkets, and, sometimes, going to school. Boris, the fast-talking Ukranian who has already lived a full lifetime including living on the streets in the Ukraine (one wonders about what his father was doing at that time) is the most brilliant character and the book is most fun when Boris is around.
The Goldfinch has been criticised for having stereotypical characters: the gangsters from Eastern Europe, the unstable gambler/ ex-actor, the bullied geek, the dodgy antique dealer, the kindly old furniture restorer, the whole cast of posh old ladies and bright young things that make up New York's upper class. Yes, these are stereotypes but I certainly came to believe in Boris and Hobie and Theo. There are flesh on these bones.
Magical realism? Or just magic?
I believed for a while that there was some sort of supernatural theme. When the mother goes into the museum she describes the neighbourhood as a time warp (later in the book Theo describes a time warp as “a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.”; 6.iv) and after the explosion the old man talks some nonsense which seems to refer to the painting's previous escape from a warehouse fire. Disaster seems to follow the Goldfinch; Theodore certainly experiences an unusual amount of death.
The Life Force versus the Death force: Boris and Theo
One might see The Secret History as contrasting an Apollonian and a Dionysian perspective. In the same way I think that The Goldfinch contrasts Life and Death. Theo sees life from the gloomiest of perspectives: “It was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dog walkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.” (9.v) Perhaps his gloom is unsurprising given how many people close to Theo die. On the other hand Boris is the personification of vitality. He is a Jack Kerouac character, full of life and enthusiasm, utterly without fear or (conventional) morality. He brought the book alive.
And I loved the moments when the prose became mesmerisingly intense, as when Theodore has a vision of New Yorkers as dead men walking.
- “The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn't he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital ...It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.” (9.v)
I suppose that Theo, the narrator, the protagonist, the central character, has seen in the painting of the Goldfinch something of himself. About half way through he reflects on the painting:
- “The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” (6.iv)
This, I suppose, is the message: that Theo is, as we all are, chained to his perch; that this is "a cruel life for a little living creature". At the end Theo reflects: “In this staunch little portrait, it's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.” (12.vii)
As a consequence, Theo has what Boris calls a "mist of sadness, sort of, around your head" (6.xiii) (and isn't it clever how the 'sort of' turns what might otherwise be a potentially pretentious authorial interjection into a line of dialogue). Of course Theodore means 'gift from god' but, as Boris says: “God has tortured Theo plenty. If suffering makes noble, then he is a prince.” (10.vii)
Boris is perhaps the very opposite of Theo. Whereas Theo is all gloom and nihilism, Boris is Life. Theo worries. Boris doesn't. “With Boris, the future had never appeared to enter his head any further than his next meal ... And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full of great, ridiculous possibilities.” (8.ii)
And in the end Theo asks why we should assume that everyone will want to do the good, the sensible things? “Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer ... ‘Follow your heart.’ ... 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? ... If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? ... Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing in the holy rage calling your name?” (12.vii)
Other great lines:
- “They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters - ripeness sliding into rot.” (1.iv)
- “Part of her was there, but it was invisible. The invisible part was the important part. This was something I had never understood before. ... Both parts had to be together. You couldn't have one part without the other.” (1.v)
- “Her voice ... was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she were relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.” (3.iii)
- “His conversation sometimes made me feel as though I was talking to one of those computer programs that mimic human response.” (4.ix)
- “Many of my classmates disliked Thoreau, railed against him even, as if he (who claimed never to have learned anything of value from an old person) was an enemy and not a friend.” (5.x)
- “None of us ever find enough kindness in the world do we?” (5.xxv)
- “You could study the connections for years and never work it out - it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp ... the strange chance that might, or might not, change everything.” (6.iv)
- “The money’s not important. ... All money represents is the energy of the thing, you know? It’s how you track it. The flow of chance.” (6.iv)
- “This was how you went wrong: this fast.” (6.xix)
- “The secret is, is always fix their attention away from where the slippery stuff’s going on. That's the first law of magic ... Misdirection. Never forget it.” (6.xx)
- “My endless cramming felt a lot more like self-destruction than any glue sniffing I'd ever done; and at some bleary point, the work itself became a kind of drug.” (7.vii)
- “As I moved about through the stagnant silences, the pools of shadow and deep sun, the old floors creaked underfoot like the deck of a ship, the wash of traffic out on Sixth Avenue breaking just audibly against the ear.” (7.vii)
- “Depression wasn't the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavour from the dawn of time.” (9.xi)
- “A more practical or less scrupulous man would have worked this skill to calculated ends and made a fortune with it ... fucked it harder than a five-grand prostitute.” (9.v)
- “Sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.” (10.iii)
- “First question ... does God have sense of humour? Second question: does God have cruel sense of humour? Such as: does God toy with us and torture us for His own amusement, like vicious child with garden insect?” (10.vii)
- “The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that has held the whole cathedral up.” (10. x)
- “Great technical skill, but overly refined. Obsessive exactitude. There's a death-like quality.” (10.xvi)
- “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it.” (10.xxiii)
- “I had the queasy sense of my own life ... as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.” (11.x)
- “Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly ‘worry’ was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person. ... People had been raging and weeping and destroying things for centuries and wailing about their puny individual lives, when - what was the point? All this useless sorrow? Consider the lilies of the field. Why did anyone ever worry about anything? Weren’t we, as sentient beings, put upon the earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us us?” (11.xvi)
- “The world is much stranger than we know or can say ... Maybe this is the one instance where you can't boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ ... Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple.” (12.v)
- “If bad can sometimes come from good actions ... where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes - the wrong way is the right way? yYou can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?” (12.v)
- “The reason why why anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway.Pss you yout, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” (12.vii)
- “Who was it said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous?” (12.vii)
- “Why am I made the way that I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? ... How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet - for me, anyway - all that's worth living for lies in that charm?” (12.vii)
- “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 it's dignity: symbol 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.” (12.vii)
- “No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe.” (12.vii)
- “Better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal ... no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.” (12.vii)
- “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 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.” (last words)
Does this book conform to the Hero's Journey arc? (Spoiler alert)
The Goldfinch closely follows the 'Hero's Journey' story arc. The quotes describing stages in the arc are taken from Write Away by Elizabeth George.
Having said this, I found the pace of the book uneven. One of the difficulties of the structure is that Boris, the helper in the magic desert world of Las Vegas, has to come to help Theo in New York and this helping has to be at a very grown-up level; therefore time has to pass while Boris gers older. This accounts for the eight year gap in the narrative but the need to reestablish an older Theo (with adult problems for Boris to come and solve) needs to take time and at this point the pace, for me, began to flag. But I understand the need for Tartt to have created the structure as she did.
In the end it is the prose and the character of Boris that, for me, transcend any other problems about the book and nudge into the premiership of greatness.
I have belatedly (February 2020) seen the movie of the book. Ouch. The movie takes the Hero's Journey and scrambles it, using multiple flashbacks, rendering the story almost incomprehensible (I was repeatedly explaining things to my partner who hadn't read the book).
I think my sense of disappointment was exacerbated by having seen the film 1917 a few days before. 1917 is another Hero's Journey and it follows the sequence of stages almost one by one: the Call, the Refusal of the Call etc. As a result it delivers a powerful story.
The book (after the brief prologue) starts with a bang: the explosion in the gallery. The movie leaves this until much later in the film. WHY?
The experience of seeing the movie underlines for me the greatness of the book. A Hero's Journey complete with a little bit of other-world set in uncompromising New York (and the quasi magical realm of Las Vegas); a contrast between libido and destrudo, life and death; a fast-paced story which opens with a bang. What's not to like?
September 2019; 772 pages