Donna Tartt’s first novel in ten years begins with thirteen year old Theo Decker and his mother rushing in to the Metropolitan Museum to escape a violent rainstorm and finding themselves abruptly set down before an exhibition entitled Portraiture and Nature Morte: Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age. No sooner have they submitted to the rapture of another world held and caught fascinated in oils and canvas than a terrorist bomb rips through the building killing Theo’s mother. Theo, escaping serious injury and stumbling through a white fog of plaster dust, comes across a critically-injured old man (Welty) he had earlier noticed in the company of a girl of his own age. From this point on, Tartt launches into a kind of set-piece describing with an almost forensic intimacy not only Theo’s inability to immediately process this new world of the dead and dying but also what we might call a visceral telepathy through which the distance between Theo and Welty collapses into the most basic relation: a kind of synchronicity measured out in conjoined breaths, heartbeats, the last few mutterings at the end of life:
I saw the creature he really was and he, I believe, saw me. For an instant we were wired together and humming, like two engines on the same circuit.
In the hands of a lesser writer you would nearly be tempted to accuse of the text of a voyeurism verging on the profane so far does Tartt go in terms of demonstrating how death arrives and how the body physically confronts it – which is to say grapples with itself. All efforts to resist, to hold fast, to force the tide of thinking to swing back in again and ‘stick’ to the present moment are shackled to a dying animal. Before he dies Welty forces upon Theo his signet ring and also tells him to take a small painting (the titular Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius) knocked out of its frame by the force of the explosion. Little does he know it at the time, but the painting will come to represent a hinge or pivot point that bifurcates Theo’s sense of the present insofar as everything to come is experienced as second-hand because the supervening reality of his mother, living and breathing and shaking the rain out of her hair on that fateful morning in the Met, renders everything and everyone else senseless.
The explosion also functions as a trigger that allows Tartt to hold open a window into the almost imperceptible ‘turn’ in the life of every youth just before the madness and mystery of coming-to-be are foreclosed upon and the journey to adulthood is complete. Tartt has always been at odds with the idea that ‘growing up’ is a process in which all the traits and elements of an individual’s personality cohere into a unified and resilient character – rather the opposite is the case: “what ‘growing up’ entailed was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character” (The Little Friend), a resignation that merely wants to get through while retaining not even a half-memory of the exhilarating strangeness of youth’s first full flaring up into being.
With his wayward father long since departed, Theo finds himself effectively orphaned and is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family (the Barbours) one of whose sons, Andy, Theo had been friendly with at school. Despite wandering shell-shocked through his new environment, Theo cannot help but find himself drawn to the unspoken edicts of an old-world etiquette along the lines of which Mrs. Barbour organizes her household. The fact that the Barbours’ home is also a repository for precious pieces of early American furniture that have been handed down the generations awakens in Theo a gut-level affinity for the story – one might even say rhetoric – trapped in the grain of the wood and the craftsmanship with which it is manipulated, however baroque it may appear to the modern eye.
Compelled to return the old man’s ring, Theo seeks out James Hobart (Hobie), a Greenwich Village furniture dealer and restorer and Welty’s erstwhile business partner. Theo is fascinated by Hobie, a veritable artisan without a guild washed ashore in the modern era, and is just starting to feel at home again when his father makes an appearance with his coke-peddling girlfriend Xandra and relocates him to Las Vegas.
Tartt now performs a terrific shift in register from the reserved, almost Victorian, confines of the Barbours’ and the cluttered murk of Hobie’s antique store filled with furniture and heirlooms to the sunlight-saturated expanse of desert surrounding Las Vegas. Theo finds himself residing at an ‘upscale’ suburban development practically right on the border between concrete and desert. You can almost smell the sand-and-tar infused heat radiating back out of the newly-laid asphalt and feel the acid vermilions and crimsons of desert sunsets race across your retinas so precisely does Tartt calibrate her language to convey a deferred, if not downright alien, sense of place.
It is here that Theo first encounters Boris, a world-traveled Ukrainian teenager whose obdurate otherness, insouciance and fun-loving cynicism he finds irresistible. So begins an acid, ecstasy and cocaine-propelled blitz though the next few years in the course of which Theo and Boris become adept shoplifters and dysfunctional alcoholics, make a habit of getting high al fresco and not infrequently walk right to the edge of an almost manic delirium. As Theo notes, looking back:
There had been nights in the desert where I was so sick with laughter, convulsed and doubled over with aching stomach for hours on end, I would happily have thrown myself in front of a car to make it stop.
For Theo and Boris, sleep is an afterthought and meals consist of a chocolate bar or slice of pizza yet each is sustained and enabled by the other, conjoined in a secret society of two. And yet the little painting, hidden away in Theo’s bedroom, foreshortens the distance between Theo’s ‘now,’ this very moment under the desert sun’s “oceanic endless glare,” and the first time he stood before Fabritius’s Goldfinch trapped in ancient Northern light yet almost still a living thing animated through strokes of dark color alternating with glimmering white impasto. This trick of art reduces everything to the final moment Theo shared with his mother when they viewed the painting together just before she was killed. Yeats, an old man staring wild-eyed at a gaggle of schoolgirls, conjures a similar foreshortening with respect to Maude Gonne in Among Schoolchildren:
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Theo’s efforts to alter or escape the grain of reality by gorging himself on hallucinogens and opiates also mimic this reduction by attempting to elide or slough off his second self: everything he has become in the intervening years.
The sudden death of Theo’s father in a car crash compels him to return to New York where, having transitioned to adulthood, he goes into business with Hobie and gets engaged to Kitsey Barbour. He never quite loses his taste for illicit pharmaceuticals, however, and, in the course of a long night trying to score, randomly runs into Boris. Boris’ presence in New York turns out not to be so haphazard: he reveals to Theo that he swapped the Goldfinch for a schoolbook when they knew each other in Vegas and it is currently being held as collateral by a junkie friend of Boris’s named Horst. Theo and Boris’s visit to Horst elicits an odd yet strangely compelling disquisition on the Goldfinch during which the painting is analyzed not only as an exceptional trompe l’oeil but also an elaborate pun. Upon closer scrutiny it seems that Fabritius intentionally draws the eye into the painting in a way that lays bare the facts of its material construction while also hiding the latter behind its obvious beauty. Great art, Horst appears to be saying, is the ultimate reality because it reveals our reality as a trick or pretense whereas reality and illusion in art are one and the same.
It emerges that while Horst does not know the exact whereabouts of the Goldfinch he feels secure that it can be located since as a masterpiece it is virtually impossible to sell and can only be held as a surety. Theo is shocked to realize – apparently for the first time – that by stealing the Goldfinch he has precluded the ability of anyone at all including himself to take joy in gazing upon it. The fact that he has in a sense already damaged the painting by stealing it impels him to join with Boris in a wild goose chase to Amsterdam in hopes of recovering and even turning it over to the police. To go any further would be to give too much away – suffice it to say that by the time the last page is turned one is left in no doubt that Tartt has produced a limpid and finished work of art.