As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of readers: those who know that Donna Tartt’s 1992 The Secret History is the finest debut in late 20th century American fiction and those whose opinion can be safely discounted. That collegiate murder mystery did not seem like the first effort of a young Bennington graduate not far removed from her Mississippi upbringing; rather, with its effortless erudition, graceful language and savage observation of human behavior, it read like Agatha Christie rewritten by Vladimir Nabokov, with just a splash of Animal House.
The success of The Secret History was due in part to an auspicious convergence of publicity – one of Tartt’s college besties was Bret Easton Ellis; she had a mentor in the late great Southern writer Barry Hannah; her agent was the formidable Amanda "Binky" Urban, who sold Tartt’s debut for a $450,000 to Knopf. That sum might have been the story, as is sometimes the case with drooled-over debuts. Here, the hype was not merely justified – it was exceeded.
At the center of it all was the author, who has always seemed less a recluse than one who couldn’t be bothered with the media and its fleeting panegyrics. She has a fluency in American culture while not quite seeming of that culture, a flaneur darkly haunting the edges of the crowd, taking cruel and incisive notes before retreating into her plush, silent den. Salman Rushdie may tweet, as do Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, but the day Donna Tartt takes to Twitter, listen closely for the seven trumpets of the apocalypse.
Her second novel, The Little Friend, followed a decade-long literary silence. A murder mystery set in Mississippi, it seemed oddly out of sync in post-9/11 America. Some liked it well enough (A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it “large and satisfying”) while other critics were far less generous (Troy Patterson of Entertainment Weekly deemed it “an extended prose catastrophe”). Nobody thought it exceeded The Secret History. Then again, what has?
And now comes Tartt’s third novel, this one 11 years in the making. It is called The Goldfinch, and, at almost 800 pages, it is her longest book yet and almost certainly her least mature one, showing a regression from The Secret History in almost every way in which a novel can be judged. Dull’s the word – for the characters, the plot, even the language that usually submits so readily to Tartt’s pen. And dull’s the word I never thought I’d use to describe the writing of my deepest literary crush. Many recent novels have been worse, but none has been quite so disappointing.
The Goldfinch is Tartt’s first novel set in New York City, and where The Secret History was concerned with a single death, the new novel begins with mass murder. A bomb set by right-wing radicals goes off while Theo Decker, 13, is visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother; they had stopped there on the way to his private school, where he was recently caught smoking. She is killed; he escapes from the rubble with The Goldfinch, a 1654 Dutch painting whose creator, Carel Fabritius, himself died in an explosion in Delft.
The painting – which is real, as is the story of Fabritius’s unfortunate demise – shows a bird with a chain around its leg. So it is with Tartt’s characters, who are often trapped by memory, either personal or collective. As fellow Mississippian William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So it is in Tarttlandia. An explosion in Delft, another in New York centuries later. The past always intrudes upon the present, and it usually does so violently.
Theo (an allusion to Van Gogh’s brother?) goes to live with the Barbours, a Park Avenue clan whose effete son Andy is a classmate of his. Tartt is as good an observer of the upper class as Tom Wolfe and these early passages are the book’s finest, with middle-class Theo adjusting to strange patrician customs, wondering about the time the fragile Mr. Barbour spent convalescing at a “ding farm” in Connecticut, and fearing the return of their oldest son Platt from Groton, described with that old Tartt wit as “a champion lacrosse player and a bit of a psychopath.” But then Theo’s deadbeat dad – recovering from alcoholism by becoming addicted to gambling and pills – shows up to whisk Theo to Las Vegas, dragging the reader through a barren desert of 200 pages.
A high-school-aged Theo finally returns to New York, where he becomes an antique dealer while conducting a seemingly auspicious romance with a Barbour daughter. Meanwhile, The Goldfinch reposes in storage – even as authorities continue to search for art missing from the Met explosion. Why Theo keeps the painting is never clear, since he rarely admires the work of art. It reminds him of his mother, true, but even then mostly of her final moments. It is a lodestone – or, rather, a chain around a bird’s leg. Theo’s human relationships are equally inscrutable, all the more frustrating given that much of the novel occurs inside his head.
The plot picks up some when Boris, an old friend from Vegas, arrives in Manhattan, but neither his arrival nor the more brisk action that follows – Hey, we’re going to Amsterdam! – can rescue this bloated beast of a book.
Nor can the insipid language: Theo describes the aftermath of the explosion as “raw and painful and confusing and wrong,” as if only the most mundane sentiments approach verity. That’s better, at least, than the kiss cursed with the jumbled metaphor of “a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite.” Not to pile on, but it’s hard to sustain a sense of suspense when your protagonist says things like “my astonishment was growing by the moment.” So was my boredom. About three-fourths of the way through, I started to wonder if Tartt had just tired of this novel.
What is perhaps most irksome about The Goldfinch is that it is written for a world, and a time, other than this one – the same predicament that plagued The Little Friend, only exacerbated here. If the novel is Dickensian, as some critics have suggested, then it is only so in the worst possible sense: too long, too often artless. It is like one of those pretty paintings executed with technical skill and yet lacking whatever ineffable quality we ascribe to greatness.
Or maybe that quality is not so ineffable, after all. The novel lacks relevance; it hews to outworn convention in a way that prevents Tartt from saying anything new about people or literature or painting or the rather complex business of being alive. She shows little ambition here, which is a shocking thing to write about an author who, two decades ago, had more promise than any novelist of her generation.