The Goldfinch, Or: Only Some People Are Alcoholics

To start off: my brother, Thomas, who just left Austin to start his third year at Harvard Law, informed me that this blog is the third thing that comes up when you Google its title. The first two are the George R.R. Martin quote. Moving up!

I did not get selected as a top-15 finalist for the Michael J. Sullivan contest, which, I’ll admit, frustrated me in a way very endemic to this phase of an art career–namely, I don’t know if “A Tale of Rust Town” was the 16th-best story in the bunch or a smear of absolute tripe. Two things lessen the blow: 1) as stated earlier it’s more clockpunk than fantasy, and thus maybe not what he was after, and 2) now I get to find another place to send it. With “The Foaling Season” still at and my other short stories on hold while I get two novels in working order, the ability to put something on the market is a breath of fresh air.

Speaking of those novels: The Valley of Steel remains on schedule, and the new improved Glass Thief is creeping along right beside. Hopefully in a month I’ll be querying and sending out for betas side by side. In the meantime, I might perhaps consider having some kind of life. Right after I get some sleep.

In today’s post, I want to talk about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because, frankly, I have a bad taste in my mouth from my last book review. I’m done hating The Book of Strange New Things. Now I just want to write nice things on this blog until it gets scrubbed clean, or at least acquires some damn perspective.

The Goldfinch follows Theo Decker, 13 at the beginning, who loses his mother in a bombing at an art museum and carries a priceless painting out of the rubble. Trying to embrace his twin new identities as orphan and art thief leads Theo down a steadily more dissolute path, which, after an eight-year time skip, has him addicted to pills, selling phony antiques, and pining for an unattainable love.

The Goldfinch deserves every word of hype and more. Tartt has a mystical sense of detail–Theo’s dissolute father cooling off from his hangovers with Chinese beer, specifically Chinese beer, is one that struck me–and her central question, “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?”, spills over the pages without ever needing to be answered. She offers us two poles to choose from: Hobie, antiques restorer and father figure, who secludes himself away in search of beauty to protect, and Boris, utterly unclassifiable, for whom beauty can go hang so long as he’s having a good time.

Neither is correct. Both suffer, both thrive. I could plot all the characters on a pair of axes labeled “fulfillment <–> denial” and “devotion to present <–> devotion to all time,” but knowing how I tinker with the D&D alignment spectrum, that’s a rabbit hole and I’m just gonna leave it alone. Suffice to say this is a book of monstrous cathartic value that’s also as lovely in its own right as a portrait gallery.

And yet. The alcoholism.

I trashed The Magicians for this. I’m not “trashing” The Goldfinch per se; I don’t know that I could. But it seems like addicts are proportionally overrepresented in novels of the Pulitzer-winning stripe. Theo, Boris, their respective fathers, and several other characters drink to oblivion and abuse pills. Which is fine–the use of medication as a replacement for absent beauty is compelling–but it’s so frequent that Hobie’s ability to have only one drink a night marks him as some kind of superhero in the Goldfinchverse.

It doesn’t end with addiction, either. Broken homes, child abuse, violent and nonviolent crime, fanatical religion: all are, unless I’m fantastically naive (and I hope somebody will tell me if I am), far more likely to occur in the childhood of a literary hero than a real person. Which, again, is fine. These things elicit strong emotion and inspire strong action in the characters. All I’m saying is that there are many people in this world who have never suffered a worse tragedy than loss of a job, loss of a relationship, the death of a grandparent or a pet. These people get together with friends after work, they have fun Thanksgivings and Christmases, they lock themselves in bathroom stalls to get a few minutes’ peace with which they can wonder if this is all there is.

As writers, we have a responsibility to these people as well. They too seek the line of beauty. Theo’s mother, who was merely poor as a child, gives a lecture to Theo–and the reader–early on, teaching us how to appreciate detail in the works of the Northern Masters. Her lessons extend to the whole book. Rembrandt and his kind achieved fame by breaking away from angels and messiahs and painting the people who search for angels and messiahs. As much as I enjoyed The Goldfinch–more than enjoyed–I have to remind myself that a heart that can’t be trusted is not the only way to make a person compelling. What if Theo Decker, with his indelible voice and perception, were just another lonely New Yorker?