The Magazine

Identity Theft

How we know, or don’t know, who we are.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By EVE TUSHNET
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When we speak of “the permanent things,” we should mean the enduring, inescapable, and unfulfilled longings of the contradictory human heart: the helpless yearnings found across radically different times and cultures. And among these permanent desires, the need for home and the need for ecstasy stand preeminent.

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

bas czerwinski / afp / getty images / newscom

Donna Tartt made her name with 1992’s bestselling murder-by-paganism tale The Secret History, which explored our longing for ecstatic release from the self. The Little Friend (2002) received less attention, perhaps because it’s a slow burn and doesn’t get lurid for a while. It has a few swooning moments—the protagonist practices holding her breath until she nearly passes out—but it’s a quieter book, a kind of Harriet the Spy meets The Name of the Rose, an anti-mystery that asks what kinds of knowledge are really meaningful and worth having. 

The Goldfinch surpasses both. It’s her best thing so far.  

Its narrator is a gouache of different shades of need, dark and bright: He is an everyman, an orphan, a thief. The story begins on the day 13-year-old Theodore Decker loses his mother to a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This sequence is propulsive, as suspenseful as any horror movie. (Tartt’s timing is split-second perfect throughout the book, each revelation landing like a punch in an especially balletic boxing match.) Theo views this fateful day as the day his life was wrecked by his own fault, when he lost “the unbruised part of myself.” He’s like a reversal of the famous Hemingway line (“ ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ Bill asked. ‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’ ”). Theo loses his self suddenly, and then gradually. He spends the bulk of the story clutching vainly at the remaining scraps of his integrity and hope as they spin away. 

The reader comes to understand that the story isn’t so simple, that the lost Eden already had its share of snakes. Still, after his mother dies, Theo is plunged into a nightmare kaleidoscope of caretakers. The sheer helplessness of childhood, the feeling of being entirely powerless in the hands of incomprehensible adults, has surfaced now and then in Tartt’s previous work. There’s the moment, for example, in The Secret History when Richard remembers his parents fighting and his sudden, answerless question, Who’s flying this plane? But The Goldfinch is an extended exploration of this human helplessness, felt most intensely by children.

The day Theo’s mother dies is also the day he first sees the painting of a goldfinch. This “light-rinsed” painting, with its strange mix of tenderness, humor, and cruelty (for the goldfinch is chained to its perch, a prisoner of the artist), had called to his mother in her own childhood and now calls to him. In the chaos following the attack, Theo steals the painting, essentially on the orders of a dying antiques dealer. For a long time he doesn’t realize that what he’s done is art theft. Tartt’s ability to portray distorted, liminal mental states—drug use, withdrawal, fever, concussion, even the disorientation of an international airport—makes this improbable act seem like the only logical response to Theo’s situation. For much of the rest of the novel, Theo hides the painting, which becomes a glowing source of light and beauty in a life otherwise characterized by despair and low-rent criminality. 

The Goldfinch is rich and layered. Different reviewers might draw out its portrayal of friendship between two damaged boys, its themes of time and change, its blurring of the contrast between real and fake, even its Americana. (The scene in which Theo rides into Las Vegas, coming down from his first Vicodin, is one of the greatest landscape portraits I’ve read. You can’t imagine Las Vegas any other way.) The novel’s climax includes a terrific clash of mixed motives, a delightful shipwreck of amends as dark and as merciful as It’s a Wonderful Life. Its denouement has shades of Diana Wynne Jones’s haunting, existentialist children’s fantasy The Homeward Bounders (1981). 

But these aren’t the elements I responded to most. I responded most deeply to Donna Tartt’s insistence on the human need for a home, and her portrayal of the two conflicting kinds of ecstasy. There’s ecstasy that is a punishing, desperate need to escape the shackles of the self. This is a yearning for release which is close to suicidality. And then there’s ecstasy that is a desire for contact with something greater than the self: the rapture we feel in the presence of beauty or the apprehension of meaning.