Allow me to eschew the well tread ground of the parallels between Tartt’s latest novel and Dickens’s bildungsroman Great Expectations and the symbolism of the book’s eponymous painting as an analogue to Theo Decker’s own ineluctable tethering. Instead, I would like to address what seems to be the more pressing question: People seem to be more interested in whether they should read the novel than in actually reading it. I discovered a lengthy thread on the LitNet forums where the original poster (OP) spends numerous posts seeking a sort of support group from the community just to get off the ground with the novel. Then follow further posts concerning the number of pages the OP has managed to read that day and more queries for affirmation that the OP is doing the right thing in reading the novel and sticking with it. To be sure, this is an extreme example, but from what I can tell from a sampling of other opinions, this book seems to pose a daunting threat to many readers.
The threat, in my estimation, seems to be twofold: length and belief (in art). Let’s start with length. Yes, the book is long, both in page count (771, if you’ve got the first American hardcover edition) and in terms of story time—it’s a bildungsroman, so we’re in it for Theo’s experience from late childhood to early adulthood, we will be carried from New York to Las Vegas to New York to Amsterdam to New York. And Donna Tartt has a careful, steady hand that leads us along, plying our minds with detail after detail, much like a guide in an art museum. Every sentence constructs a world, so by some standards the text is not snappy. But I maintain this is necessary to slow us as readers down enough to achieve a sense of the long passage of time in the lives of the book’s characters.
Sure, you could speed-read through it in a few days, but I strongly believe this would hinder the intensity of the story’s effect should you decide to dip into the book here and there. For reference, it took me 17 days to read it and I read at least 20 pages a day. I think, in the end, we have this sense that we could be doing something better with our time. Yet, what fills out time? I challenge you to spend a few days without reading and see what finds its way into your hours. Not much could compare to the pleasure of the impact of Boris’s words on page 550: “‘Hard to put things right. You don’t often get that chance. Sometimes all you can do is not get caught.'”
The next detractor: lack of belief in art. Really, as with Tartt’s first novel, this book has a lot to do with art, both overt and implied. In fact the last handful of pages are pretty much Theo’s own philosophy of art (the last section of the book is headed with the famous Nietzsche quote concerning the use of art to deal with reality). Though the book does concern what can be construed as “spoiled kids wasting their days with drugs” (à la Tartt’s hypnotic masterpiece The Secret History), the novel is to be taken seriously. Just take a look at the selection of quotes that head each of the five divisions: Camus, Rimbaud, Rochefoucauld, Schiller, Nietzsche. These are heavyweights not often found in today’s novels. This should alert us to the strength, the hunger, of the mind behind the work. And the epigrams aren’t merely chosen to show off Tartt’s own reading preferences; the quotes themselves mirror Theo’s character progression. (Need another quick example of Tartt’s acumen? Take her choice of name for our protagonist, Theo. In Greek this word means God, and in many ways Theo, who narrates in the first person, is very much God in terms of the artifice he has created.)
Tartt, an artist, has crafted something beautiful for us. She has not following the conventions of a genre to throw together a medium for catharsis to satisfy a demanding publishing contract. Look at the time between her 3 novels—the gaps remind one of Jonathan Franzen—and, in fact, Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, parallels Great Expectations. But, for me, Tartt writes novels that Franzen could only hope to write.
While reading Tartt’s masterful prose, I thought of Klimt’s painting The Kiss. Both are richly layered, densely ornamented, and seductive. As with all art, some of us will be swept away immediately, others will have to spend time deriving its pleasure, and still others will move on to look for more immediate satisfaction. No matter which camp we’re in with The Kiss or The Goldfinch, we have the initial choice of how to use our time. I argue for welcoming it into your precious minutes. Savour each sentence, as one would savour each colour in Klimt’s piece. Tartt’s metaphors and dips into the poetic are perfectly kneaded into the book, keeping it far from the purple prose territory. Yet even the simple declarative sentences that keep the plot moving are often a delight to the knowing eye. Yes, I’ve more than once called Tartt a writer’s writer, but I also believe that to some degree we are all writers.
Now, in terms of seduction, Tartt’s prose and Klimt’s painting are perfect analogues. Notice how, in the painting, the kiss is not full-on right smack on the lips. The woman’s head is tilted back, her cheek receiving the kiss. Tartt does much the same thing. Proust, in his own 4,300-page bildungsroman, seems at pains to make the point that desire fulfilled is the end of seduction. Tartt and Klimt agree with him and employ the tactic in their art. Over and over again, Tartt brings the equivalent of the promise of a kiss and then…tilts our heads and makes us wait. She often introduces a powerful new element to the plot only to delay its gratification. This, I maintain, is the master’s way of keeping us interested. Sadly, most of us seem content to go directly for the immediate gratification in life. The Goldfinch invites us to reach for something deeper.