If a writer born in Mississippi publishes a novel set in New York and Las Vegas and Amsterdam, is it a Southern novel? The answer depends on the reader and how elastic a genre the novel is in the reader’s imagination. In some ways it’s the conundrum proposed by Bishop Berkeley—when a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if there’s no one to hear? Every answer to that question is possibly correct, just as every answer to it is probably incorrect. The result is ambiguity, an invitation to metaphysics, and to the art of infinite speculation.
In Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, she presents such a situation, asking a reader whether she’s written a Southern novel. The main character, Theo Decker, is a thirteen-year-old living in New York with his mother. He’s already a restless adolescent who will ultimately set out on paths to antipodal locales like Las Vegas and Amsterdam, the latter city the scene of the novel’s climax. His peregrinations never touch the South, though, and the sense of place Theo feels is anything but Southern. Like many of his twenty-first century contemporaries, Theo lives in an improvisational world where accident and coincidence determine the nature of his everyday life. As the novel progresses, he tastes more and more of the era’s forbidden fruits, though his appetite dulls the more he feeds it. Tartt describes Theo’s devolution in a tone of moral relativism, a modernist’s theme, though it doesn’t alter Tartt’s story-telling style, true to the tradition of the Southern writer. In the broadest sense, her treatment of Theo is of a character in search of meaning in a fallen world, also a Southern theme. The pleasure of her novel is both its Southernness and its success at widening that genre, giving it richer and deeper textures.
Theo is indeed living in a fallen world as The Goldfinch opens. His alcoholic, con-artist father has left Theo and his mother in a messy circumstance, having disappeared seemingly without a trace. In this vacuum, Theo’s natural restlessness is stirred and it begins to land him in trouble at his school. The authorities there summon him and his mother to their offices to discuss Theo’s delinquencies. On their way, a sudden rain shower sends Theo and his mother into the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, after an idyll of immersion in the Vermeers and Rembrandts, they become victims of a terrorist bombing. Beforehand, Theo’s eye has been caught by an unlikely pair of museum visitors, an elderly gentleman and a young female, both of whom will eventually become central to Theo’s story, one in spirit, the other in body. In the wake of the explosion, the elderly gentleman is mortally wounded, and he makes a dying gesture to Theo, imploring him to save a particular work, the painting of a goldfinch by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.
“His voice was very faint, very scratchy, very cordial, with a ghastly pulmonary whistle. We looked at each other, for a long strange moment that I’ve never forgotten, actually, like two animals meeting at twilight, during which some clear, personable spark seemed to fly up through his eyes and I saw the creature he really was—and he, I believe, saw me.”
In the unfolding of The Goldfinch, this moment of clarity is the impetus that pushes Theo outward, through many trying circumstances, past his wavering sense of destiny, to an ultimately cohering purpose. The loss of his mother and the gain of an obscure painting become the talismans Tartt sets up as the cause and triumph of Theo’s redemption. In the course of his story, Theo rises and falls, and falls again, a journey that takes him all the way to the edge. He succumbs to the promise of art, embodied by the painting for which he’s risked his fate with dangerous frequency, its mystical vision that provides him the strength to open the secrets it enfolds. In the end his triumph is simple enough. He finds that life is worth living. Theo thinks that if he can learn to listen to his own voice, as art’s imperative tells him to, it will animate his world to be something greater than mortal. His task is to discover the silence in which eloquent listening is possible.
Early reviewers of The Goldfinch have called it Dickensian. And so it is. A complex web of characters, young and old, enter Theo’s life at seemingly random moments but invariably become significant attachments to his evolving history. They tend to break away suddenly and disappear for awhile, then reenter the story later, opening new doors. But the landscape cast by Tartt has descended from Dickens’s industrial dreariness to the moral anesthesia of twenty-first century America’s teen-age demi-monde. Theo, as its strong central figure, is a receptacle of the period’s anxieties and hopes. Theo himself is a version of Pip, the narrator and main character in Great Expectations, and like Pip he becomes fully human as the result of conflict and the lessons drawn from adversity and its defeat. But Donna Tartt is her own writer, one of our best. She has been deeply baptized in the sensibility of the South, and no matter how far she wanders from it in her life or her novels, the region is in her bones, and lives in the radiance of her prose.