“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch.
Reading The Goldfinch this year was a belated catch-up really. With the number of incredible books released every year there is a possibility that a great number of them would be hidden in plain sight – passed over again and again. Between catching up on the recent years’, rereading old classics, keeping up with the contemporaries, very many good titles get lost in the shuffle. I read The Goldfinch roughly three months ago. It’s been idling away on my TBR for a while. So when September came and things slowed down on the fiction- reading front I decided at last to see to it.
The Goldfinch is another book that reviewers are adorning with stars, sometimes too sparsely at other times flamboyantly. In some way, I can understand why. The first few pages of this book were a bore. A lot of time I’m thinking, ‘there are a gazillion books in the wings that you wouldn’t get to finish if you are blessed with a thousand life times, why do you like to punish yourself thus?’. But when you are a serial reader you are a survivor in ways many ways many would never understand. You’ll be able to sniff water by the very sight of a cactus in a desert. I knew there was something to this book and I just couldn’t give it up when I sense I could stumble on that something any time. And boy, did my patience pay off or what!
The denouement was fa-bu-lous. Some stories hook you from the beginning with a scented bait and drag you through the slimy mud of plot into the bottom of the ocean, others offer nothing but the faintest ray of light, pulls you out of the mud to the fresh clean air of a bespectacled shore. The Goldfinch belongs to the latter.
In the midst of the desolation there were characters who made me laugh, and more importantly there were tons of quotes for my scrap book. What’s even more amazing is how you can generate a mammoth story from a speck. But I suppose in the order of things in literature there are no specks to be dusted away; there are segues of subplots and back stories and spin-offs from that tiny grain of an idea that holds the writer by the gut, that just can not be washed down by a shot of whiskey. Only a pen poised over a blank paper or the mad tapping at the computer would do. From these atomic situations, a cosmo of words is birthed – the big bang that produces the thousand words of essays, a few pages of novellas, and many hundreds of novels. There is nothing to be toyed with in the handling of an idea that has found a foothold in your guts.
Theo Dekker, with his mother broke into the pages of this book in an art gallery that would soon have him motherless, lost and alone (except for a painting). Feverishly antsy for something he had done, the traumatized thirteen-year old had to deal with an innocent mistake that would define the course of his life forever. Becoming a globe-trotting art enthusiast with an insidious history, his life goal became both a personal and a philosophical one of naming the un-named, in his search for a lost treasure in the seedy world of European art dealership.
The Goldfinch dramatizes that wanton, helpless, shameless pride we have for things we are passionate about.
When a book touches you so like The Goldfinch did me, when it touches on something you feel deeply in your soul the way Tartt digs into it, you just know it has to make your list, and only because we don’t all feel just as strongly as other people feel about their passions, I’ll excuse anyone who wants to take a pass on this one. But it’ll be good if you’ll read it if not for the story itself but for the abundance of freshly distilled wisdom contained therein. This book re-emphasizes for me what all great work of art is –philosophy. And you know me, I love anything that tinkers with my brain. This one tickled it.
Donna Tartt was exquisite. I didn’t think I was going to say this when I started this book but here I am.
But yeah, sometimes you have to dig for the gem.
And here are some gems for you:
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”
“Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
“Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.”
“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”
How can anyone resist such beautiful prose? You sef look am now!