Donna Tartt’s nearly 800-page bildungsroman The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, sparking an ongoing controversy over its worthiness, with some highbrow critics arguing that its prose was too pedestrian while other critics and authors railed against the inherent elitism of those claims. I think I come down in the vast middle between the two camps: It’s a good novel, certainly not dumbed-down for anybody, elaborately plotted and written in an adult voice, yet it finishes weakly and doesn’t seem to fit the admittedly vague guidelines for the Pulitzer (“for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”). It is, however, one of the only books I’ve ever read that seems to take a serious view of post-traumatic stress disorder and tries to bring it to life in an empathetic yet unstinting fashion.
Theo Decker, the protagonist and narrator of The Goldfinch, is a typical, bookish thirteen-year-old boy, living in Manhattan with his adoring mother after his alcoholic father walked out on them a few months earlier, when the two of them are caught in a terrorist attack on an art museum that’s exhibiting Dutch painter Carel Patritius’ (real) painting of the book’s title. The blast kills Theo’s mother, while Theo, in another room at the time of the explosion, tries to comfort an older man who’s dying near him and who tells Theo to take The Goldfinch from the wall, perhaps to protect it. Theo ends up carrying the painting with him for years, a physical manifestation of the PTSD (reminiscent in a slight way of Emma Sulkowicz’ Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)) from the attack, which he chooses to self-medicate via substance abuse and reckless behavior. The story takes him from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and eventually to Amsterdam, where the novel makes a sharp left into this weird noir-ish crime-story territory, losing much of the emotional impact from the first five hundred pages or so, losing the thread of the PTSD exploration in favor of, I think, finding a way to wrap up the book.
Some critics called the portion of the ending that eventually gets the painting back to the authorities too obvious/predictable, something Theo should have done far earlier, but I think that ignores or dismisses the idea of the painting as a symbol of Theo’s PTSD – he can’t get rid of the painting just by wishing to do so, but has to find some way to start to heal himself before he can do so. I could argue that Tartt fails to establish his healing well enough by the ending, but then again, the book was already too long by a third and by that point the escapade around the painting’s theft was approaching the ridiculous.
Theo is a flawed character but a well-developed one, and with almost 800 pages to spend in his head we get a full picture of his personality and his struggle to come to any kind of grips with the death of his mother and everything bad that comes after. He’s the only character in the book to get that treatment, however, as everyone else has a two-dimensional quality, from his angelic mother to the similarly wispy Pippa (a crush who is, herself, tied to the museum bombing and thus remains in a tangible way just beyond his reach) to the furniture restorer Hobie who becomes a surrogate parent to Theo in the latter half of the book. Even Boris (why always Boris?), Theo’s best friend during his time in Las Vegas, is half character and half caricature, not to mention capable of consuming unfathomable quantities of drugs and alcohol … although fictional Russians have a preternatural capacity to metabolize vodka.
The Pulitzer committee gives only a terse explanation for each winner’s selection, so we’re left guessing what they saw in The Goldfinch that many critics didn’t see or didn’t value. The only explanation I can conceive that fits the guideline about “American life” is the PTSD angle: the National Center for PTSD says about 8 million U.S. adults suffer from PTSD in any given year, with causes ranging from military combat to rape to disasters like the book’s museum bombing. PTSD isn’t quintessentially American, but it is a fact of life all over the world today, and it’s increasing in our consciousness if not in prevalence, especially with soldiers returning from lengthy tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the disorder. If that’s the book’s greatest strength, however, the slapdash finish undermines the exploration of the disorder and its effects. Theo’s recovery, such as it is, is unsatisfying from a reader perspective and, I’d guess, from a clinical one too. The Goldfinch spends two-thirds of its bulk as a serious literary work, but by its final pages it has devolved into a smart page-turner, diluting the impact of its more ambitious passages.
Next up: Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.