Few thought that Donna Tartt’s latest bildungsroman tome will become the kind of idiosyncratic literary sensation the publishing world doesn’t quite know how to achieve any more, especially considering her previous novel The Little Friend underperformed.
The Goldfinch has been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost an entire year, enjoying comparable success in the UK book charts. According to Nielsen BookScan, The Goldfinch has sold over 407,000 copies to date, with sales―print and digital combined―exceeding over 1.5 million; praiseworthily going back to press in recent days for another 150,000 copies. The novel is so popular that even Amazon has declared a temporary ceasefire on its current Amazon-Hachette feud, thus assuring customers that orders for The Goldfinch will not be subject to any imposed delays.
The Goldfinch is a book proposition that seems antithetical of what qualifies as a publishing success story in our modern age of dwindling attention spans and reading-averse culture: being a novel over 850 pages in length that’s riddled with oddball characters. It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy called Theo Decker whose life is violently rattled when on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother and other visitors. At the behest of a dying old man who he comforts in his final moments, Theo pilfers Carel Fabritius’ renowned Dutch painting The Goldfinch. For the next fourteen years the painting becomes both Theo’s encumbrance and the only connection to his deceased mother. Young Theo is hurled from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, the novel becoming a picaresque tale of eccentric figures from the art world and Soviet-bloc gangsters trading in everything from hardcore drugs to painterly masterworks.
The Goldfinch sold in huge quantities principally because it’s an extraordinarily entertaining novel. It’s both marvellously plotted and weirdly compelling, liming the story of a youngster evidently reeling from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder who, as he grows up, also develops a serious dependency on narcotics and proclivity for swindling Park Avenue’s richest and gullible art collectors. Theo Decker is a cynically intelligent antihero, a self-destructive protagonist who understandably has a fatalistic worldview but remains endearingly openhearted and oddly appealing. The story has an almost Dickensian feel of urban grind while also dallying with the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth. The book certainly warrants claims concerning it being a new addition to the Great American Novel and, on the whole, commendably avoids didactic trappings.
Nonetheless, The Goldfinch is now courting the type of cynicism that comes with great success. Erudite metropolitan elites have cast doubt on Tartt’s credibility and denounced the book buying public for pursuing populism. New Yorker critic James Wood wrote that The Goldfinch’s “tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature,” and later told Vanity Fair that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, argues: “What worries [me] is that people who read only one or two books a year will plunk down their money for The Goldfinch, and read it, and tell themselves they like it, but deep down will be profoundly bored, because they aren’t children, and will quietly give up on the whole enterprise when, in fact, fiction—realistic fiction, old or new—is as alive and gripping as it’s ever been.”
This vitriol spewing out of the literary world vis-à-vis The Goldfinch is skirting around perhaps the biggest debate in contemporary publishing: that of grownups abandoning proper books in favour of nominal bestsellers and Young Adult fare. In fact, a Bowker Market Research study suggested that 55% of YA books are bought by people eighteen and older: adults aged between thirty and forty-four accounted for 28% of all YA sales, and the books are purchased for their own reading the vast majority of the time. All this further aggravates book critics, especially when reading books as a regular activity is haemorrhaging.
But The Goldfinch isn’t a YA book, which renders James Wood’s criticisms unfair by comparing it to a Harry Potter novel (even though constant references are made by Theo’s dodgy Russian best friend, Boris, concerning his resemblance to the famously bespectacled Boy Wizard). Donna Tartt’s novel is a serious story about Millennials coming of age in an America perturbed by terrorism and existential listlessness. But the story is equally farfetched and something of a fairytale in which a youngster lives a rock star existence rife with misadventure and decadence. The story has connected with readers in ways that works of Dan Brown and John Grisham usually do, yet The Goldfinch is far from conventional airport-purchased literature. The Goldfinch is too weird and cerebral to be dismissed as a throwaway bestseller.
Despite all the naysayers and elitists who have abjured The Goldfinch for being a novel that “deals in [clichés]” and is “overwritten,” it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize―the committee praising how Tartt’s story “stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” (Pulitzer judges rather unfairly didn’t praise anything about Tartt’s writing style, which perhaps is why it was ignored by the National Book Award and didn’t make the longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.)
One can argue that the main derision concerning professional book critics’ opining of The Goldfinch perhaps has more to do with their disdain of a particular market that is widely disparaged by them: those with middlebrow tastes. Middlebrow readers have fantastically omnivorous cultural palates, folks that are often university educated but balance everyday tastes with demands for more elevated material. While the focus right now is on lowest common denominator tropes when it comes to finding the next big seller (young girls seeking their place in post-apocalyptic tribal settings, for example), The Goldfinch inhabits a world that is slightly heightened but always grounded. It’s the skills Donna Tartt demonstrates as a superlative storyteller which really hammers home just what a major accomplishment The Goldfinch is; the author spending eleven years constructing the intricate adventures of Theo Decker, devoting as long as eight months on plotlines she ultimately aborted in her determinations to achieve the best story possible.
The Goldfinch will no doubt become as important to American literature as what The Catcher in the Rye is. It will endure because of its astonishing understanding of what life is like for young men trying to make sense of their position in the world and the anticlimactic realisation that our sense of entitlement always defeats us. No-one has yet praised Tartt’s canny ability to so fully inhabit the headspace characters that are neither her age and gender, yet she depicts them in a most convincing manner. All the nihilism that is often a part of cultured young personalities who feel like outsiders is beguilingly captured by Tartt. That’s why the novel, one is convinced, will eventually find favour even with its detractors.
At a time when the book charts are riddled with substandard titles and libraries are being closed in masses, the world should celebrate the fact that Donna Tartt has created a completely original novel that’s connected with mainstream readers in ways nobody thought was possible anymore. It is a monumentally significant achievement.