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Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is an astounding, sprawling book about a young man’s relationship with a painting. (FRED R. CONRAD/NYT)
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is an astounding, sprawling book about a young man’s relationship with a painting. (FRED R. CONRAD/NYT)

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: A novel that's both deeply traditional and very fresh Add to ...

What would our lives look like, if they were written? The last several decades of literary fashion, which have, with some exceptions, championed minimalist tendencies toward precision and elegance and a particular kind of controlled yet epiphanic beauty, would suggest that life looks something like this, from Raymond Carver’s short story Where I’m Calling From:

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“I push the curtain away from the window. Outside, this old guy in white overalls is standing next to the ladder. The sun is just starting to break above the mountains. The old guy and I look each other over. It’s the landlord, all right – this old guy in coveralls.”

Or a more maximalist view might more closely resemble this, from David Foster Wallace’s short story Backbone:

“Most professional contortionists are, in fact, simply persons born with congenital atrophic/dystrophic conditions of major recti, or with acute lordotic flexion of the lumbar spine, or both.”

I love both of these disparate passages. The first, with its syllabic pulse and the plainly stated promise of a new day’s sunrise, is gorgeous, like most of Carver. The second, like so much of Wallace, is giddy and dizzying, allowing you the rare feeling of inclusion in a specialized field without demanding actual knowledge of you. But neither of these feels much like what it is to be inside my particular head. The first is too tidy, too sombre, too manicured to capture, say, the complicated mix of bleakness and optimism that I’m experiencing as I write this at my kitchen table. The second is almost the opposite, too particular yet unruly, almost impossible to contain.

Maybe the minimalism of Carver and his compatriots (Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Amy Hempel, a long line stretching back to Hemingway and beyond) is no longer sufficient for the present moment. And perhaps the present moment is actually more subtle than can be rendered in the outsized, maximalist books like Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom – books that strive so completely to capture a world altered by technology, in moral decline.

Maybe our lives look more like this:

“We were at the cabin again this past weekend and I planned the next two weeks of our schedule. I think that’s about as far in advance as I’m comfortable with for now. Things come up that throw us off and I need to work on my spontaneity, not my organization. People get sick, we go on impromptu field trips to the pumpkin patch or Phoenix Children’s Museum.”

That’s from a blog called Intentionally Katie, which documents the family life of “Christian wife and a homeschooling mom to a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old and a very busy four-year-old.” I’m neither Christian nor a wife, but that passage feels more like what it is to be alive today than the fiction above does.

And then there’s Donna Tartt, whose first novel, The Secret History, became a contemporary classic, and who returns this fall with The Goldfinch, an astounding, sprawling book about a young man named Theo Decker and his relationship with a remarkable old painting.

Tartt, who has become almost as celebrated for her near-reclusivity as she is for her shimmering sentences, works slowly: We’ve waited a decade for each of her two subsequent novels. Some say this is because she takes her time; Stephen King recently implied in The Guardian that she’s a bit lazy.

But after reading The Goldfinch, it’s clear those reasons are too simplistic. It is a novel about many things: friendship, love, antiques, family, death. But its greatest subject is the dilemma of how art can possibly capture the essence of life itself. Perhaps this book took so long to write because figuring out how to capture the way a collective culture thinks and feels at a specific moment in time is a rather significant undertaking.

The great accomplishment of The Goldfinch is that it weaves all of these threads into something deeply traditional yet somehow fresh. It is a novel of elegance and clarity in one moment, and overwhelming and varied specificity – the particulars of elaborate drug use, of 18th-century furniture, of emoji usage in text messages – in the next. It reads, in other words, like both Carver and Wallace, with a touch of Intentionally Katie: The normalness of contemporary life filtered through the various prisms of art.

Everything here is both precise and slack, detailed yet hazy, artistically sculpted but genuinely chatty: “Later, after a few half-hearted passes with the pool vacuum,” Tartt writes, “we were sitting on the kitchen counter smoking my dad’s Viceroys and talking. Boris – ragged and unhinged looking, his shirt hanging off the shoulder on one side, slamming the cabinets, complaining bitterly because there was no tea – had made some hideous coffee in the Russian way, by boiling grounds in a pan on the stove.”

Or this, with its collision of high and low: “I checked my phone for texts for what seemed like the ten-thousandth time – and was cheered despite myself to find at long last a message – number I didn’t recognize, but it had to be Boris. HEY! ope u2 rok. Not 2 mad. Ring Xnr ok she hz ben bugen me.”

Or this, with its combination of lofty romanticism and mundane, yet vital, detail: “The sky was a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there. No one cared that I never changed my clothes and wasn’t in therapy. I was free to goof off, lie in bed all morning, watch five Robert Mitchum movies in a row if I felt like it.”

To me, these sentences feel like a mirror of our saturated contemporary moment, a time of TV and junk food and perhaps a bit too much booze, a time of annoying text messages and Buzzfeed in which we still long for something like that sky Tartt paints, a time in which we crave the promise of a glory that isn’t really there. What they don’t feel like is Raymond Carver, and in rejecting his artifice in favour of a different, more expansive one, Tartt has found a way to make a novel feel like now. She has not just moved past minimalism. She’s proven its inadequacy.

It isn’t necessarily the job of fiction to reflect what life feels like, though the novel as a form is, in a sense, predicated on the idea’s possibility. And especially this novel: The Goldfinch is obsessed with the question of what it means to capture something real in an inherently unreal form. The book takes its title (and central plot preoccupation) from Carel Fabritius’s famous 17th-century painting, which comes to symbolize the idea that representation, when synced ideally with the subject being represented, can imbue the viewer’s own reality with greater meaning: “The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary,” Theo tells us. “It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

Like Fabritius, posited as the “missing link” between Rembrandt and Vermeer, Tartt makes a connection of her own, one reaching back to Dickens while stretching forward into something at present unknowable, as though in possession of answers to questions of which we’re not yet aware. Maybe that’s just wisdom. But it’s also possible that Tartt is our Fabritius, who, as Theo’s mother explains, “is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him.”

Jared Bland is The Globe and Mail’s Books editor.

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