by Angela Kubinec
There is an old suspicious practice in my part of the world in which one opens the Bible to a random page and with eyes closed, points at a spot on the page. The finger becomes a kind of spiritual divining (pardon the pun) rod, and the verse selected is believed to provide the answer to a question, guidance, insight to a greater truth, or a warning of some kind. I tried it this morning. Isiah 66:8 reminded me that a nation cannot be born in a day. True, although not shocking. I did not ask myself that if the universe could be created in six days, what the big deal was with a nation. Oh, wait—I did, and instantly felt the guilt of a Sunday School faux pas.
You can do a similar exercise with Toni Morrison’s non-linear plot in Beloved and pick up the story line instantly. While Donna Tartt isn’t quite that good, her work has a strong and sturdy thread that holds up to careful examination using the same random method.
If you want to understand the enormity of ways in which deception—and its eroding effects—exists, try this experiment with any of Donna Tartt’s books. Open to a random page and read it. Somewhere someone on that page is being deceptive or experiencing a deception, however small. I did this activity with each of her three books, after trying to highlight all the instances of deception in The Little Friend. That close a study amounted to defacing the book and slowing my reading speed to the velocity of a second grader.
Three data points from my research:
• In The Little Friend (Chapter 4, page 268): “It was odd, thought Harriet, that she hadn’t come to hate Curtis despite what she now knew about his family.” We gather Harriet has been denied the truth at some point.
• From The Secret History (page 79): “It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would entirely wear off…” Early on in his recollection of events, the main character, Richard, realizes he has deluded himself.
• And in The Goldfinch (Chapter 10, page 518): “Can we not move forward on what I have proposed to your young partner, since there is no benefit to either of you in continuing this stalemate?” Theo, the main character, has a great deal to lose if the stalemate mentioned—the deception—comes to an end.
Sitting on the porch at the old linoleum tabletop, I continued my close-your-eyes-and-point ritual.
• In The Little Friend (page 466): The familial mis-remembrance of a deceased aunt transforms her from a person into a “sickly form of omnipresent gas.” Earlier (page 107), a character is described as being “full of empty boasts and threats.”
• From The Secret History (page 121): Richard spies a dark figure watching him through a window. As we continue (page 345): a local man provides a description to law enforcement officials regarding a non-existent group of abductors.
• Via The Goldfinch (page 103): A very young Theo believes the words of an official who says, “…don’t be scared,” only to enter a room full of officials who are prepared to interrogate him and decide his fate. Finally (page 379): Theo uses the gestures he “picked up” from another person to indicate an answer to a question rather than being straightforward.
When I finished reading The Goldfinch, I wanted to go through it a second time with a highlighter and a notebook, but as Stephen King said in his New York Times review in 2013, it was big and time consuming, likening it to “sailing from America to Ireland in a row boat.” As I later discovered, such a study of The Little Friend would probably cost a few months of my life, making the reading of it a similar voyage.
Reviews of The Goldfinch were divided in the literary community. I read a comment from one reviewer whose advice was to avoid dropping it on your foot, and perhaps not reading it at all. In July of 2014 Evgenia Peretz of Vanity Fair asked, “It’s Tartt but is it Art?” and went on to cite a number of modern literature’s “inner sanctum” who called it infantile, crap, unworthy, and a turkey. In the same article, Francine Prose finally admitted the truth. “Everyone was saying this is such a great book … I felt I had to make quite a case against it.” In other words, she had to say she hated it because the general public liked it a lot. None of these giants said anything about theme.
Reviews of The Goldfinch were divided in the literary community. I read a comment from one reviewer whose advice was to avoid dropping it on your foot, and perhaps not reading it at all. In July of 2014 Evgenia Peretz of Vanity Fair asked, “It’s Tartt but is it Art?”
Though the first half of King’s review decried The Goldfinch’s length, the second half of his review was more complimentary, citing it as an example of “intoxicating language” and asserting that the central theme was “art saves us but addicts us.”
While I agree about the language, I disagree with his conclusion about the theme. Although his idea is supported by the plot, Theo’s addiction to art is simply the means by which Tartt continues her exploration of deception and its results.
Tartt gave us the key to understanding her ongoing theme when she smacked us quite heavily on the head with The Goldfinch as metaphor. The importance of the symbol of the bird rests not on the painting as a whole (as in some statement about art), but on the tiny chain that enslaves the bird to its perch.
Birds are trapped by perpetrators of a deception of sorts, by those who use the birds’ naiveté. This entrapment is done to create some assurance or lasting pleasure for the trapper. The bird does not know what to do, and in the case of a trapped goldfinch, sings continuously—a song that is falsely beautiful. What else is there for the bird to do other than hope for a release? The main characters in Tartt’s The Little Friend, A Secret History,and The Goldfinch are naïve and entrapped. They create or are subjected to continual deception. They know exactly what others want to hear them say. Chirp, chip.
My research did not turn up a plethora of like-minded thinkers. But in a 2013 Goodreads interview, Tartt spoke very briefly and also a bit sideways regarding theme. Tartt merely claimed that she likes to explore the different ways in which people try to fit into a group. She tricked us all by not directly saying anything, I thought.
Obsessively, I ordered an e-copy of The Goldfinch so I could do a word search. Some form of the word “trap” is used less than twenty times in over seven hundred pages. The word “caught,” however, is used at least four times in every chapter. I did not review each appearance of the word “caught,” but nearly all of the ones I looked at were in direct reference to the main character. After all the highlighting I did in The Little Friend and my recent reading of The Secret History, I determined that an e-book investment for the simple task of a word search of those two earlier titles was probably not necessary.
Should you wish to explore such a theme and how a writer evolves and reincarnates it over time, Tartt is a master of deception and is meant for you. If you have already done such a thing, congratulations. By the year 2022 or so, we may have a chance to do it again.