‘Life is catastrophe,’ or how I learned to love ‘The Goldfinch’

Alex Jimenez/Staff

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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 catastrophe. The basic fact of existence — of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do — is catastrophe … 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.

— Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

At the age of 16, I would’ve described — prompted or unprompted — “The Goldfinch” as somewhat of a pesky childhood friend who you don’t really want to be friends with, but your parents are friends, which means you have to be friends. As luck would have it, said friend also happens to be exceptionally irritating, someone who demands more than anyone could feasibly handle. Someone who might, in simple terms, be (un)poetically described as a Debbie Downer.

When I first read “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt a little over four years ago, I was a reluctant fan, a Tartt loyalist who was entertained by the 800-page read yet couldn’t help but feel a vast sense of discomfort and discontent in reaction to the story. At the time, I was deeply embroiled in the Twitter- and Tumblr-based literary fandom communities, otherwise known as thousands of bookish nerds who take themselves very seriously. Having freshly received the Pulitzer Prize, “The Goldfinch” was all the rage. I’d had it recommended to me a thousand times over by people who knew me well and by people who didn’t. 

That I would, of course, cave into this rage and read “The Goldfinch” was a given. Every writer has a book that taught them something profound about the craft, a book that made them realize exactly the kind of writer they want to be. For me, that book is Tartt’s 1992 debut novel, the cult hit that brought together classics students with a murderous streak: “The Secret History.”

Every writer has a book that taught them something profound about the craft, a book that made them realize exactly the kind of writer they want to be.

I read both of these books as a sophomore in high school, a formative year during which I was intensely preoccupied with documenting my ever-so-groundbreaking bookish thoughts on the internet. The opening to my Goodreads review of “The Secret History,” posted in February 2015, reads: 

“You know how sometimes you read a book, and as you’re reading it you’re filled with a looming sense of dread because you know that you’re going to finish it eventually, and you’re terrified of that happening?”

My feelings, like most things, are easier to make sense of in retrospect — preferably, in a healthy, heaping amount of it. After reading “The Secret History,” I found myself chasing after something that would terrify and enthrall me in the same way. It was this insatiable hunt that brought me to purchase “The Goldfinch” with a Barnes and Noble gift card (and a 25-percent-off coupon to boot) one not-so-dreary Southern Californian winter. 

Naturally, I was expecting a spiritual successor to “The Secret History.” I did not find this, but rather, in the book’s trove of nearly 800 pages, discovered a story bearing just two concrete connections to “The Secret History”: its author and the two cameos that my favorite character Francis Abernathy makes only in name.

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To be fair, “The Goldfinch” is a page turner, and the book rarely left my hands during the surprisingly short time it took me to frantically pore through those pages. There was never any doubt that, as a book, it had touched me, and it had touched me deeply. But it also troubled me, and I was young. I took these troubling feelings to mean that Tartt had done something wrong, that her Pulitzer-winning feat, 11 years in the making, was somehow flawed. 

“The Goldfinch” is the story of Theodore “Theo” Decker, a character whose name was almost always somewhere on my Tumblr dashboard for nearly a year before I actually decided to read the massive thing. It is frequently described as a bildungsroman, a classification that I feel implies the book does something it actually doesn’t. The typical bildungsroman results in the protagonist finding their place in the world after a long journey of trials and tribulations. Theo, however, is more alone than ever by the book’s finale, part of which is included in the above epigraph. “Life is catastrophe,” declares Theo to his “nonexistent” reader. “Better never born, than born into this cesspool.” 

Indeed, everything that happens to Theo throughout the course of the narrative serves as evidence that catastrophe is woven into the very fabric of existence or, at the very least, into the fabric of Theo’s existence. Trauma drives the plot forward and permeates every aspect of it insofar as that trauma becomes less of a concrete occurence and more of an aesthetic. “The Goldfinch” defies easy categorization as a standard bildungsroman, instead presenting its readers with the opposite end of the spectrum: a failed bildungsroman, wherein the protagonist progressively retreats further into his own head, hardening his worldview and ultimately, in the book’s concluding paragraph, deciding that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins.” 

Trauma drives the plot forward and permeates every aspect of it insofar as that trauma becomes less of a concrete occurence and more of an aesthetic.

In digging through my not-to-be-disclosed Tumblr to find my posts related to “The Goldfinch” from four years ago, I wasn’t surprised by the musings I found. To paraphrase my woeful 16-year-old self who wasn’t fond of using proper capitalization: 

“Don’t get me wrong, I did like ‘The Goldfinch.’ But it depressed me.” 

I have made no secret of my fascination with the macabre. It is this exact fascination that led to my continuing romance with “The Secret History,” a story arguably darker than Tartt’s prize-winning, third and most recent book. 

In Tartt’s debut, murder is aestheticized to the same degree as trauma in “The Goldfinch.” Fittingly, one of the most memorable lines in “The Secret History” is the simple, yet startling, “Beauty is terror.” Yet despite the eerily graceful aesthetic evoked by this proclamation and how said aesthetic tampers down the grittiness of coldblooded murder in Tartt’s first novel, the book is still gritty. It is knowingly grim, and you are a spectator to the tragedies unfolding before you, rather than an active participant. “The Goldfinch” is lush and linguistically immersive in a different way — despite book critic James Wood’s claim in the New Yorker that its storytelling “belongs to children’s literature” — and traps you in the head of a boy-turned-man and doesn’t let you go, not even for a second. 

It still hasn’t let me go, and the worst of its hold took place not while I was reading the book, but rather in the months after. Another paraphrase from a Tumblr post I made in the summer of 2015 about three months after I closed “The Goldfinch” (and then proceeded to turn back to it over and over, rereading certain scenes and trying to make sense of it all): 

“I’m thinking of reading ‘The Goldfinch’ again … I’ve been kind of festering in the aftershocks since finishing it, and I feel like there was a lot more to it than I realized.”

And through this re-evaluation, there was a number of revelations to be found.

Over time, “festering in the aftershocks” of Tartt’s world of “The Goldfinch,” it occurred to me that melodrama and the aestheticization of these heavy themes are not clear-cut “bad things.” I could not fathom why anyone would admire Theo — no matter the overwhelming trauma he undergoes — because after the book’s timeskip, it is frustrating to grapple with his character. And perhaps it isn’t as important to admire a character as it is to admire how they are written, but this is easier to understand after years of contemplation. Most of the answer is found in the very final paragraph in which Theo declares that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins,” qualifying this claim immediately after it is made:

“… but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. … 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. … it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”

The easy conclusion would have been to dissect these words and say something like, “Well, that’s that. There’s a streak of optimism, and this redeems the book for me.” This wasn’t the conclusion I came to, because the book doesn’t have to be redeemed by anything. It stands sturdily on its own, and my task was to do what Theo says we must do — to immerse myself anyway, to wade through it, keeping my heart open. 

Theo’s final words are a reminder that survival is in and of itself a triumph, even if it’s the only triumph we ever get, which is not necessarily optimistic when you really think about it. Still, like the titular Carel Fabritius 1654 painting that Theo pulls out of the ashes, he survives.

Optimism is still the easy answer. On Sept. 13, “The Goldfinch” film came out, something I’ve been waiting for since I was 16. Despite my initial resistance to the book, I still adore Tartt and was excited to see her story play out on screen. Without mentioning other valid criticisms, the most distinct difference between the book and the film was the shift in tone by the end of it, as the film concludes on a fairly positive note. The painting is saved, as are several others. Thus, Theo is saved. All is well. After all these years of learning to accept that all is resolutely not well in “The Goldfinch,” it was ironic and somewhat funny for me to watch the minimal streak of optimism at the end of the book be stretched out in its cinematic counterpart. Much of the nuance carefully wrapped into the pages of Tartt’s magnum opus is lost in a film that gives viewers the more or less happy ending it assumes they want.

Much of the nuance carefully wrapped into the pages of Tartt’s magnum opus is lost in a film that gives viewers the more or less happy ending it assumes they want.

Because, you see, “The Goldfinch” — like all novels, and like the work of art at the story’s core — is art, and art doesn’t necessitate pleasure, although there is certainly appreciation to be offered to narratives that pull off the aestheticization of grief, trauma and loss as tremendously as Tartt did in this one. Theo Decker will never be happy. By managing to save the painting, he finds a reason to continue surviving. But this doesn’t give him a true purpose, nor does it result in a moral awakening that helps him move past his trauma. Death always wins, says Theo. All you can do is survive until it does. 

And if you’re Theo Decker, you can contribute to the preservation of art in the meantime, too.

My greatest amends made to Tartt’s masterpiece took place perhaps a year or so after I read it when I changed my Goodreads review from three stars to a five out of five star strike. It was a decision that brought me to be at peace with the book.

Nowadays “The Goldfinch” is not a pesky childhood friend who bothered me, but instead a childhood friend who I cherish and with whom I seek reunion every once in a while. Perhaps Theo Decker’s nihilism isn’t something to aspire to, but if life truly is catastrophe, then what a wonderful catastrophe it is, having learned to love “The Goldfinch.”

Alex Jiménez is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alexluceli.