One of the books that’s been getting a lot of literary buzz this year is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This much-awaited Pulitzer Prize-winning tome came out 11 years after Tartt’s last novel, The Little Friend. The Goldfinch follows a little over a decade in the life of Theodore Decker. Near the start of the book, 13-year-old Decker survives a fictional terrorist attacked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He loses his mother in the tragedy but somewhat unwittingly ends up walking away with a painting — Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. That singular event ultimately dictates much of Theo’s life for the remainder of the book.
One noteworthy thing that doesn’t seem to get mentioned in a lot of reviews is that Theo is, for much of the book, a heroin addict. That being said, it’s not a book about addiction. (Or is it entirely about addiction? Sometimes, it seems that addiction is one of things you find everywhere if you’re looking for it.) Instead, The Goldfinch is about art, beauty, and obsession. It’s about loss and suffering. It’s about how easy it is to slip and fall into a netherworld — and how hard it is to crawl back out. It’s about an addict, but it isn’t the story of the unraveling of a life due to addiction. It is the story of the unraveling of a life of an addict due to problems not caused by his addiction.
Precisely because the book isn’t about addiction it does some really positive things for the representation of addiction. Addicts are generally demonized in society. Often, we forget — or willfully ignore — that there is a person inside and that addiction is a disease and not a moral failing. Even with a gun in his hand, we never forget the Theo is a person. In fact, for all his criminal action, we never even hate Theo because we know exactly where he came from and how he got to where he is. That sort of understanding of a person’s backstory is exactly the sort of thing that makes it harder for society to demonize addicts. In a way, every time that we come to understand an addict’s journey, history, and backstory, we come to humanize addiction instead of demonizing addicts. In this sense, Tartt’s representation of Theo as a well-meaning addict is thoroughly positive.
In a sense, The Goldfinch also humanizes addicts by introducing us to an addict we like and by pointedly not making his addiction the thing that defines him. In fact, ultimately we don’t even really know if Theo decides to get clean or not. He does achieve a certain amount of redemption, but it isn’t entirely clear whether that redemption does or does not include sobriety.
Despite the surprisingly minor role that addiction plays in the book, the poignant philosophical musings that Theo and his best friend Boris share at the end of the book speak powerfully to addiction. In a brutally honest moment when Boris confesses his transgressions to Theo, he says:
“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?” (745)
Clearly, Boris is not only speaking about addiction — he’s speaking about a series of mistakes and badnesses — but I think these are issues and questions that every recovering addict grapples with. I think part of getting sober is letting go of the judgment, regret, and blame and learning to live without them. I think that a good sober addicts question whether the hell of addiction was the only way to bring them round to being a better, more mature person.
A few pages later, as Theo muses over his own mistakes and shortcomings, he narrates:
“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.
“Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
“Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” (761)
Fortunately for me, my heart’s desire no longer leads straight to ruin, self-immolation, and disaster. I can certainly relate, though, because for many years it led just there. I don’t have the answer on how to change your heart’s desire — and neither does The Goldfinch. (Of course, that’s probably an unanswerable question anyway.) But, answers or not, The Goldfinch is an excellent book, well worth the commitment its 800-page length requires.