The New York Times named five novels as the best of 2013. Amazingly, two of them—both written by women—are about art and art making: The Flamethrowers*, by Rachel Kushner, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was enchanted by both.
While Kushner’s novel takes place in the art world emerging around Soho in the 70’s and the Red Brigade years in Italy, Tartt places her tale in a post-9/11 world. Her novel begins with a terrorist explosion in the Metropolitan Museum that takes the life of the mother of the book’s lead character, a twelve year old named Theo Decker. He escapes the wreckage with a small painting in his satchel, the tiny 17th century Dutch masterpiece of a bird chained at his foot: The Goldfinch painted by Carel Fabritius**.
From this starting point Tartt unfolds an orphan’s tale that blends the 19th century charm of Charles Dickens and the Bildungsroman genre with very American and contemporary themes: East/West tension (large stretches of the book compare the various worlds of Park Avenue and the Village in New York City with the foreclosed wasteland of suburban Las Vegas), the lost boys archetype, addiction, materialistic obsession, and the arcane international underworld of the Russian mafia. But amid these familiar memes Tartt keeps a thread taut: art has a power, mystery and immortality all its own. And although our lives are often broken and wildly out of whack, any of us can and are touched deeply and personally by great works of art.
From Ron Charles‘ review in the Washington Post:
The Victorian tenor of this thoroughly modern novel isn’t reflected only in its extended plot and vast collection of memorable characters. You can also feel that 19th-century spirit in the author’s willingness to take advantage of her enormous canvas to reflect self-consciously on moral and aesthetic concerns that so many contemporary fiction writers are too timid or too sophisticated to address directly. Free will and fate, pragmatic morality and absolute values, an authentic life and a dutiful one — those fusty old terms spring to life in an extended passage of philosophical trompe l’oeil as Theo expounds with the authority of a man who has suffered, who knows why the chained bird sings. Through years of guilt and drug-dulled pain, experience has taught him that loving something sublime can soothe “the writhing loneliness of life.” The novel ends in full-throated praise for the power of a great painting to sink into your soul, to act as a bulwark against the inevitable victory of death.
Without sounding preachy or pedantic, Tartt aligns the essential importance of art with our troubled and existential world. As the book comes to a close Theo articulates his hard won understanding of that. This passage is a memorable one:
The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful. Resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution,. There’s only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later…
I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at last my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature.
And this passage, a simple description of where art resides:
I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.
*For more about The Flamethrowers, read this Slow Muse post, This Flashing Present.
**The actual painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague. Fabritius was a student of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer. While famous in his own lifetime, he died very young in the famous Delft gunpowder explosion of 1654 that destroyed a great deal of the city. Most of his works were also lost in that catastrophe.