Donna Tartt and the MacGuffin

Alexander Chee

I read The Goldfinch last summer when my partner Dustin and I cat-sat for a friend in Woodstock for 8 days, a busman’s holiday. I was working on my novel, he was working on our script, and we wanted to go off and be in the relative quiet of the woods as we did this, to our friend’s massive converted barn loft house and two nervous cats, one of which we would never see. I had just received an advance copy of The Goldfinch, and when I was not working on my own book, I was reading hers.

“What is it about?”, Dustin asked me, curious, as we took a walk on the second day of our trip. He hadn’t seen me so absorbed in a book in a while, and to be honest, neither had I. I tried to summarize it, and as I did, I could see I was both describing it and yet also mangling it with some sort of literal blow-by-blow description that had at first seemed like the most straightforward way to proceed. I gave up, and promised to try again afterward, and simply returned to my movement, between reading it and writing.

There are times in the writing of novels when it is impossible to read anything else. All other books fail you because the one you want to write is the most urgent, and must, necessarily, annihilate the others. But then sometimes there is one, or two, but usually one, that can keep you company, and most writers will tell you that that book you keep on the desk while you write, that is an intimate relationship. It’s one part protector, one part angel, one part obsession, one part teacher. Sometimes it is always the one book, sometimes there’s a rotation. The Secret History had been there with me for a while because of the structure of it, an elegant addition to a group of novels I was using to think about retrospective structure and point of telling—that is, where the narrator is telling you this from. I was using Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History before The Goldfinch was a surprise addition—as if it was tagging along with its wicked older sister as soon as it had been born.

From the beginning, I found the intimate atmosphere of the novel seductive, especially the way it knew its characters so well, and the way it reminded me of how much I just loved to read in the old days, before I ever aspired to anything besides reading. And in this way, the act of reading it reminded me of who I was, also. But the truth is, the novel fascinated me for many reasons. Beyond the characters and atmosphere, there were the massive paragraphs, the fantastic style to it, the way it is a sort of long explanation from the narrator to the young woman he fell in love with as a boy, telling her how he fraudulently inserted his way into her life, and has accepted he will never have her. The novel asks a question, of whether anything can really be “restored”, or if that is only a fiction too–and one that is destructive at best for both the one who believes it and the one who sells it. And along the way, it does a great many things.

The Goldfinch opens in Amsterdam, in a hotel where the narrator, Theo Decker, is holed up, mysteriously staying to himself, reading newspapers, drifting in and out of sleep, worried for reasons we’ll understand only near the end of the novel. The atmosphere is one of suppressed urgency, an elegant mind in disarray, but it also reminded me of when my mother would give us paregoric as children—there’s the feeling of fever and opiates (these turn out to be literal). The narrator describes not having the right clothes for the weather, staying too long, dismaying the concierge. He then describes a dream he’s just had about his mother, dead now for many years, so close he feels he can touch her, but he can’t, and then he tells us why, and with that, the novel opens, and we move to the last day he spent in her presence.

This is the day she took him to a meeting at school as he faced possibly being expelled, and then became carsick, and then they walked until they got to the Metropolitan Museum, where they went inside to see some favorite paintings, because there was so much rain, and then bombs set by terrorists went off, trapping Theo in a wing where only he and a much older, elegant gentleman have survived. This man is gravely injured, though, and so Theo keeps him company until help arrives. Soon it is clear to them both this man will die before they are rescued, and so he gives Theo two missions: he hands him a signet ring, asking him to memorize an address and go there to deliver the ring, with news of his death. And then there is the matter of a painting, knocked off the wall. The Goldfinch of the title. He asks Theo to take it for now, to make sure it is safe during the melee. The man then dies, and Theo manages to escape the wing. In the melee, he gets home to wait for his mother, who never returns—she has died in the attack, he learns the next morning. Now he is home alone with the painting, which he knows he must return, and yet he cannot, after all he has lost, quite let go of it.

The source of so many happy memories of her, in other words, becomes the place he lost her.

Theo had been following a red-headed girl around, increasingly obsessed with her—her and her chaperone, a man who he wasn’t quite convinced was her father. The girl he was crushed out on is nowhere in sight, but the man is right there, clearly in bad shape, near death. Theo goes and sits with him, talking to him, as their rescuers try to reach them. The man gives Theo two missions: a beautiful gold ring, with instructions on where to take it. And when he sees the Goldfinch painting, he instructs Theo to take care of it, to take it with him so nothing happens to it, in the looting that could surely follow. The painting is too rare to risk.

Theo takes the ring, eventually, to the address the man asks for. But he keeps the painting, well past the time he could safely return it. He will not let go.

To the extent the Goldfinch has a plot, then, it is formed around this question of how will he return the painting? The rest of the novel is about the life he lives as a result of this day, and how his life forms around what turns out to be the theft of the painting—and when will he return the painting and how? And what forms afterward looks not so much like a rising action as much as the layers of a pearl.

It is also, in large part, a classically Freudian narrative, the one event that transforms someone forever, the wound that is the source of the character’s genius and mania both. In some important way, I think the question of whether you like the novel or not depends on whether you believe this idea of the self can be true—if not for you, for someone else.

The answer as to the painting’s return is a complex one, one that takes decades, and takes us from the Park Avenue family who takes Theo in, to the Las Vegas home of Theo’s grifter dad and his mistress, back to New York, and then finally to Amsterdam. Along the way, we learn an enormous amount about the art market, antique furniture repair and restoration, the stolen art market, antiques fraud, and the method by which the elderly rich in New York are so frequently defrauded late in life by a certain kind of visitor, as Theo goes from being someone who buys, sells and restores some of the world’s rarest furniture to being someone who defrauds the people who buy, sell and restore the world’s rarest furniture. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack that takes his mother’s life and essentially also ends the only world he’s known, the painting becomes the sole source of his self-esteem, the one pure thing he knows. All else can be wrong, but at least he has this. The painting is alternately his mother, his past, the past that can never be recaptured and yet remains, haunting, seemingly possible.

Back in New York in the years before The Secret History came out, it was popular for the young writers I knew to say that they never used plot. Plot was anathema, plot was over, plot was a bore, who are you plot, goodbye. Everyone claimed to write stories in which ‘nothing much happened’. Only a few really did. I’m pretty sure I said some or all of this too, for the record (I was young).

After The Secret History came out and you asked people what they were working on, many people said, “Oh, I’m working on a literary thriller.” I was too startled at first and then it just seemed implausible. I may have asked “Hey how is that literary thriller” a few times to see people look away, ashamed, but that was about it.

A great many fewer literary thrillers came out than were said to be written, as you can tell. In any case, after everyone came chasing after Donna Tartt to try to use plot, it would appear, in The Goldfinch, she took her plot, and threw it into the sea somewhere near that Amsterdam hotel.

Why was the novel so hard to summarize, then? The answer, I soon discovered, was in the architecture. And it wasn’t about the plot. There is no rising action, though there is a climax, or, several of them. Some of them happen quite early.

But by the end, I could see the novel was like the ultimate shaggy dog story as novel, due to a finely made MacGuffin. And it gives nothing away to say the Goldfinch of the title is the MacGuffin.

The simplest definition of a MacGuffin is that it gives the characters something to do in such a way that the plot is made around it. The term comes from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who defined it as the mysterious object in a thriller that sets the whole story in motion. For an object in a novel to be the MacGuffin, the object must be one on which the fortunes of a character seem to rest entirely. Think Chekhov’s Gun, then, but if that gun never went off, and instead was stolen by a young man no one in the room quite remembered meeting, and so they set off to find him, and catch him before he uses it—because that gun must be returned, or all is lost. The real story and its major themes arrange themselves as the search for said object is underway. You look up from the search for the gun, and you understand something else entirely has happened. Calling it a plot device makes it seem as if it is somehow separate from the plot, something that drops the plot off at work, but it is more integral than that.

When Theo begins his two missions, the one of which he fails, he is allowed to enter the furniture shop eventually in a way that feels a little like the test in those books about young magicians. It is more fable than children’s story, though—and in fables, it is very often the case that the first of two tasks is easy—the second, nearly impossible. The novel becomes the story of a young man who enters what is to him a magical cave, but what he finds there steals his whole life away. Or it is the story of the spell that requires a new victim for the old one to leave—Theo takes over the role of the dead man, you see. The boy who would rescue the painting turns out to be very like the old man who insisted the boy rescue the painting.

The result of his trying to hold on to the painting is that the magic in the novel’s beginning becomes dark magic by the end. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack that takes his mother’s life and essentially also ends the only world he’s known, that painting, the act of having taken it and saved it, becomes the sole source of his self-esteem, the one pure thing he knows. All else can be wrong, but at least he has this. We read it watching, wondering, if Theo will ever escape himself. By the end he seems to say he has not. But by then, we understand, success never lay in that direction. This is because success isn’t possible. This isn’t a tragedy with a happy ending, it’s a tragedy only, and the narrator barely survives his own hubris.

So often people speak of novels as if we are making machines—does this move the novel forward, people ask. Forward into what? The X-22 Hypnagogue? The Planetary Deceptablaster IV? Where else should novels take us, except into them and what they mean to show us. But to the extent that Tartt has remade the MacGuffin to suit her purposes, I would say she has done it, and those of us who read novels and write them, and especially those of us who claim to love the plotless novel, whether we like the novel or not, we may eventually be grateful to her for this as well.

Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam, and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Ledig House, the Hermitage, and Civitella Ranieri. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Book Sense 76 selection. In 2003, Out magazine honored him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in, Out, Tin House, TriQuarterly, The L.A. Review of Books, and Apology. He has taught fiction, nonfiction writing and the graphic novel at Wesleyan, Amherst College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University and is currently the visiting writer at the University of Texas – Austin New Writers’ Project . He otherwise lives in New York City and blogs at KoreanishHis second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.