The Grain of Reality

Gia Arora
4 min readMar 3, 2024
Carel Fabritius, ‘The Goldfinch’

Every so often, the world changes minutely when a person makes a split-second decision. A lost key, a cracked cell phone, a leaf skittering over a sidewalk. Broken hearts and kept promises. A lifetime of difference, wrought by a momentary lapse in — or revival of — judgement. Just as a person ducking back home to wear a different tie to office does not know they just missed a road accident, so too was I oblivious to the fact that when my attention was snagged by Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch one Monday afternoon, I had inadvertently changed the trajectory of my life.

(At least, that’s what I imagine. I finished the book last night, and twelve hours isn’t quite long enough to calculate a lifelong change. But I can hope.)

I read The Secret History when I was fifteen years old and freshly enraptured by the world of art. There, nestled between picturesque horror and sheer absurdity, shone three words: beauty is terror. And, heart open and aching for fullness, I lapped them up. I was drawn to the book’s languor and aesthetic, delighted by its opulent barbarity. I watched the characters lie, obsess, fanaticize, love each other and kill each other and die in each other’s arms. I felt nothing for them save some abject amusement, and a bit of hatred.

Naturally, then, when I picked up The Goldfinch, I expected something similar. I anticipated pretty words and morbid delight, death and deception and lies. To say that that is not what I found would be untrue, but it would be worse still to say that that is all I found. Because there was also so, so much more.

It started, as promised, with the painting of a little bird. A little golden bird, chained to a little whitewashed perch. It started also with a museum, and a girl with a violin, and an Isn’t it always the inappropriate thing, the thing that doesn’t quite work, that’s oddly the dearest? A canvas, not painted over, but instead woven into a tapestry of everything and everything. Home: the loss of it, the search for it, the realization of where it can be found. Life: the ache for it, the hatred towards it, the peace of it.

And, above all, love. Love, all alone in a foreign land, in the middle of a desert with flashing lights and stars that spell out your name. Love, in split knuckles and split lips, stolen pennies and stolen smiles. Love, in the leaving, in the returning, in the never coming back. A broken Polish lullaby translated stiltedly into English, A-a-a, a-a-a, there once were two small kittens

There, too, was childhood, slipping away; friendship, broken and mended and more, more; an overwhelming sense of history, of centuries superimposed, 1940s by way of 1640s. There was sitting on the stoop of a home you didn’t know you had, stargazing with her but having eyes only for the moon. There was Conversational Russian, and The Idiot, and the last four digits of his phone number, because you missed your best friend. Ships passing, but also, coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.

(Theo: I think this goes more to the idea of ‘relentless irony’ than ‘divine providence’.

Boris: Yes — but why give it a name? Can’t they both be the same thing?)

This tapestry-canvas was woven through with golden thread, and this golden thread was that little yellow bird on that little whitewashed perch. It was chained to a blank wall, imprisoned for eternity with a few strokes of a brush. One prisoner looking at another. And what did it mean? Nothing, and everything. The length of its shackle was the same as the space between letters that separate two words, and the space between a person’s lungs and a person’s ribs, and the space which things crawl under and inhabit and make magnificent. An individual heart shock. Theo is an echo caught on a breeze, a quiet note of laughter, and I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that was the secret of the universe.

And beneath it all ran an undercurrent of beauty. In words, in silences, in the minute hand of a clock. Playground laughter, hotel room smiles. We’ll be eating breakfast in the cornfields when the sun comes up. Not terror, but not not terror. Terror, accompanied by happiness, and misery, and hope. 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 it is this space where all art exists, and all magic.

Beauty is in the knowledge that the finch Fabritius painted was unique, and in the conviction that if Theo could go back in time and see the bird first, he would set it free in a heartbeat. It is in Theo finally flipping to the final page of the book and watching the ink dry, adding his own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Beauty can’t be terror, or at least, not just terror — after all, “beauty alters the grain of reality.”