Monday, July 21, 2008

The Secret History

Earlier this summer, I had the distinct pleasure of reading Donna Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, published in 2002. After that I was extremely excited about her first novel, from 1992, The Secret History.

Superficially, the novel is about six friends in college who commit a murder and their Classics professor, completely oblivious to the reality of each of the six friends. The murderers are revealed on the first page, so the whodunit is ruined. But the details of the murder, the tiny bits of clockwork laid subtly down by the author, are the elements of the mystery "told in reverse", as related by the narrator, Richard.

Again, like her second novel, Tartt is interested in crimes without punishment, in memories and ghosts, in the differences between social statuses, in Beauty versus Truth, among other things. In this novel, Tartt carefully and meticulously details the differences between each of the six friends: Richard, the narrator, Henry, the rich genius, Francis, the rich, upscale homosexual, Camilla and Charles, the orphaned twins, and Bunny, the layabout and victim. Each character is fleshed out brilliantly as Tartt examines where they come from and the circumstances that lead them to their ultimate crime.

The friends are inspired by their charming and genius Classics professor Julian to replicate a bacchanal, as they try to distance themselves from what is needed of them in society and what they want to do in life, distance themselves from social constraints. Once the pieces have been carefully placed, the only options the characters have, to withdraw from social constraints, is to murder Bunny. Both Henry and Richard feel more free than ever after they realize they got away with it. There's nothing stopping them from doing anything... except their own twisted selves.

Unfolding like a classical Greek tragedy, fate and their nature conspire to ruin the five murderers. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator wistfully wonders if a tragic flaw exists outside of literature and he decides that it does. Each of these characters exhibits a tragic flaw based on their personality and social status. There's no Harpies set out after these murderers - simply their nature.

Of course, things go badly for everybody, but not in the way that the reader expects. This isn't like Humbert Humbert, where he dies of a broken heart, but in that the greatest loss the students experience, greater than the murder of their friend, is the departure of Julian, after he's figured out what really happened to Bunny. The shock of being abandoned by their professor is more painful than anything they expected or experienced. How sad.

The narrator is an interesting figure in this novel. Richard is smart and filled with lyrical observations and he's charming, like Humbert Humbert is. And just like Nabokov's narrator, Richard loves the constant references and allusions to other works. More than once, the professor asks them to leave the phenomenal world (the physical world) and enter the sublime, ie the world of literature and poetry and dead languages. This world is what the characters reach for and end up committing horrific crimes. This is a novel about surfaces and the worlds beneath them - not only in terms of literature or art, but in people and their true natures.

Richard is also a Fifth Business-like character. He's not really part of the action. Most of what happens is related to him, so we only get his perspective, often blurred by alcohol or drugs or the haze of memory or omission. What the narrator really only allows us to see is the beneath the veneer of everybody. Richard constantly shows the audience what happens beneath a person's mask, highlighting again the novel's themes of surfaces and superficiality and the darkness beneath it all - the sublime.

This is a much more complex novel than I'd expected. There is so much happening in this book, but at the same time, it's a lively tale. The narrator is charming and he's easy to read, and the events unfurl with great drama. I really enjoyed reading this novel for its complexity and its more sensational qualities. It's a great read while at the same time being almost Nabakovian in themes and structure.

I don't think I can heap any more accolades onto Donna Tartt. She is the kind of writer that makes me ashamed to be a writer because I could never achieve her quality of prose, complexity of theme and level of entertainment. I really want to read another novel by her.

I can't possibly recommend this any more than I already have. Read it.

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