Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Secret History (Review)

The Secret History
Donna Tartt
The Secret History is about campus life, the power and cost of the intellect, the treasures and dangers left to us from archaic times, friendship, adolescence and murder. Underpinning the entire book is the concept of cost; to society, to the world, more spiritually, and to oneself. It is an ambitious read, but to be honest, I’ve read it six or seven times, and also have studied ancient Rome and Greece for two years, and am only beginning to feel like I’m skimming the surface of what this book means.
Richard Papen is a Californian-born student who has elected to study at Hampden College, an isolated and small university in Vermont, because its very nature appeals to him. Once he arrives, Richard learns of the existence of a small, hand-selected class whose intensive studies of the classics have isolated them from the rest of the insulated campus life. After some difficulty, he is granted permission to join the class, and as he gets to know his fellow students a little better, it becomes apparent that their devotion to the classic teachings is more than ardent. His class members are a close-knit group; Charles and Camilla, fraternal twins, are orphans. Charles is entirely dependent on two things; Camilla and alcohol. Camilla, one of only a handful of girls in the entire novel, is understatedly enigmatic. Francis, a “trust fund baby”, is stylish, shrewd, gay, and incredibly rich. Henry is prodigious; an apparent genius, he reads in many ancient languages, slips into Latin speech without noticing, and is the embodiment of the archaic values of Rome and Greece. Central to the novel, in my humble opinion, however, is Bunny Corcoran. It’s difficult to describe his character in a sentence, for it is Bunny whose character resonates throughout the entire book. He is an outdated, American “old-boy”, who lives what appears to be the high life, but in fact simply uses others. He is irritating, seemingly stupid, and does not have the riches of the others. When the classics students, prior to Richard’s joining them, undertake a Bacchanal, Bunny is excluded from the proceedings for his lack of understanding and failure to take it seriously enough. The Bacchanalia involves ritualistic loss of oneself to divine ecstasy, a concept not fully experienced since ancient times; so, the successful completion of the Bacchanalia by the group of college students is a remarkable occurrence. However, during the course of their orgiastic ritual, the students mutilate, and kill a local Vermont man. The real trouble starts for them when the obnoxious, irritating Bunny uncovers this piece of information, and, affronted for his exclusion, begins to use it to his advantage.
The remarkable thing about this novel is that the murders – there are two, the farmer’s, and Bunny’s consequential one – are not the centre of the plot. Instead, the character’s reactions to the events of their own doing and Bunny’s are explored in grotesque, disturbing detail. Henry’s frighteningly cold and clinical deconstruction of the “options” the group is faced with to deal with Bunny’s blackmail and paranoia are deeply unsettling and upsetting. Richard’s self-inclusion in Bunny’s actual murder, despite not having participated in the first one, is a shocking example of the lengths young people may go to in order to fit in with an admired group. The revelation of the true nature of the relationship of twins Charles and Camilla – which, if you know anything about Greek history, will certainly not surprise you – reflects the level to which the group are disturbed.
The novel alludes to the social order of the ancient Greek world; the students are depicted as being fallen aristocrats, and the informed reader wonders if this is one justification for their actions. Interestingly, there is not a single redeeming feature of any of the characters in this novel. This is an ambitious ploy on the author’s part, as often books with unlikeable narrators are difficult to read. Do you agree?
But this is no excuse. Nothing can justify the actions of the students in The Secret History. My mother likened this book to watching a car crash in slow motion. You know it can’t end well, but you’re compelled to pay attention to see what the end result is. Something like a Chuck P book, but without the gratuitous gore (sorry, Chuck). After reading this book, I generally feel quite disgusted; it’s written in the style of a traditional Greek tragedy, which unfolds before your eyes at such a rate that you cannot register its effects until it’s entirely over.
Thankfully, The Secret History is now readily available as an orange-covered Popular Penguin. Now only ten dollars! When I first decided to read it, it was very hard to find, so I’m glad to be able to recommend it so easily now.

Enjoy...or perhaps don’t. ;)

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