Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Richard Papen is a teenager from a poor family in California who ends up going to a university in Vermont. He decides to study Greek, and in doing so joins a very exclusive group of 5 students and their lovable but elitist teacher, Julian. The students of classical Greek are a cut apart from the rest of the university—they are intellectually brilliant but arrogant and insular. The twins, Camilla and Charles are the most likeable and ‘ordinary’ of the group; Henry is a genius but cold; Francis, is gay and vampire-ish with his long black coat and startling white skin, and Bunny is bumbling, quirky and not as smart as he thinks he is. All of them, especially Henry, are extremely wealthy and Richard lies about his background to become part of the group. Much like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Richard is a conduit through which the story is narrated. Unlike Nick, however, there is little in Richard to like. The six students spend their days in classical Greek texts, far removed from the reality of college life, and events conspire that lead them to murder of Bunny.

This is not a whodunit, because Richard introduces the story by telling us that they murdered Bunny on the first page. Instead it is a story of how they reached the situation where they felt they had no other recourse but murder; of the repercussions of the murder on them, and a very suspenseful story of a group of young murderers desperate not be found out.

Logic and rationalism vs passion and nature
Henry, the leader of the group, epitomises the boundary between logic and passion. He thinks so much—his head always in a book—that he cannot connect with passion or nature that humans are supposedly meant to feel. It’s almost as though his intellect is a cage of logic from which he cannot escape. This will resonate with anyone who thinks deeply. For anyone who has at least once thought, “I wish I could just stop thinking”, there is certainly truth in the phrase “ignorance is bliss”.

The inability to escape the reality of a humdrum everyday existence—an existence so inferior to what life ought to be if you’re a thinker—drives the group to experiment in bizarre ancient Greek bacchanal. After several attempts, they succeed and manage for a few hours, to lose themselves: “Duality ceases to exist; there is no ego, no “I” [...] You have no idea how pallid the workday boundaries of ordinary existence, seem after such an ecstasy”. The bacchanal nevertheless ends in disaster, the result of which becomes the motivation for Bunny’s murder. Yet this bacchanal and the ensuing disaster as well as the murder of Bunny are, for the group, opportunities to escape the cages of logic. As Henry tells Richard one day, months later, “[...[ my life for the most part has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did. But then it changed [t]hat night I killed a man”. Richard is horrified to realise that he knows exactly what Henry is talking about. Henry is the only one articulate enough to explain the complex emotions, such as this one, the others, including Richard, are afraid to admit. He claims that murder allowed him, for one brief moment, to “live without thinking”. The murder and the bacchanal allowed them to transcend reality for a moment.

Reality vs transcendence
The study of Greek classics and Julian, their teacher, embody the theme of transcendence. The students’ foray into the study of classical Greek and their neglect of other university subjects represents their pursuit of the otherworldy, which is not only supported by Julian, but actively encouraged. By immersing themselves into the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, they reinforce their exclusive community and sharply delineate the boundary separating them from the life experiences of average, ordinary university students.

The description of Julian is, by Richard’s own admission, unreliable. He is painted as someone who makes Richard feel like a much better person than he knows he is. Julian seems to have achieved the transcendent state the students yearn for—he does not mix with other academics; nor does he bother teaching or learning anything outside his specialty. He shows contempt for the reality of most people’s lives but is warm and caring to his 6 students. This relationship is an allegory for the relationships between the ivory towers of academic life and the rest of the ‘real world’. In contemporary Australia, at any rate, I think this divide is disappearing. I’m not so sure this is a good thing, considering what it’s being replaced with. But that is topic for another blog...: -)

After the murder, Patrick and his friends deal with the emotional repercussions in different ways. The consumption of alcohol and pills by some of them, however, take on monumental proportions. This is in keeping with the theme of the pursuit of an existence far removed from reality.

Why I liked this book
Don’t pick up this book unless you’re prepared to become quite obsessed for the next week or so. This is a book that called my name when I wasn’t reading it. I would be in the kitchen, chopping carrots, and my mind would wander to something Henry said, and my chopping would become frantic as I decided I needed to get back to the book immediately. It had me gripped from the beginning, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. It also had a very dark and horrible mood that haunted me for a while....I had some bad dreams involving death while I was reading it.

The suspense in the first part of the book—up to Bunny’s murder—comes from not knowing how they come to the decision to kill him. The suspense afterwards comes from wondering if they are going to be found out. It also comes from all the secrets.... Patrick is on the outer of the group for a lot of the time, and there are a lot of things that he wonders about—we are privy only to his thoughts about what is going on—not what may actually be going on.

The link to the penguin classics page for this book  is here.


Cat said...

Oh I love that you reviewed this book! Not only is it one of my favourite books, but we also recently read it for our Popular Penguin Book Club (our little book club picks our books from the Popular Penguin list). You’re right; it is incredibly compelling and doesn’t seem to leave you alone! One of the most striking things throughout this book, for me, were the many references to beauty and the role it could/should play in life ("There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty - unless she is wed to something more meaningful - is always superficial." - p.577). It’s a fascinating concept.
I am looking forward to more of your reviews.
(Our book club meets tonight – discussing Farewell My Lovely, so yes I have read your review too!)

J.A. said...

Thanks for reading, Cat!
Emma, you've done a great job distilling the essence of this book.

I know I have to read it, not only because you make it seem so fascinating (if not addictive), but because Tartt has dedicated the book to Bret Easton Ellis (and set it at Ellis' fictional "Camden Collge"...

Anonymous said...

Who is Patrick?