Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Hangovers and The Secret History

Help! I’m in the throes of what can only be described as a “book hangover”—that space between novels where I can’t quite bring myself to abandon the world of the book I’ve just finished to start reading something new.

The book in question is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Yes, I know that it’s Tartt’s new release, The Goldfinch, that’s garnering so much buzz recently. I’d heard so many wonderful things about her first novel, though, that I felt compelled to read it before checking out the new one. As an added bonus, it also came highly recommended for its strong sense of atmosphere. This is something I’ve been seeking in my reading lately (see last month’s The Night Circus), so I was eager to give The Secret History a look.

My first impression: How did someone not recommend this book to me sooner?

The Secret History is a thriller on its surface—a sort of murder mystery in reverse, where readers discover the murder of a young student at the hands of his friends in the opening pages, and then backtrack to chart the course of events that lead to the murder and its aftermath. Its real power, though, comes not from the murder plot, but from the protagonist’s gradual decay as he becomes enveloped in the turmoil of one of the strangest and most seductive friend groups I’ve seen portrayed in a novel.

Narrator Richard Papen is an outsider in every sense of the word. He’s just as out of place with his unsupportive, working class family in California as he is in the snooty, upper crust, liberal arts college he attends in New England. Almost immediately, Richard becomes drawn to eccentric professor Julian Morrow and his exclusive ancient Greek program. Julian operates largely outside of college jurisdiction, and demands that his hand-picked students take classes only with him for their entire tenure. Despite warnings about the practicality of these studies, Richard becomes enamored with the cool, untouchable Greek students—scholarly and stoic Henry, charismatic twins Charles and Camilla, shrewd and flamboyant Francis, and pompous jokester Bunny—and he soon finds himself joining their ranks. 

Richard’s a little Gatsby, a little Pip. His clear desire to belong and his self-acknowledged fascination with aesthetic beauty and artifice create a believable descent into trust and complicity with the rest of the group, even as red flags begin to emerge. Tartt excels at presenting characters who intrigue and even evoke a kind of sympathy from the reader, despite the fact that these characters are fundamentally rotten individuals. Much like a Walter White or a Tony Soprano—though younger and often significantly more angst-ridden—Tartt’s group of young adults will occasionally display the barest flashes of morality or kindness or helplessness just at the moment when you begin to genuinely hate them. Choosing Richard, who is not exactly “pure” from the outset, but who experiences perhaps the most dramatic moral decline, as well as having the most objective vision of events, is key in achieving much of this balance. His excitement at being included within this exclusive group, to finally rewrite his own life story into something more glamorous and interesting, is predominantly what makes his actions believable and even relatable (if not wholly sympathetic).

I mentioned earlier that I came to this book for the atmosphere; and damned if that isn’t why I stayed! Tartt’s writing is gorgeous, her prose lush and evocative. Descriptions of the New England landscape abound, portrayed with the same sense of fierce and somewhat terrifying beauty with which the Greek students become so obsessed. The students themselves are wonderfully anachronistic. They dress sharply, their speech is eloquent and old-fashioned, and they eschew modern pursuits for lawn games, cards, and discussion of antiquity (apparently any history past Greek and Rome is unimportant, as one particularly strange and funny moment finds the unflappable, brain-the-size-of-a-planet Henry totally shocked to discover that man has walked on the moon). While set in the late 80s, the book has a timeless feel to it that I absolutely loved. What can I say? I’m a sucker for any novel that includes bookish students drinking bourbon out of teacups.

While the third quarter sags a bit with some slow scenes (the murdered friend’s funeral is dragged out for what feels like a hundred pages), the final section moves quickly and the entire first half is absolutely riveting—like, can’t-put-it-down-for-300-pages riveting. Some of the content encroaches a little on “Lifetime special” territory (I’m talking alcoholism, drugs, abuse, incest, orgies, you name it), but the writing consistently elevates the material, especially in conjunction with the novel’s major themes. The result is a strange hybrid of literary fiction and salacious page-turner that is just the most delicious sort of combo I could imagine.

Seriously, this is one of those rare books where I’m torn between “I wish I’d written this” and “Thank goodness I didn’t, or I’d miss out on extreme pleasure of reading it.”

Simply awesome.