Summer (Bedside) Reading: Week 3

Jul 19, 2016 | by Lindsey James

Well, week 3 and we’re still at it. This next one has been on my list for a long, long, long time. And, admittedly, it took me a little bit of a long time to read it. It certainly isn’t a new book (it was published in 1992, but I couldn’t read then, so I had to wait) and it certainly isn’t bite-sized. But I wasn’t disappointed.

The Secret History 

By Donna Tartt

Try as I might, I could never quite pinpoint when this all took place. Here’s what I know:

1. Cell phones do not exist. Pay phones are still very much a thing. And they are a thing that repeatedly get coins dropped into them, a thing that serves as more than grimy sidewalk decor or an object of interest for a popular podcast. The Nisha call, anyone?

2. A good chunk of the book is dedicated to finding out where people are, trudging through snow and knocking on doors, leaving voice mails for God’s sake. Voicemails! There is even quite a bit of communication through handwritten notes slipped into non-digital, non-internet-connected school mailboxes. It’s all very exhausting.

3. Televisions exist, but very few people have them. At a point, one is dug out of a dorm building’s attic and temporarily borrowed, or stolen, depending on how you look at it. But that also could be less of a reflection of the time period and more of a reflection of the main characters not really being the “TV watching type.”

4. Smoking still seems to be cool. And by smoking I mean chain smoking. And by cool I mean everyone’s doing it.

This is an inverted detective story, not a whodunit. You find right at the beginning exactly whodunit and what it is. It’s more about why, and why is so much more thrilling, isn’t it? After doing a bit of detective work myself, I discovered that Donna Tartt attended similar college in Vermont from 1982 – 1986 and this book supposedly reflects aspects of her time there. That timing feels about right, right? There are even whispers that the main characters in the novel were based off of some of her classmates.

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The best word to describe this novel, and bear with me here, is hazy. But in a good way! It’s full of terrible people, but also, in a good way. Terribly selfish, insufferably snooty, and fatally flawed. And at the same time? So, so frustratingly enigmatic. Everything seems to happen while they’re stumbling around, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a swirl of sleeping pill dreams, frequently missing for days at a time, and waking to a glass of whiskey in a tea cup. They’re trying to clean up a mess that simply will never wipe away, and it seems that they’re doing it with their eyes half open.

In the first sentence we learn that Bunny is dead. And now the curtain is up, the stage is set, and the macabre show begins. The reader slowly begins peeling away who Bunny is, witnessing his penchant for needling into his friends biggest fears and insecurities, and ultimately learning what he knew to deserve to be dead. And, perhaps, most importantly, how he continues to haunt his killers, well after he’s in the ground.

The main character is Richard Papen, and I’ll call him what he is, which is a simply tragic character. Being from California, he is essentially is the equivalent of an extraterrestrial at the fictional and elusive institution of higher learning, Hampden College, which is full of uppity East Coast prep school kids. Set in an unforgivably cold and desolate rural Vermont, he encounters Julian Morrows, a brilliant classics professor who gleams like the father figure Richard never had. And soon he finds himself, after much effort, twisted and tangled in the incestual group of Julian’s disciples, Henry, Francis, the twins, Camilla and Charles, and, you guessed it, the misfit, Bunny, who hold their teacher’s every word as gospel. 

Richard’s character is intentionally under described it seems, acting as more of a skin of himself, serving as a vessel for the reader. The deeply introspective Richard has a set of emotionally distant parents (distant or dead parents is something all 6 of the students have in common), had a modest upbringing (which he lies about, substituting in a sun-tanned wealthy boarding school, swimming pool, and oil money upbringing, since modestly is decidedly not something they all have in common), and is beholden to an almost compulsive need for acceptance, swirled with envy and an intruder’s detachment. But it’s not the kind of acceptance you would expect. This group of students exist in a kind of time frozen universe, full of dead languages, ink bottles, and a distinct acquired sense of dress. This, perhaps, made it even more difficult to figure out exactly when the story was happening. They inhabit a darker antique world, one of glimmer and smoke, and Richard is helplessly entranced. Oh, Richard. 

Richard speaks to something in all of us. Perpetually existing in this weird kind of limbo where he is desperate to be included , but at the same time , wary and a bit discerning about their madness. A horrible act kept secret, the unwavering gaze of Julien, the manipulative and charismatic Henry (the appointed leader of the group), and a private language of ancient Greek keeps the group’s binding in place. In the end, Richard sacrifices conscience for companionship as he is methodically drawn into the dark.

If we’re being honest, and I always am, this read is challenging. Donna Tartt is a master of minutiae. Even her peripheral characters are expertly carved (see drug fiend, secret admirer of Richard, and LA native Judy Poovey). The writing is meandering, true to life, and, at times, too dry to swallow. The knitting of the aforementioned characters is loose, with open questions, grey areas, and so, so much resentment. And, of course, what’s a novel without unrequited love?

The thrill of knowing they’re doomed from page one makes the slow slide there somewhat glamorous, in spite of the tragic and troubling nature of it all. Reading this is a little like watching an expert baker, carefully portioning out ingredients to be added at a specific moment, to rise and steam. Tartt is incredibly controlled throughout, offering a measure of intrigue here, a measure of grotesque detail there, with careful steps over rabbit holes, and slow, deliberate descriptions. All of sudden you find yourself knowing something about one of the characters that has never been told to you. The mixture leads to a haunting and powerfully sweet ending, even if there is no cake.