Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

>>Published: September 1992

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

“I don’t see what’s wrong with the first plan.”

“The first plan is too stylized. Design is inherent in it through and through.”

“But design is preferable to chance.”

Henry smoothed the crumpled map against the table with the flat of his palm. “There, you’re wrong,” he said. “If we attempt to order events too meticulously, to arrive at point X via a logical trail, it follows that the logical trail can be picked up at point X and followed back to us. Reason is always apparent to a discerning eye. But luck? It’s invisible, erratic, angelic. What could possibly be better, from our point of view, than allowing Bunny to choose the circumstances of his own death?”

Everything was still. Outside, the crickets shrieked with rhythmic, piercing monotony.

***

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a modern classic in every sense of the word: a dense, devilishly detailed psychological thriller about an elite Dead Poets Society-esque clique of students studying Greek—the language, culture, and history—in great detail at a Vermont university. Under the tutelage of the enigmatic Classics professor Julian Morrow, the group of six brilliant but socially underdeveloped students are presented as an increasingly strange and introverted family of gastronomical idiosyncrasies, nicotine and alcohol addiction, and malleable social ethics. Perpetually seeking new experiences and pleasures, four of the six—Henry, Francis, and the twins Charles and Camilla—attempt a Bacchanal: a hallucinatory rite in which they seek to experience contacting the Greco-Roman god Dionysus. However, during the rite, a farmer is accidentally murdered by Henry. Bunny and Richard, the latter being the novel’s narrator and the newest addition to this frighteningly arrogant group, were not present during the unfortunate event. Bunny, having known and leached financially from Henry for years, discovers the secret the foursome would like to have kept hidden, and is unable to cope with what he knows—at first riding them with uncomfortable jokes and comments meant to upset or make them uncomfortable, but gradually devolving through an uncharacteristic crisis of conscious. Bunny’s inability to keep the group’s secret leads, of course, to the tragedy that opens the novel: his murder.

That rather large chunk of exposition should do an adequate job setting the stage for Tartt’s six psychological disasters, with minimal details revealed. However, from this point on be warned: I intend to spoil the hell out of this book.

The Secret History is a page-turner, start to finish. From Richard’s captivating opening, revealing the death of Bunny and the partial scope of the investigation that followed, through the group’s pre-history, the slow reveal of the Bacchanal and the death of the farmer, planning and executing Bunny’s murder, and the mental dissolution of the group that carries through to the novel’s end, Tartt’s novel is a study in building and maintaining tension. Tartt’s characters, without exception, are intricate puzzles in and of themselves, each one a unique combination of sexual predilections, intellectual advantages, and emotional, often addiction-based shortcomings: Henry, the most notable of the lot, is emotionally reticent, closed off from revealing too much of himself as he studies each of history’s great civilizations in depth while refusing to acknowledge his clear sociopathic leanings; Francis hides his homosexuality behind his wit and affability; Charles and Camilla, often quiet and sullen, hide a subversive, violent, shared sexual past; Bunny, the louse, is an outwardly gregarious sort who shelters great contempt for others and fears of his own intellectual and financial inadequacies behind scathing humour and offensive, bigoted remarks, while simultaneously taking his friends for every cent he can; and Richard, the novel’s protagonist, who forces himself into this elite, narrowly-focused group as a means of proving himself and his intellectual worth—and to distance himself from his blue collar family back in Plano, California.

Guiding these sorry, socially divergent souls is Julian—their professor, their guide, and to some degree, their muse. Though not often present in the moment, Julian’s influence is felt throughout the novel—a slightly mysterious, deeply intelligent character with a potentially shady past, whose obsession with Greek culture and history is the most delicious of wines, impossible to resist. Bunny, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla come from wealth and influence—there are no circles they feel incapable of wandering into. Julian’s severely limited class is, for them, as much about the prestige of belonging to yet another improbably exclusive club as it is their interest in the subject matter on hand. But Julian is as much an enabler as their inattentive parents and corrupt acquaintances, reinforcing their specialness, their social invincibility—so when they are faced with a matter of life and death, they choose to hide from their responsibilities, believing themselves above condemnation. Richard, for his part, is the novel’s willing participant—one so influenced by his insatiable desire to prove his worth, which he sees as being largely defined by his intellect and associations, that he is capable of eschewing his ethics in order to protect his newly acquired family.

The strengths of Tartt’s novel are in what is left unsaid—how the moment of Bunny’s actual demise is never gratuitously detailed; indeed how the only moment of fully realized violence is the novel’s definitive climax: when Henry puts Charles’ gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. It is the moment when their carefully constructed set of realities is brought finally, irrevocably, to its grisly end, and the full realization of their grim actions is brought to light at last. The tension Tartt builds by allowing so many seemingly innocuous are-they-or-aren’t-they-plotting-against-me moments to develop and fester is thick and palpable, creating a believable sense of paranoia that increases without once prematurely climaxing.

Julian’s departure in advance of the novel’s climax, having discovered his students’ murderous behaviour and feeling some untold responsibility for their untethered ambitions, is when things begin to fall apart—when the group first loses grasp of the naïve dream that they might one day be forgiven for their actions. As a matter of fact, it’s Julian’s departure, and to some degree his lack of physical presence, that presents for me one of the two key problems I experienced while reading Tartt’s tragedy: that he is at first presented as their axis, the personality around which they gravitate. As things spiral out of control in the weeks and months following the Bacchanal, Julian’s influence is supplanted by Henry’s plans and mechanisms. And as Henry attempts to assume total control over the increasingly distraught group, planning for and covering up Bunny’s murder, the gaping hole left by Julian’s influence is sorely felt. It is only when Julian discovers Henry’s role in Bunny’s death, and Henry sees in Julian’s eyes the look of a disappointed, frightened parent, that he once again becomes a notable force in their lives, removed from the casual commenter he’d become in the book’s second half (following Bunny’s death). The disappearance of Julian, having washed his hands of his students’ actions, is certainly felt, but not with the weight it might have had had he remained a more visible force in their lives—but then, Henry’s rise to influence would not have been as pronounced had Julian maintained a greater presence in their lives, so this is a little bit of a chicken-egg scenario, wanting something but realizing its absence is what makes the rest of the book so convincing and unsettling. It’s to Tartt’s credit (and my own obsession with academia) that Julian left such a mark on my experience that I was left wanting more.

The second key problem, however, is the more pronounced, and it is one I’ve not yet come to terms with: Bunny. To be more specific: the character of Bunny and the fondness with which Richard and others look back on their time with him, wishing things had turned out differently. My problem is that it is not believable. At no point is Bunny presented as anything but an insensitive, homophobic, bigoted parasite with no interests but to pleasure himself through food, drink, and what qualifies to Bunny as good humour. The many asides taken by Richard in the wake of Bunny’s death—remembering him fondly, wanting nothing more than to be again greeted by his jovial tones and good nature—ring false; there is nothing sympathetic in Bunny’s character or in the way he interacts with others. Had Francis or one of the twins been the one who’d had the crisis of conscious, I feel my response would be different. Bunny, however, seems the least likely to react in such a manner—he is little more than an emotionally detached man-child with little to no concept of consequence or of his negative impact upon the lives of the many from whom he takes and takes and takes without a hint of remorse. Bunny’s death, at the end of all things, is less a tragedy and more a social mercy.

These problems aside, The Secret History is a tense, engaging, and exciting read that, in the end, does not disappoint. The slow psychological dismemberment of Tartt’s characters—all but Richard and Henry, who she alludes at one point to being twin flames in their relative sociopathy—is captivating and handled with impressive subtlety. As an exercise in authority, control, and the perceived allowances made within certain social hierarchies, The Secret History is an accomplishment—a Greek tragedy in its own right.

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