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30 Years On: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" gets thick around the middle
Notes: If you haven’t read this book there are some slight *spoilers*—also, if you want some different perspectives, check out this survey of contemporary writers by another Bennington College graduate, Jaime Clarke, author of Vernon Downs.
I’m just finishing my reread of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and feeling quite discontented this time around. I read it first about 5 years ago, which was still a generation late—and me, a Rhetoric major who graduated the year it was published—but I don’t remember having so many objections last time, or struggling at the 40% mark thinking “Good god, this is a long ass book.”
I persisted because it is the very novel which ignited the dark academia trend, and I’m currently drafting a story with sinister underpinnings set at a boarding school in roughly the same period.
In point of fact, I feel I’m opening a can of worms by even saying I’m not thrilled by it because I recently tweeted a similar “meh” over Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, and while not exactly pilloried for my opinion, there were several distinct whiffs of hostility in the replies, and at least one curious assertion that some of the narrative choices with which I quibbled were the result of translation issues from Ancient Greek.
Now, Madeline Miller may be a prodigy and scholar of Greek and Latin language, but I’m fairly certain she wrote both her books in English from scratch, and that they are works of fiction from her imagination—informed by her studies of the inspirational sources for sure, but not translations from any extant ancient texts of which I am aware.
I would say “correct me if I’m wrong” but I know you will and I will humbly apologize if you are able to prove that Ancient Greeks used the same word for a fabric mattress cover and the materials they stuffed inside it, or that they knew how to preserve food by “canning,” but I will be frankly shocked if you can. Like I said, QUIBBLES! Christ.
Anyway, I think the first thing that started getting under my skin at old Hampden College, the setting of The Secret History, were the names of the characters: Richard, Francis, Henry, Charles, Camilla, Julian, BUNNY. I don’t think anyone blames Tartt for the Charles/Camilla coincidence when after all, the year it was published, Charles and Diana were still married and no one was the wiser how that all was going to blow up.
But on the whole, the selection of names for these effete children lands more than a little off-key. Yes, I’ve known a Richard or two, but I’ve known more Ricks and Riches. I’ve never known a Francis, only Frank. Never known a Julian, or a Jules. Lots of Chucks but never a Charles (except a cat.) No Camillas. One Henry, a relatively recent namesake whose mother admitted she mined early entries in a family Bible for something “original.” BUNNY? Don’t get me started.
My point is that all but one of these names is not so very outrageous by itself, but all together, in the 1980s (not the 1880s), in one place, among a group of 20-something college kids and their Svengali of a Classics teacher to me just sort of puts its finger on the scale past Gothic and into melodrama. Yes, quibbles, perhaps, but they start to add up.
Maybe we will get started with Bunny after all, while still ignoring the ridiculous name. What a dick. I mean, really, we knew he was going to die, and it took forever and a day to get him off that cliff, but by the time he went, were we not all thrilled to be rid of him? He was a pig! He was a loud-mouth, a boor, a thief, a bully, a chauvinist, a sponge, a drunk, a snob, a moron, a cheat, a coward—really, the perfect victim for the purposes of the story and arranging for the entire Classics Dept to arrive at the midpoint of the story as murderers, but that they could have tolerated his presence for as long as it took to deliver him to the cold embrace of gravity is just too much to believe.
And how is he supposed to have gained admission to that rarefied club to begin with, when the Grand Poobah himself—the famous, the illustrious, the legendary and quixotic Julian Morrow—was the biggest snob of them all? It strains credulity to imagine that such a blowhard and near illiterate as Bunny would be allowed to set foot in the door of that classical ivory tower. No, I just can’t believe that he would—the entire character feels miscast for the role he served, down to the narrator’s wistful pinings after he’s gone.
Let’s talk about the narrator, Richard, that 20 year old kid from the mythical Plano, California, who spends a week’s salary on a Paul Smith shirt, wears his friend’s bespoke British suits, drinks Scotch, knows what a spectator shoe looks like, plays euchre. I was a 20 year old kid from Palmdale studying classics at one time—who went to a private school with some pretty snotty rich kids too—and if you had said “Sulka, Aquascutum, Gieves and Hawkes” to me I probably would have thought you were speaking Ancient Greek. I can imagine picking up these little insights as you went along, in an effort to fit in perhaps, but I feel like you would have had to drop out of all your Classics classes and enroll full-time in the Thomas Ripley School of Social Climbing to keep up—and this before the internet. So, no.
I could go on about the Cubist composition in each of the other characters’ bios: Henry—fatherly sociopath. Francis—convivial homosexual. Camilla—adorable ice queen. Charles—incestuous sot. Those last two, especially, the twins and their inconsequentially enigmatic sex life lying unnoticed and ineffectual throughout the story until required at last to produce a bitter end? Not buying it.
I think what’s happening in The Secret History, the reason it was so popular at the time, and still, are two simultaneous operating systems running in the background: the money, and the magic.
Pour enough money into any production and people will forgive literally any amount of nonsense. (Witness the modern GOP.) These kids are RICH, and their wealth would appear to explain almost every note of excess and peculiarity which did not exist already as some fungus in the soil and air of isolated New England liberal arts colleges.
The magic is a little more complicated. Wrapped up in classics, Dionysus, maenadism is the general deference we pay to the ancient foundations of our Western outlook. Almost everybody has heard of Plato, Aristotle and “democracy,” The Odyssey, Zeus/Jupiter and Apollo in one shape or form—we don’t have to know what they said to most of us gleen that if we ever met the Greek God of Thunder in the flesh we might need to run for cover. We (some of us) worship erudition, but rarely have time in our workaday lives for anything but sporadic observance.
Julian as teacher and mentor represents the priest and oracle of that knowledge, and as a narrative construct was a very clever veneer, but as an actual character he was parchment thin—he really only shows up a handful of times, and the intoxicants of wisdom he was feeding to these kids pretty much all happened off stage. Throw a few scraps of Greek into any party and people are going to feel self-conscious about drinking straight from a can.
And that episode of maenadism itself? Steeped in the heady fume of atmosphere, gravitas, and our own wish to believe, why else do we turn to stories but for the opportunity to imagine our wildest dreams come to life? I’m not surprised in the least that at the height of 90s rave culture, when hundreds of thousands of young people were nightly attempting to practice a modern version, a novel that insinuates its characters actually achieve communion with the god of ritual madness would be highly appealing.
Credit where credit is due: Donna Tartt has a terrific voice, no doubt about it—her tone and her humor carry the day, and she is a deft weaver of spells. One can well imagine her leading the procession to the secret bacchanal, once upon a time. But count me among the disenchanted.