I”ve read a few long novels lately, starting with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (reviewed last month), and have just finished her first book, The Secret History, published after eight years under the pen in 1992.
First off, I like The Goldfinch better, and I’m glad I read it first. Tartt made a huge splash with her first book, and it has been much reviewed and discussed. So I won’t attempt a deep review here. Just a few impressions.
The story of the intelligent, awkward, reserved young man from a blue collar family in California who happens to land in a classy New England college, and almost by chance finds himself in a small, select group of students studying classical Greek with a brilliant professor who hand picks his students, is unusual, bringing together many strands: young adult angst and identity fragility, class consciousness and snobbery, elitism, Greek mythology and philosophy, the power of Dionysian ritual brought to life, a messy accidental death and a nasty, premeditated murder, incest, the corrosive effects of guilt and fear of being found out, unrequited love… and more. The story begins in the voice of the narrator, Ricard Papen, with these haunting words:
I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.
And tell it he does, at length, opening with the the murder of Bunny, the squeaky wheel in the small group of friends, then reflecting on his own fatal flaw: “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” This is a story in which myth comes alive in unlikely modern dress. The irony of the narrative is that for much of the story, Richard sees through a glass darkly. He is excluded from the secret history, as are we, despite the opening confession. It takes 3/4 of the 629 pages before we understand the events that lead up to Bunny’s murder, and more before we discover the nature of the relationship of the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, Camilla’s secret love for another member of the group, and the true nature of the remote but charming and charismatic figure of the professor who is the adored and admired mentor and centre of the group and secretly, revered as a father figure by Richard, who feels only shame, dislike and contempt for his natural parents.
Such stories cannot end with redemption. Instead, we have another death, this one self-administered, and each of the remaining friends, Richard tells us, declines into a sad, unglamorous, messy sort of life; love is unrequited, and all that promise, those glittering young lives, are wasted. The last few pages let the story down, I felt, giving us a summary of the rest of the lives of the minor characters, who were mere shadowy puppets on the wings of the main action. Only the last page or so revives the dark, sinister shadows that haunt the main story, when Richard sees Henry in a dream. Henry was the central figure in the Dionysian ritual that went so wrong, and the messy murder of Bunny. He was always enigmatic, secretive, a little sinister, and he died young. In Richard’s dream, he tells Richard … well, I won’t say, in case you haven’t read it. He then excuses himself, saying he is late for an appointment. So we are left wondering if this is a ghost, if he has some power beyond the grave still to affect those who loved him.
Why do I like The Goldfinch better? Starting with negatives, I find the characters in The Secret History remain shadowy and two-dimensional. Even the narrator, and I wonder if this is a deliberate narrative strategy. If it is Richard’s reserve, his shame about his background, his secrecy about his feelings, his lack of confidence, that keeps him an outsider to the group, seeing them only in part, too reticent to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on. So they are seen through his eyes, and we see them like figures in a sketch, with a lot of shading but not much definition. Similarly, what I find to be skippable prose at times may be because he gets preoccupied with superficial things, thoughts and pursuits, such as drunken partying with other college mates, and denies his own intellectual and moral virtues, selling them short, hiding them, going along with the crowd or the group until it is too late to make a stand, to separate himself, and he gets dragged into their dark, secret lives despite himself.
As I write about it, I see more in it, though I still found the actual reading of it less engaging and fulfilling than I did of The Goldfinch; there, I entered much more into the narrator’s life and the worlds he inhabited.
I have reserved her second book, My Little Friend, at the library.