The Secret History
Eleanor came home from college with my copy of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, which she’d been assigned for a class, and said I should read it because it was a page-turner and she’d finished it in one day. It took me a couple of days, what with kitten and kids and things, and near the end of it I was in a very irritable mood. It’s not a nice story, and they’re not nice people. They made me cross.
I was surprised to find myself so cross because, in addition to Eleanor, Ana and Jenny really like this book. Maybe I read it too long after college—it’s about college kids, and how they over-dramatize everything that happens to them. One of their friends annoys them and what do they decide to do? Do they invent a cruel nickname and talk about him, sometimes even in his presence, until he realizes he’s unwanted and slinks away? This is something I did as a college student, and still feel guilty about.
Okay, but I’m not being quite fair. The Secret History starts before the friend begins to annoy them. It starts with a group of Classics students deciding to run around and drink and take drugs and starve themselves until they call up Dionysus. The ambition reminds me of the way Julia and her cohort decide to summon a god in The Magician King. It’s always a bad idea to dabble in the supernatural just for fun. In this case, though, the danger is not from the god, but from their own frenzy. They kill a man, leaving themselves open for blackmail from the annoying friend, whose nickname is “Bunny.”
Most of the novel is about how bad they feel about killing Bunny, and I had very little sympathy for them so I just kept getting more annoyed. The characters are brilliantly drawn, though, even down to their habits of mind, as classicists:
“If the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.”
There’s a lot about regional and class differences between college students, since the main character, Richard, is not well off and from California, while he’s going to a small, select college in Vermont. He can always identify other Californians: “her voice was brusque with the staccato Californians sometimes affect when they’re trying too hard to be from New York, but there was a bright hard edge of that Golden State cheeriness, too. A cheerleader of the Damned.”
The richest and most studious of Richard’s group of Classics scholars is Henry, the leader. He says to Richard “You’re not very happy where you come from, are you?” and then “Don’t worry, you hide it very cleverly.” Richard thinks that “he said this without malice, without empathy, without even much in the way of interest. I was not even sure what he meant, but, for the first time, I had a glimmer of something I had not previously understood: why the others were all so fond of him. Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart.”
The others in the group of scholars are Bunny, who has no money but expects his friends to buy him extravagant things, Francis, who is rich, and Charles and Camilla, who are twins. They all spend autumn weekends at the country home of Francis’ absent relative, where they drink and play croquet and go for long walks. Richard thinks of it as an almost perfect place. At one point they fantasize about living there together:
“The idea of living there, of not having to go back ever again to asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture; of living there with Charles and Camilla and Henry and Francis and maybe even Bunny; of no one marrying or going home or getting a job in a town a thousand miles away or doing any of the traitorous things friends do after college; of everything remaining exactly as it was, that instant—the idea was so truly heavenly that I’m not sure I thought, even then, it would ever really happen, but I like to believe I did.”
For years after college, Ron and I and some of our friends would talk about designing a house where we could all live together, much like Richard’s fantasy. So far, all we’ve done is share beach houses.
But it turns out that while Richard was dreaming his pretty daydream about sharing a house with his friends, they were searching for ways to call Dionysus without including him. It’s not even clear, from what they say to Richard, whether they would ever have told him about killing a man in their Dionysian frenzy except for needing him to help keep Bunny from telling. Bunny, who was also excluded, only knows because he was waiting at Henry’s house the night they returned wearing bloody chitons, with Camilla unable to speak.
Richard tells some terrible stories about Bunny, like how he could zero in on a person’s insecurities. “Ruthless as a gun dog, he picked up with rapid and unflagging instinct the traces of everything in the world I was most insecure about, all the things I was in most agony to hide. There were certain repetitive, sadistic games he would play with me.” But none of the things Bunny does can justify the premeditated way they go about planning his murder. Henry tells Richard “I went out there today with a tape measure…The highest point is forty-eight feet, which should be ample.”
Part Two of the novel, in which Richard and his friends suffer the consequences of having killed their friend, is the part that irritated me most. They went into their Bacchanal and then into planning Bunny’s murder as if they were entitled to decide who gets to live and who has to die. Their arrogance doesn’t carry them through unscathed, and yet the denouement is less satisfying than if they were tormented by anything other than their own deficient consciences.
An interesting novel, but one I’m glad I have read, rather than one I enjoyed reading.