The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is another of my occasional foray’s outside of the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. The Secret History is, for lack of a better term (and I’m really not fond of this term) a ‘psychological thriller’, but one that is steeped in literary references and intelligence. The Secret History is in parts truly fascinating and contains some of truly interesting characters, but is let down by some pretty glaring issues with plotting and structure with these characters generally seeming at first more interesting than they actually are. We’re left with a novel divided into two clear parts, one of which works a lot better than the other.
The Secret History is set is a fictional elite college in Vermont named Hampden. The protagonist Richard, from whose perspective the story is told, joins a small tight knit group of exceptional students who study Greek with the mysterious and charismatic Julian. As the semester goes on, Richard slowly and inadvertently begins to uncover some distressing facts about the group, as we see his gradual shift from bemused outsider looking in to a fully fledged member of the group itself.
The Secret History is a sort of reverse murder mystery; we find out the victim, perpetrator and method of the murder in the first few pages. This is therefore not so much a ‘whodunnit’, but a ‘whydunnit.’ The first half of the novel is focused around the build up to the murder, as the protagonist discovers more and more about the people with whom he has surrounded himself. It’s an excellent structure, and gives the first half of the novel as interesting sense of urgency, as well as a palpable dread as we get closer and closer to the inevitable crime. Alas, the second half of the novel, which deals with the fallout of the murder and the effect that it has upon the group, is much less compelling. The narrative feels aimless and without direction, with the pounding energy of the first half lost. Large amounts of the final half all blur together, a seemingly random series of events completely at odds with the memorable and interesting first half.
The Secret History is exquisitely written, in a first person narrative. The novel is chock full of literary references, particularly to the Greeks, but with many clear references to figures such as Dante and Marlowe. A few reviews have criticised this novel as rather up itself, filling itself with intertextuality so that the author and smug readers can prove their intelligence. I disagree however, all of these references serve a clear purpose, and perhaps shouldn’t be taken at face value. One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Henry, a vastly intelligent young man who is completely uninterested in modern Western culture, immersing himself in that of the Ancient Greeks and other ancient societies. While he is able to invoke obscure Persian texts, and lives his life upon Greek aesthetic standards of beauty over truth, he is in many ways utterly useless when it comes to facing reality and a serious crisis. The emptiness of an obsession with ancient thinking is exposed in this novel; don’t get me wrong, this novel isn’t a criticism of Plato and Homer, but perhaps suggests that their philosophies aren’t truly relevant to the world of today and that an obsession with them can lead to a moral vacuum.
There’s an uncomfortable snobbery in this novel, although whether can be taken as reflecting Tartt’s own views or just that of Richard is unclear. The depiction of the ‘nouveau riche’ Corcoran family is, whilst incredibly funny, utterly cartoonish and ridiculous. Compared to the refined Hampden scholars they’re a bunch of clownish buffoons. Of course, perhaps Tartt is poking subtle fun at this snobbery; the Corcoran’s are a happy family unit, whilst the ‘refined’ Hampden lot are mostly a miserable and damaged bunch. Tartt treads an interesting line between a veneration of the Classics and an odd sort of contempt. Whatever the answer is, what’s more important is that Tartt asks the question so well, really leaving the the of passing judgement to the reader, which is how it should be.
The narrator of The Secret History freely admits his habit of idealising the people he is with, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the characters of this novel are largely impenetrable. Easily the most interesting character is the aforementioned Henry, who sees himself as an ancient soul trapped in the modern world. The only other particularly well developed character is Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, a tremendously entertaining blowhard, whose rude bluster is a source of many of the laughs to be found in the novel. There are an entertaining bunch of minor characters around the edges, such as the shallow yet good natured Judy Poovey and the hapless drug dealer Cloke. We never get a real feel for these characters, but that’s sort of the point. Richard is constantly surprised by his new friends, and is truly terrible at judging character, but this serves a decent literary purpose of allowing a curious distance between the reader and the characters. Although this is interesting, it does mean that it’s difficult to be as invested in these characters as we would normally expect to be. However, this emotional distancing is a very Greek thing to do, and reflects Tartt’s intention to incorporate Grecian ideas regarding tragedy and plot into a contemporary setting.
The Secret History has such a great first half that it really pains me to come down hard on this novel. There’s such depth and quality here, and the writing is never less than excellent, but there are some serious plot problems in the second half of this novel. This novel is considered a modern classic, and in many ways the second half feels like the literary equivalent of ‘Oscar bait.’ All of the depth and intertextuality in the world can’t save you if the plot is a mess, and sadly that is the case in the second half. There’s a lot to like in this novel, but I can’t encourage you to rush out and purchase it.