'The Secret History': I Know What You Did Last Reading Period

Oh. Oh. WHAT could be more delightful? You’ve read it, of course. It’s… oh, I can’t even describe it. It’s a delight. A melodramatic, delightful delight. Do you have a guest room? Put this next to the bed. Were you one of the many young people who became a classics major as a direct result of The Secret History? Put this next to your threadbare futon with the soy sauce stains on it. Donna Tartt: kicking ass and ruining lives since 1992.

Let’s talk about that title. It’s awful! And, obviously, I assumed that it was one of those situations in which the author has a totally boss title, and then the publisher says “no, we’re calling it Murder in New England/Sex and Death at Hampden College/The Bacchanalian Diaries,” but on closer inspection, it appears that the working title was actually The God of Illusions, which is… also bad. Is it better? Who knows. The Secret History sold a bazillion copies, so perhaps we should give props to the good people at Knopf.

Speaking of titles, every single character in this book has a name straight out of The White People Who Are Rich Without Having Jobs Handbook. Do you think I exaggerate? (I do.) Francis. Charles. Camilla. Henry. Bunny (real name, Edmund!) Julian! Richard is on the fence, but then, so is Richard himself, amirite? Richard, of course, is our narrator. Most of us will identify with Richard. Tartt has you pegged: grew up working or lower-middle class, read a lot, thought you were special, had free-floating melancholia and swooned about, created elaborate fictive inner lives, got into a good college and immediately suspected that everyone else was working from a guidebook you didn’t have, and also knew instinctively what to do with those little scarves and how to order oysters. It’s Prep, you know? And it’s the two different kinds of rich-people-lives that one can fawn after. Francis, with the “summers in Switzerland, winters in France,” and then Bunny. Tartt nails Bunny: “Four brothers, no sisters, in a big noisy house in the suburbs, with sailboats and tennis rackets and golden retrievers; summers on Cape Cod, boarding schools near Boston and tailgate parties during football season; an upbringing vitally present in Bunny in every respect, from the way he shook your hand to the way he told a joke.” Read Tad Friend’s Cheerful Money.

The truly curious thing, in retrospect, is that these charming young monied nutcases are only undergraduates. One trembles to think of the hijinks they might get up to were they actually in a doctoral program! Can you imagine? Think of everyone you’ve ever known who is working on a dissertation, please. That look they get in their eyes? The thousand-yard stare? It wouldn’t be one farmer, accidentally, and then an aggravating friend, purposely. No, there would be hemlock in the water supply. The quad would run red with blood. Moreover, who was unmoved by the ease with which the nutty professor got Richard out of all his other work in order to learn exclusively from him? If it meant skipping distribution requirements without repercussion, who wouldn’t become a murderous classicist?

(Sidebar: what if someone rewrote The Secret History, but replaced Richard with Ignatius J. Reilly? Let that thought settle for a bit.)

Let me burst your bubble right now: they are never going to make a decent movie of The Secret History, so all of the weirdly persistent Tartt-isans can simmer down. You know why? Because it would look super, super nerdy on film. Trust me. On paper, it’s Gothic and gooey and fun and people are being Anciently Greek and quoting “The Waste Land” at each other, and it’s loads of good fun, but prop some 22-year-old ingenue who got three callbacks for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn up there delivering lines, and it’s going to look like a non-awesome Cruel Intentions: The College Years. The interminable conversations about art and beauty and the fire of pure being? Picture the worst early-morning discussion section with the most pretentious students imaginable, while you’re grimly trying to eat your Chik-fil-A and work through your hangover. Some things just don’t translate well across mediums. Did you read The Lord of the Rings? Do you remember Tom Bombadil and Goldberry? Well, there’s a reason they didn’t make it into the movie. It would have looked stupid. No, The Secret History is a forbidden, nerdy bitch goddess.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. You know how Liz Lemon gets those flashbacks to college, and it’s always her taking photographs of stuffed birds or dating gay guys? Well, I re-read The Secret History, and I’m right back there in my dorm, watching Gosford Park Rocky Horror Picture Show-style with a bunch of guys who wore bowties and drank Pimm’s Cups and remembered the Queen’s birthday. Which is to say, I would have been skipping along merrily, having ill-advised Dionysian rites and critiquing other people’s yellow silk jackets on seasonal grounds with the best of them. Nerdy is nerdy, and it doesn’t become less nerdy just because you’ve covered up a couple of murders, y’know? Embrace it! Dress as Charles and Camilla Macaulay for Halloween! Drive to Vermont, have a boozy themed picnic! (Apple tart(t)s, red wine, bunches of grapes, chunks of lamb, whatever.)

When I recommend The Secret History to others, I usually say “the first hundred pages are great, and then it bleeds out a little,” but, on re-read, I’m inclined to think that I just have a hundred-page attention span, because of the Tnternet, and that the whole thing is really pretty fun. We’ve gotten away from asking the question: “is it any good?” of our Classic Trash selections, so I am happy to answer that, yes, this one is good, despite being all mannered and fussy and froofy and faux-heavy and THE DARK FLAW. I think it’s ridiculous that everyone blabbers on about Donna Tartt fading from the scene and not living up to the potential of her first novel. It’s an incredible, monumental achievement to write one decent novel that everyone likes, for heaven’s sake. Not to mention a decent novel that everyone likes and actually buys. If you manage it, the rest of us should buy you jars of imported lime curd and fan you with palm fronds for the rest of your days. But no, that’s not how it works! Apparently, you get a two-year grace period, and then the vultures start circling you. Maybe John Kennedy Toole had it right. (Joke! Don’t kill yourselves, young novelists. Your unpublished manuscript is not going to be hailed as a triumph by Walker Percy. Better to live.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS!

• Come clean: did you become a classics major because of The Secret History?

• What would you have named this book, if you had your druthers? Remember, The Art of Locative Cases has been taken. So has Desperately Seeking Henry.

• If you were a white person who is rich without having a job, what would you name your creepy twin offspring?

• Did you attend Bennington? Did you kill anyone? Is there something special about Bennington that makes people want to write weird books set at fictionalized versions of Bennington? Does Peter Dinklage come back for alumni events? Have you met Peter Dinklage? Are you watching Game of Thrones? Have you seen Episode Nine? Were you expecting that? Who do you pretend you are? I pretend I’m Daenerys.

• What book do you offer to your overnight guests who didn’t bring their own book? What are you doing, having overnight guests who don’t come with their own books?

• I skipped The Little Friend. Is it any good?

• Did you read The Secret History and not enjoy it? I would like to hear more about that.

• Charles and Camilla: intentional homage to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall?

• Did you know that John Kennedy Toole worked at a hot tamale stand, and that, really, the singular is “tamal”? Did you also know that “flaccid” can be pronounced as “flak-sid,” and that many believe this to be more correct?

And for next time, loves, let’s do The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers.


Previously: Clan Of The Cave Bear and The Valley Of Horses



Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.