Saturday, December 19, 2015
Book report: "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
Serious literature isn't mainstream anymore and I admit I'd never heard of Donna Tartt or this, her first novel 23 years ago. Wikipedia tells me she's Catholic; a friend adds she's a convert. A good read and as a fogey who was a young one, I see old acquaintances in the characters, both the good and bad parts. But I wonder: are these people realistic or do they just sound like the kind of people the narrator would fantasize about going to college with? (A smart, out-of-place young man in a dead-end town imagining going to prep school and a tony college, finding friends at last.)
Notes 3/4 of the way through it: 1) These characters with their fellowship and their real or imagined sophistication remind me a lot of people I met in Anglo-Catholicism (I'm grateful to the thing but it has its faults): "We're so lofty; let's rip someone apart for fun!" Topping, old bean. 2) Still, these characters seem like the type Richard would have made up. 3) I don't think Julian's evil, just wrong. He's not responsible for what these kids did. 4) Henry's the natural leader; fascinating. Seems he's the one who did both deeds. Interesting fantasy, and there are such people, though rare: an aesthete with an IQ off the charts who's strong enough to kill a man bare-handed (the story Judy Poovey tells forewarns of that). I'm no pacifist; sometimes you need that. Bunny of course didn't deserve it. Henry seems so English (cold self-control); fits anglophile ideas and not far from the real thing in a lot of cases. 5) Are they out-and-out evil or just kids? Even Henry: IQ in the stratosphere but a socially stunted kid (circumstances: he was recovering from injury), as they all are; self-centered. 6) Bunny's annoying, not evil. Minus the evil parts I would have loved to have gone to some little preppy, truly liberal liberal-arts college, such as in New England, with a great-books program sort of like Julian's almost Oxbridgian tutorial approach with other fogeys and with a high-church or at least orthodox Catholic parish in town (forget the college campus ministry, please!).
Finished it in five days. Good and unpredictable. You knew the ending would be sad but not how. Julian wasn't a bad guy. The key, the leader, was Henry; what a waste. All that intellect; all that potential. Thing was, again, because he was so calm, educated, and well-spoken, you forget he was just a kid, 20! And socially stunted because of his circumstances (that long recovery from an injury as a child). So he had intelligence and knowledge but not wisdom, which caused the problem. They say judgment and wisdom don't fully kick in, that your brain doesn't really grow up, until you're around 35. Why the president has to be at least that age. A wise person would learn from studying the humanities including the classics that having a bacchanal, a Dionysian orgy, is a bad idea. (The Catholic Church says: that's asking Satan to come out and play.) Which ties into one of Henry's flaws, something I thought of early on: underneath that cool English-like exterior he was a thrill killer like Leopold and Loeb; it made him feel alive as he admitted and maybe it pleased his vanity that he might get away with it. Also, Kathy Corcoran, Bunny's mom, reminded me of the Münchausen-by-proxy mom in The Sixth Sense: I got the sense that Bunny's funeral was really an excuse for her to show off by throwing a party, something she maybe wasn't consciously doing. (Mack the dad has a short attention span but his grief is real.) This evil is out there, in charming guises, including churchy ones (high-church aesthetes are susceptible; very Anglican... appealing to insecure kids who want to think they're better than they are, as the narrator was in spades), and people get away with it. Nice nods to the church from this Catholic writer, not too much.