Wednesday, September 13, 2006

In college, we knew all the cliques. Cliques seem to be stereotypes that transcend time and location. In Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a group of gifted and privileged students studying Greek and the classics commit murder. The novel challenges the reader to watch these students, Henry, Francis, Richard, Bunny, Camilla and Charles deal with the emotional turmoil that comes with covering up a murder. It never goes smoothly, does it? The students think they're smarter than everybody else, tricking cops, the FBI, classmates, parents, teachers and the Vermont community. Unfortunately, Tartt actually does make them smarter than everybody and that is one of the downsides of the novel because Spoiler Alert they get away with, not one, but two murders. I don't know what Tartt's trying to say with this. Later in the book, we learn that a few of the kids crack and never really get their lives in order, but I wanted more trouble for the murderers. I wanted them to pay for their crimes, not just emotionally. I'm a square through and through, but I understand that life is not always black or white. I watch film noir and read Raymond Chandler. I know that people do some awful things because they feel there's no alternative. But Tartt doesn't want us to sympathize with these characters. And that's good because I didn't want to. These were cold blooded killers that were supposedly above reproach. The protagonist/narrator Richard, actually ends up going for his Ph.D in literature and is the least scarred of all the killers. I like shady protagonists...people on the skirts of society, living in the shadows of right and wrong. Richard isn't that guy. He's more of guiltless Ripley-esque character, without Ripley's charm.

It may not seem it, but I enjoyed the novel. It was an easy and entertaining read. I just never got what Tartt was trying to say, if anything. I didn't underline or mark any passages (and that's sad,) I simply read it and was done with it. I think Tartt's friend and former classmate, Brett Easton Ellis can still claim to rule the world of collegiate narcissism and moral corruption.


Stefanie said...

It's been quite some time since I read the book, but I recall that the first murder happened because of a sort of Dionysian frenzy when they were out in the woods. They were studying ancient Greek and it seemed to me they were taking the ideas too far. Perhaps in ancient Greece there were no consequences for what happened in the woods but in the modern world there are. I wonder if Tartt wasn't playing with those kinds of ideas?

Carl V. said...

I read this several years ago and it is one of those books whose eerieness...mostly because of the fact that they got away with it, and the screwed up lives of some of the characters...has stayed with me. I really enjoyed it and think I did so much more because of the fact that though they got away with it the reality of those murders and what it would do to their consciences and their lives will linger with them forever. A good read.

M. Barresi said...

Stefanie, during the book I was trying to figure out what Tartt's motives were, what points she was trying to make. And like Carl points out, I figured it had to do with the characters having to live with the murders on their consciences, but I wasn't satisfied with that. It seemed like they weren't upset with the killing, only with being caught. And that's an important distinction with how I read the book. Also, she made Henry into a sort of hero, by killing himself (in Greek or Roman tradition) and the narrator, Richard, is able to move past the murders and into a normal, post-collegiate life.

But like I said, I did enjoy it, it just left a lot of unanswered questions and that isn't necessarily bad.

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