Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The Secret History": Seductive but pernicious

It should be obvious from reading my blog that I spend a lot of time thinking about art and beauty. But this can be a dangerous pastime. I am easily susceptible to beauty, easily enthralled by art. Witnessing something truly magnificent can affect me for days--can almost ruin me for the real world. I become indolent and obsessive, seeking only to live inside a cocoon of aesthetic perfection, and anguished by the thought that such a great deal of any human life is devoted to dull, mundane, trivial activities. I hunger always for more--more splendor, more thrills, more "peak experiences."

Then I hate myself for my lazy decadence, and I overreact to it, going too far in the other direction. I become puritanical, almost Calvinist. I despise the illusory nature of art, and the way that loving art so much can impede me from loving my real everyday life. The phrase "seductive but pernicious" tends to run through my head in moments like these.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, while going through a fairly bad case of the above, I wandered into a bookstore, and decided that I was in the market for a really good, absorbing novel. One of the books that has been on my "I want to read this" list for several years is The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I picked up the bookstore's copy and read the first few pages.

The Secret History begins with a brief prologue, in which the narrator describes how he and a few of his friends committed a murder--pushing a young man named Bunny over the side of a ravine to his death. This is intriguing, and certainly makes you want to keep turning the pages. But it was the first paragraph of the novel proper that convinced me that I had to buy it and read it, immediately:
Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
"A morbid longing for the picturesque" as a fatal flaw--was that not similar to my whole "seductive but pernicious" thing? In other words, The Secret History wouldn't merely be the page-turning story of a college kid who becomes an accomplice to murder. It would be the story of someone who gets caught up in events, who becomes a murderer for reasons that I could possibly sympathize with--and, with a chill, I would recognize that I might've made the same bad decisions that he does, because I too possess that same fatal flaw. And thus the book would go on to prove that often what is most seductive is most pernicious.

And I was right! I loved The Secret History and was completely absorbed by it. The fatally-flawed narrator is Richard, a working-class young man from California, who ends up at a New England liberal arts college studying Greek with an exclusive group of five other students. This clique--Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and the doomed Bunny--appears dazzlingly wealthy and sophisticated to Richard's provincial eyes. The group's ringleader, Henry, realizes that Richard's awed eagerness to please will make him a loyal ally--and thus enlists him in the plan to bump off Bunny (for reasons too complicated to explain here... basically, Bunny knows a secret about the other students and is blackmailing them). After the murder takes place, the second half of the book deals with the aftermath and the consequences. Though Richard handles the stress and the guilt better than some of his friends do, he is nevertheless forever scarred by the experience. At the end, he is left cursing his weakness for confusing aesthetics with morality, his "own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good."

Marisha Pessl's novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (my review) got a lot of comparisons to The Secret History when it came out--both were hyped-up debuts by photogenic twenty-something women, and Pessl seemed to have stolen a lot from Tartt. Indeed, for the first 100 pages or so of The Secret History, I couldn't stop thinking of Calamity Physics: both books are narrated by an awkward outsider who falls in with a clique of five cool and attractive students led by a charismatic professor; both have a murder that takes place in the woods. Ultimately, I think that such a comparison elevates Tartt and diminishes Pessl. Not only did Tartt do it first, her writing style is more elegant, less hepped-up and overtly showy. There was an ostentatious metaphor on every page of Calamity Physics, but very few in The Secret History (instead, much of it is told through dialogue). And Richard, with his guilt and flaws and regrets, is a more compelling narrator, psychologically speaking, than Pessl's hyper-loquacious but more shallowly drawn heroine, Blue Van Meer. You can tell from my Calamity Physics post that I maybe related to Blue's brain; but I related to Richard's soul, and that is more valuable.

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