reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘Station Eleven,’ by Emily St. John Mandel

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When a genre and the tropes associated with it has become so pervasive in popular culture, writers who choose to tackle it must either go along with what has been established by their predecessors or create something all-their-own. In ‘Station Eleven,’ Emily St. John Mandel not only accomplishes the former but injects new life into a genre that has been done to death. This is a post-apocalyptic novel that transcends pulpy conventions in favor of profound statements about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of sweeping change.

The book begins with a brutal snow storm in Toronto when aging actor Arthur Leander is trying to revive his career with a production of ‘King Lear.’ When Arthur suffers a heart attack in the middle of the production, Jeevan Chaudhary, a paramedic connected to Arthur in a way he doesn’t realize, tries and fails to save the actor. Watching back stage is Kirsten Raymonde, a child actor who will carry more from this night than bad memories. Unbeknownst to everyone, the world outside the theater is beginning a vociferous slide to oblivion, as the Georgia flu spreads across Earth, rapidly eating away at all the civilized world holds dear. From there the novel jumps back and forth in time: twenty years in the future,  Kirsten is a member of the ‘Traveling Symphony,’ a troupe of  Shakespearean actors moving from one encampment to another, using theatre to preserve the last remnants of civilized culture. When the plague is in its earliest stages, we see Jeevan trapped in the city, desperately trying to keep himself and his disabled brother alive. Meanwhile those closest to Arthur – his former wives, and best friend, Clark – deal with the after math of his untimely death, while flashbacks trace the evolution of Arthur’s career and love life.

The primary theme of Mandel’s novel is how events outside of our control can forge subtle bonds between us. As the events in the separate timelines unfold, one gets a sense that nothing they’re reading is random; that it was impossible for things to transpire in any other way, not out of any mystical sense of destiny, but rather due to laws of physics and probability. Through a series of disasters, the Symphony finds themselves splintered, with their only hope of finding one another resting in their cardinal rule: “The Symphony Always has a destination, if you get separated, go to the destination and wait.” That happens to be Severn City, home of the Museum of Civilization. Little does Kirsten know, that she and her companions are moving towards more than just hope of a reunion, but the source of something akin to logic in their chaotic world; something which may prove that order is a natural feature of life, and not a product of man’s gaudy inventions.

Rather than focusing on either the chaotic period in the beginning or years after, when the world has settled into its new state of being, Mandel takes a less conventional approach to apocalyptic fiction, alternating between both, as-well-as having key scenes take place when the world is still stable. By showing characters in the time of transition, and then after, Mandel makes us contemplate our relationship to the civilized world. The best example of this are the scenes in-which Clark curates objects for what will become The Museum of Civilization. While stranded in the airport, Clark gathers what would otherwise be junk: abandoned shoes, magazines, discarded credit cards, and puts them on display, seemingly aware that a day will come in which they will have value as proof of what once was. Some other interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her life with the symphony:

Perhaps the most interesting passages are interviews between Kirsten and Francois Diallo, the editor of a recently established newspaper. Francois asks Kirsten about her travels with the symphony:

“Some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to this one place where the children didn’t know the world had been different, although you’d think all the rusted out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue. “

These interviews serve a dual purpose: that a newspaper is able to not only exist, but conduct an interview with a Shakespearean actor, demonstrates humanity’s desire for something greater than mere survival. What’s more, they provide a raw, intimate perspective to the post-civilized world. Kirsten is fascinating as a protagonist, instead of plowing through life with resigned stoicism or bemoaning the loss of what she knew, she accepts that which cannot be reversed, and creates her own sense of purpose in a world where such things are no longer guaranteed. Her’s is a journey which is dark and quiet, and uniquely human.

 

 

 

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reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ Elif Safak

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A rich and sumptuous historical novel that is both sweeping and intimate.

Authors who write historical fiction often have strike a balance between being accurate to their chosen period, and developing a distinctive style, between demonstrating proficient knowledge of history and crafting a compelling narrative. Fortunately for her readers, Elif Shafak has no such problems. In ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ she uses all of the best gifts a writer can utilize to present a celebration of knowledge and the human spirit, set against one of the most colorful periods in world history.

The story begins in 1540, at the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power.  Jahan, a young boy from Hindustan (India), travels to Istanbul to present a fabulous gift to the Sultan – a white elephant named Chota. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jahan has been coerced into thievery by a vicious pirate who desires a share of the Sultan’s wealth. Jahan finds himself in the royal menagerie, where he meets the beautiful Princess Mihramah, developing an infatuation with her which will prove transformative throughout his life. Jahan and Chota are soon thrust into war, where they meet Sinan, the royal architect, a man of endless brilliance and profound humility. Sinan takes Jahan under his tutelage, as the decades roll by Istanbul changes and Jahan along with it. As they construct one iconic building after another, Sinan imparts upon his pupil the secrets of worldly beauty and the keys to a living a meaningful existence.

There is no overarching plotline throughout the novel. Rather, Jahan’s journey is captured in several key episodes of his life, some spanning only a few pages, others take up multiple chapters. Following a single protagonist over the course of a lifetime can, in the wrong hands, result in a tedious, meandering narrative. Luckily for her readers, Safak is able to inject enough sensitivity and emotional flexibility into Jahan’s character to make his a compelling and uniquely human journey. Sinan takes Jahan in when he is at his most vulnerable, notices the cracks in his spirit and seeks to repair them. What makes Jahan a particularly relatable character is that he is neither a hero nor an anti hero; he does not quest for anything, nor does he seek to rebel against the world. Rather, his journey is about learning to accept his place in the universe. It has been said that when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ understands this, and like many other stories which deal with spiritual growth features a protagonist who has seen the worst life has to offer. Over the course of the novel, Jahan is forced to watch his mother marry his torturous uncle, denied any opportunity to express his true feelings for the woman he loves, and thrown in jail for no crime but having ambition. Jahan’s passion for his work and studies acts as a salve against the lacerations on his spirit, healing him, and making him stronger as well. What is more, it is in the scenes where Jahan is working that Safak demonstrates herself to be a wise and well-educated person, expertly enlightening discussions of art, history, and philosophy into her dialogue.

The most fascinating way in which Safak explores Jahan’s spiritual development is through his relationship with Chota. In all the world’s mythologies, animals, being closer to nature, are viewed as bridges between the material and meta physical worlds. So intense is the love Jahan has for Chota, that the purity of the elephant’s soul enters his, awakening him to the beauty of life, and giving him the strength to persevere along the journey of life.

‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is – and I don’t use this term liberally – a rare gem, a piece of contemporary fiction which is both entertaining and profound; as heartbreaking as it is enlightening. Reading this novel is like being in the presence of a worldly sage, sitting and listening to them impart wisdom of the greatest truth. It has a certain energy running through it, a spiritual presence in its pages that makes readers feel connected to the soul of humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

reviews/analysis

Book Review: ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline

image courtesy: http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/emma-clines-masterful-manson-family-novel-debut.html

The first question one might ask themselves about Emma Cline’s debut novel ‘The Girls,’ is, is this a historical novel? I would argue that for a book to be considered historical it must meet at least two criteria: first, its primary story arc must occur in a period of historical significance, and second, it must prominently feature aspects of cultural significance specific to that time. Taking place in the late 1960s, ‘The Girls’ meets the former, but not the latter,  as many defining features of that period, such as the Vietnam War,  the Civil Rights movement, and iconic artists such as Jimmy Hendrix and the Rolling Stones are mentioned either not at all, or only passing. ‘The Girls,’ therefore should not be considered historical. Instead, I would technically qualify this as a literary thriller, though its capacity to thrill, as-well-as its literary merits is a subject of debate.

Evie, the narrator, having squandered her grandmother’s estate over ten years ago, works as a live-in aide. Currently out of work, a friend invites her to stay in his home on the California coast while he is away. One night, Julian, her friend’s college dropout son, and his girlfriend Sasha show up. After Julian makes a few off-handed remarks about Evie’s involvement with a Mansonesque cult in her youth, she recalls the summer of 1969. Then fifteen, Evie’s parents have recently divorced after her father has an affair with a young employee at his company. Evie’s mother, now half-reluctantly clutching onto feminism, announces to Evie she will be sending her to boarding school in the autumn, thinking it will reign in the girl’s rambunctious behavior. Evie is voracious for a respite from suburban tedium, and through a series of convenient coincidences, finds herself in the company of three liberated young women who speak rapturously about their leader, Russell. While Evie soon assumes the guise of a cultist, growing her hair long and wearing dirty clothes, she never fully succumbs to Russell’s charms, only involving herself with the group so as to remain close to Suzanne, Russel’s apparent favorite.

While Cline’s premise is fascinating, she limits its potential by only exploring it through Evie’s eye. Evie never becomes fully immersed in the cult’s environment, her interest in it seems almost casual. Evie steals money from her mother’s purse to give to Suzanne, then later she and the girls break into her neighbor’s house – without stealing anything. These actions seem more mischevious than malicious. Evie makes frequent reference to the brutal murder which gave the cult its infamy, but while driving to the crime scene, Suzanne suddenly tells her to get out of the car and leaves her on the side of the road, thus ending Evie’s time with the cult. A short while later, she is attending boarding school, where her experiences do not appear to have any palpable effect on her personality, either then, or when Evie recalls them as an old woman. Because of this, one can’s help but wonder exactly what is so important about the cult. Had Cline provide an additional narrative voice – such as Suzanne’s – to provide a richer picture of the cult so as to make it a plot point and not just a backdrop.

While lacking in narrative heft, one area in-which ‘The Girls’ excels is in how it illustrates the traumas and disappointments intrinsic to coming of age as a girl.  The most thematically captivating scenes in the novel are the interactions between the male and female characters: Evie trying to impress her best friend’s older brother, one of the girls in the cult being struck in the face by Russell, Julian forcing Sasha to expose her breasts to his friend. At one point Russel sends Evie and Suzanne to the home of Mitch, a famous musician whom Russel is trying to coerce into giving him a record deal. Suzanne pressures Evie into group sex with Mitch, saying that he’ll be gentle, which causes Evie to think ‘As though that would make it better.”  Evie’s choice to involve herself with the cult is representative of how a girl her age will pursue relationships – romantic, sexual, or otherwise – with people who are not necessarily conducive to their well-being as an act of rebellion. Ironically, such attempted expressions of autonomy often result in states of subservience, where girls will forsake their own senses of individuality and self-preservation so as to better please their men in their lives; in these cases, girls attach themselves to male (or female) figures, because they represent an authority separate from their parents.

Despite its many flaws, ‘The Girls’ should be seen as the beginning of what will surely be an impressive career from an author of superb intelligence and creativity.  Her voice is both touchingly sensitive, and unflinchingly honest.

 

 

 

 

reviews/analysis

4 Novels for Ravenclaws

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Our fourth and final post in this series centers on the house these kinds of lists are made for, Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw’s sigil is a bronze eagle – not a raven – over a blue field; the young witches and wizards Ravenclaw attracts are creative, intelligent, and take pleasure in learning for its own sake. One of the house’s lesser known traits is its acceptance of individuals who are, for lack of a better term unique. From its beginning Ravenclaw has produced some of the most brilliant minds in the wizarding world, such as Garrick Ollivander, crafter of the finest wands in all of Europe, Filius Flitwick, the greatest Charms Master in Hogwarts history, and Luna Lovegood, who, though quite young at the time, proved indispensable in the second wizarding war against Lord Voldemort.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt   

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image courtesy of: https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/secret-history/author/donna-tartt/

This is hands down my favorite book of all time, so as a Slytherin, I was tempted to put it on my own houses list, but the grand intellectual ideas this novel infuses into its plot just makes it perfect for Ravenclaw. Richard, a perpetually melancholic young man travels from his no-name town in California, to a private arts college on the East Coast. While there, he becomes involved with an exclusive and secretive group of scholars whose charismatic classics professor inadvertently leads them down a twisting path of ever increasing darkness. There are two things I feel Ravenclaws will appreciate about this gem: first, Tartt’s superb writing: she manages to strike the perfect balance between style and narrative substance, crafting an elegantly structured plot while also feeding readers rich, beautiful prose. Second, the hefty dose of intellectualism: throughout this brisk story, we are treated to a wide range of fascinating ideas, ranging from theories of art and philosophy, to history and literature, something the house of learning and creativity will love.    

“American Gods,” Neil Gaiman

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image courtesy of: https://www.amazon.com/American-Gods-Tenth-Anniversary-Novel/dp/0062472100

Neil Gaiman is a Ravenclaw, right? He certainly strikes me as one: prolific creator of genre defying literary masterpieces, highly intelligent and articulate, with a sense of humor all his own. Endlessly creative, and rich with the DNA of world mythology, Gaiman’s magnum opus, “American Gods,” embodies much of the spirit of the house of Rowena. Shadow Moon, a recently freed ex-convict finds himself in the employment of Mr. Wednesday, the self proclaimed King of America, who is traveling cross-country recruiting soldiers for a coming war between the Old Gods – deities which have traveled to America with immigrants but have lost their power as people’s belief in them has waned – and the New Gods – personifications of new forces in American culture, like technology, media, etc. What I feel Ravenclaws will enjoy about this brilliant work is how Gaiman is able to apply his deep knowledge of history and mythology to such an entertaining narrative, as-well-as the subtle commentary he makes about American immigration and the importance of storytelling to the human condition.   

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon

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image courtesy of:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Amazing-Adventures-Kavalier-Clay/dp/1841154938

What better fit for Ravenclaw than a novel about the journey of artists trying balance creativity with the demands of real life. Beginning in the golden age of comics, Michael Chabon’s pulitzer prize winning masterpiece centers around Joe Kavalier, an aspiring escape artist with a talent for illustration, who flees Europe during the rise of Nazism, taking refuge with his relative, Sam Clay. Overtaken with entrepreneurial drive, Joe and Sam set out to create an iconic superhero in the vein of Superman, an endeavour which they accomplish gloriously.  As the years go by, Joe and Sam find themselves embroiled in the politics of war, deal with the stresses of love and family,  reap the rewards (and consequences) of their success. Ravenclaws are creative, and naturally drawn to anything with a unique style or aesthetic, and so I feel they will appreciate the colorful writing Chabon employs to capture a period in American history which is often unexplored in fiction.

 

“The Golden Compass,”  by Philip Pullman

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image courtesy of: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Compass-20th-Anniversary/dp/1101934662

Merging science fiction and fantasy in way which has yet to be rivaled, the first installment in Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy centers around Lyra, a headstrong young girl in an alternate version of our world, the most striking characteristic of which is that every human has a daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul which follows them around in the form of an animal. In addition to being thoroughly enchanting, Pullman’s novel features a magic system unlike any other, functioning almost like science. As Ravenclaws, being a logical bunch, will appreciate such a meticulous approach.       

   

reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ By Elizabeth Strout

A bite-sized novel whose exquisite prose can’t quite transcend its bland protagonist.

Elizabeth Strout strikes me as every stereotype of what the moderately well-read American thinks a ‘serious’ literary novelist to be.  Beginning life as a wispy-haired child on the New England coast, she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Later, as a wispy-haired adult, she spends her days teaching at an obscure liberal arts college, writing stories about the emotionally disaffected. My first foray into her work, ‘My Name is Lucy Barton, is precisely the kind of book one would expect such an author to write.

We begin with the eponymous narrator, recalling a few days she spent in a New York City hospital, recovering from what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy. At the request of Lucy’s husband her mother flies in from rural Illinois to be with her, prompting Lucy to recall her impoverished childhood, eating nothing but molasses on bread for dinner, being mocked for not bathing, having to live with her family in a garage until she was eleven. From there the story jumps back and forth between various episodes in her life: college,  attending workshops with a famous author, the AIDs crisis of the Eighties, etc. The stark language Strout uses to weave her way through this stream of consciousness narrative lulls the reader into a state where they are easily susceptible to the novel’s atmospheric charms. There is a certain calmness to the book, a regal elegance that makes it easily digestible, but also work against it in certain ways. The entire story is told to us in Lucy’s voice. Generally, this serves to build intimacy with the audience. However, the simplicity of the language used is insufficient to convey the emotional depth necessary to become properly invested in her character. What is more, it provides glaring inconsistency with her backstory: someone who is college educated and makes their living as a writer should be able to more richly vocalize the psychological nuances within her head.

Lucy’s imparts her journey with a resigned stoicism that makes her frustrating as a protagonist, we see the full breadth of her life from childhood into middle age, and yet never truly feel like we know her: the dramatic contrast between Lucy’s humble beginnings and her transformation into a cultured member of New York’s literary scene is harrowing, but only to a point, as the watery sketch she draws of herself robs transformative moments of much of their cerebral heft. This broad-strokes-approach is most problematic in how the novel deals with Lucy’s estranged relationship with her mother. Lucy experienced abuse at the hands of her parents, including frequent insults from her mother – when Lucy began to develop breasts, her mother told her ‘You look like a cow’ – and being forced to spend nights locked pickup truck as punishment. Being forced to stay in the same room as her abuser draws up a bevy of complex emotions in Lucy, while she is intrigued by the stories her mother has to tell about life back home, she feels a palpable need to address the bad blood between the two of them, but just can’t bring herself to; she tries to get her mother to say she loves her, but can’t muster enough assertiveness. Throughout the novel, Lucy remains detached, devoid of personality, a character type, not a character.

For all the faults in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ one aspect which is undeniable while reading it is the skill of its author, Strout demonstrates a keen ear for style in her prose, as-well-as a superb gift for crafting realistic dialogue. As with any artist, to judge Strout’s entire body of work against the weight of one piece would be a diseased way of thinking – especially since I haven’t read anything else by her – in this novel I see an intelligent, sensitive writer, who had the ambition to craft a provocative character study, but instead wrote the literary equivalent of a spring roll, light, tasty, but not substantial enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

reviews/analysis

Alcoholism in John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”

In the opening paragraph of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” the readers find themselves at a neighborhood party at the home of the Westerhazys on a Sunday afternoon, where everyone complains of having drank too much the night before: “You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium … ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill.”  

Conspicuous and excessive consumption of alcohol is typical of Cheever’s works. So-much-so that it is not surprising to learn Cheever himself struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. What is more, alcoholism ties in with another prominent theme of the work: criticisms of affluent American life in the mid-twentieth century. Through mention of places like tennis courts and golf courses, we know that the characters of “The Swimmer” occupy a world filled with the trappings of what was and is still considered the American Dream: wealth, success, and enough confidence in their social standing so as to be able to spend whole nights drinking without fear of consequences that could befall someone of a lower rank. Cheever in no way celebrates this aspect of his characters’ lives, nor does he actively indict them. Rather, he presents this information objectively. When Donald Westerhazy and Lucinda Merrill say they drank too much last night, they do so in a neutral way of speaking; no one displays any guilt at their drunkenness, but rather acknowledges it as a component of their reality. One may interpret the characters’ drinking and their accompanying casual attitude as a coping mechanism for the tedium of suburban life. Though the existence lead by Cheever’s characters is comfortable, it is also substantiated through adherence to unspoken codes of conduct within their community: they try to appear faithful by attending church; their tennis matches and golf games are just as much about maintaining their shallow friendships as recreation, if not more. All of it is geared towards cultivating an image of contrived normalcy. They are defeated, the happiness they thought would be inherent to their material wealth is noticeably absent from their lives. Thus, alcohol becomes less of a social lubricant and more of a self-prescribed medication against the crushing emptiness of the environment in which the characters are living.

Cheever seems to be an author concerned with happiness, more specifically, the importance of happiness in American culture. “The Swimmer” like most of his stories is set during a time in this nation’s history when it experienced an unprecedented level of prosperity and opulence; the generation of Americans that returned home victoriously from World War II learned that the luxuries which had been out of reach to previous generations were now their’s for the taking. A decade later, however, many of these young Americans grew up to learn that material wealth is not a guarantee of fulfillment, and found themselves questioning the truth of what American culture had conditioned them to believe. This is what Cheever attempted to capture with his fiction, the shadow side of the American dream, the rot beneath the glittering facade domestic tranquility.

reviews/analysis

The Beautiful and Terrible: Summary and Analysis of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History.’

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Good books, the kind that you enjoy, that you carry with you so as to pass time on the bus or train; that keep your mind occupied, but don’t do anything to change your perceptions of what literature can be, are common. Great books, the kind that you set aside time to read, that fill you with joy, and you recommend to your friends at every opportunity to do so, are rare … And then there are the scarce gems, the works of art that consume you, draw you in, keep you up at night, and leave an imprint in your mind that lasts years after you have finished them. “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt, is such a book. It is a book both intimate and epic, and concerned with the beautiful and the terrible; a book that examines man’s relationship with the divine, as-well-as man’s relationship with one-another. It is on one level, a taught, brisk thriller, and on another, a meditation on the inherent fragility of youth and friendship.

The narrator is Richard Papen, who, at the age of twenty-eight looks back on a year he spent at Hampden College, a prestigious (and fictitious) liberal arts college in rural Vermont. The story begins in Richard’s hometown of Plano California. Of his upbringing, Richard says: “When I think about my real childhood I am unable to recall much about it at all except a sad jumble of objects: the sneakers I wore year-round; coloring books and comics from the supermarket: little of interest, less of beauty … my father was mean, our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay much attention to me … and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.”

Richard’s mediocre existence is quietly interrupted one Christmas, when, while digging through his closet, he finds a brochure for Hampden. After several weeks of traveling back-and-forth for admissions interviews, and sneaking behind his parents’ backs, Richard successfully transfers to Hampden. During his first few days on campus, Richard has run-ins with an attractive and close-knit group of students: Henry Winter, a trust funder from the midwest and the group’s unofficial leader, Francis Abernathy, a closeted homosexual who dresses mostly in black, orphan Charles Macaulay and his beautiful twin sister Camilla, and Bunny Corcoran, socially repugnant scion of a Kennedyesque New England family, desperately trying to maintain a facade of wealth and privilege. Drawn in by the group’s mystique, Richard wiles his way into their elite Ancient Greek class, taught by the charismatic Julian Morrow.

For the Fall semester, Richard enjoys an idyllic academic life, filled with lively discussions about art, literature, and ancient philosophy, as-well-as cocktail parties, and croquet matches at Francis’s country house. Everything changes after the group return from winter break. After learning that Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla have purchased one-way tickets to South America, Richard confronts his friends and discovers that they have become murderers. During the fall, the group enacted a ritual to honor the god Dionysus, in-which they consumed hallucinogens and accidentally killed a local farmer. The group manages to cover up the murder until Bunny discovers their secret and begins extorting money from them. In a drunken state one evening, Bunny tells Richard about the murder (not realizing he already knows). Richard tells Henry, and the group decides their only option is to kill Bunny.

The group follows Bunny on his Sunday walk in the woods, where they push him into a ravine. That night, an unseasonable snowstorm hits the college hiding Bunny’s body for ten days. A manhunt is launched, drawing in the FBI. The group manages (with great difficulty) to dodge accusations made against them until Bunny’s death is ruled an accident. After attending Bunny’s funeral, the group returns to Hampden, where tensions between them fester. Richard learns that Camilla is in love with Henry.  After Richard tells him about this, Charles, who has had an intimate, incestuous relationship with his twin, becomes violently jealous and goes on a drinking binge that sends him to the hospital. Richard and Francis take him to the country house to recover. Shortly after that, Julian discovers a letter from Bunny about the farmer’s murder and  flees Hampden in horror. Charles escapes from the country house and returns to Hampden with a gun. After shooting Richard in the stomach, Charles has the gun taken from him by Henry, who shoots himself in the head.

After the incident, the group scatters, with all the surviving members dropping out of school except for Richard, who goes on to graduate school. Francis’s grandfather forces him to marry a woman he doesn’t like; Julian is out of the country, Charles moves to California with an older woman, and Camilla finds herself stuck caring for her ailing grandmother.

 

From the very beginning, “The Secret History” makes a concerted effort to blend classical mythology and philosophy with contemporary fiction. Richard’s first line of narration after the prolog “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of life, exist outside literature?” pays tribute to the majesty of the ancient world and elegantly sets the tone for the novel. The ‘fatal flaw’ dates to the work of Aristotle and refers to an imperfection in a protagonist’s personality that causes them to commit some error in the arc of their story. In classical literature, these errors are often made in complete ignorance of the consequences that will inevitably follow them. It is here, in this lack of regard for any moral retribution, that Richard can find a kind of forgiveness for his crimes and those of his friends. Richard never expresses any guilt about the things he has done, not because he believes they were morally justified, but because they were meant to happen. Richard talks about himself and his friends as characters in a work of fiction, with the events surrounding them being part of an already written plot, and themselves powerless to change them. He recounts these events with a casual lucidity, and describes the “fatal flaw” of his story, which is, in his words, “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”  

“‘We don’t like to admit it,’ said Julian ‘but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than anything. All truly civilized people – the ancients no less than us – have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old animal self … And it’s a temptation for any intelligent person, and especially for perfectionists such as the ancients and ourselves to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But this is a mistake … The more cultivated a person is … then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue …  It’s a very Greek idea … Beauty is terror … and what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks and to our own, than to lose control completely.’”

Not only do Richard’s friends share his longing for the picturesque, but they find it augmented by the speech from their professor. And if this desire is intrinsic to the characters’ true natures, as Julian suggests, then it was inevitable that they would abandon the trappings of civilization and immerse themselves in the sublime beauty of their own raw, animalistic nature. What’s more, any damage to outside parties – such as the murdered farmer – is negligible, as it is merely the residue of contriving to achieve a higher level of being. And just so we are sure that the characters’ immorality is not just a mere lapse in judgment, Tartt shows us the group’s decadent behavior transcend their academic and spiritual pursuits, and bleed into their personal lives. Tartt maintains the integrity of this depraved atmosphere by never judging any of her characters. While we read about the group drinking excessively, snorting cocaine, engaging in incest, and plotting the murder of one of their friends, the novel never takes the time to remind the audience that what the protagonists are doing is wrong. Rather, it assumes we already know we are watching people do things they shouldn’t be. Instead of forcing us to learn a lesson about restraint and prudence, the book asks us to simply observe.   This lack of condescension in storytelling is one of the qualities which I feel marks Donna Tartt as a great writer, with another being her ability to compress grandiose moral and philosophical themes into such a small setting.

All the major scenes in “The Secret History” take place indoors, and rarely involve anyone outside the six main characters. In the first half of the novel – before Bunny is murdered – this creates an atmosphere of intimacy. The characters’ discussions have all the weight of history behind them: Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, and Dante guide them on epic journeys through life, death, and human nature, without ever leaving the comfort of their tobacco smoke-filled dorm rooms. With the murders and their subsequent investigations, this intimacy turns to claustrophobia, and the cozy confines of Hampden and Francis’s country house become less of a comfort and more of a trap. As rumors of the group’s bizarre behavior around Bunny’s murder begin to surface, and they become a target of the investigation, we feel every bit of pressure they are under. And even after they are ruled out as suspects, things only become worse, as their close-knit relationships turn from a blanket of protection into a crucible of frustration and anger, causing them to turn on one another, and ending in the self-imposed exile of their mentor and the suicide of another one of their own. This landslide of tragedies proves just how fragile the bubble Richard and his friends had built around themselves was. Hampden and Julian’s class was the substantiating force in their lives, and with the former ruined and the latter taken away from them, the members of the group become lost in the world. This exchange between Richard and Charles exemplifies this:    

 

          “‘I wish we didn’t have to go back to Hampden tomorrow,’ (Charles) said.”

“‘I wish we never had to go back,’ I said. ‘I wish we lived here.’”

“‘Well, maybe we can.’”

“‘What’”

“‘I don’t mean now. But maybe we could. After school.’”

“‘How’s that?’”

“He shrugged. ‘Well, Francis’s aunt won’t sell the house because she wants to keep it in the family. Francis could get it from her for next to nothing … I mean, all Henry wants to do when he finishes school, if he finishes school, is to find some place where he can write his books and study the twelve great cultures.’”

“‘What do you mean, if he finishes.’”

“‘I mean, he may not want to … There’s no reason he’s got to be here, and he’s surely never going to have a job.’”

“‘You think not?’ I said, curious; I had always pictured Henry teaching Greek, in some forlorn but excellent college out in the Midwest.”

“Charles snorted. ‘Certainly not. Why should he? He doesn’t need the money, and he’d make a terrible teacher. And Francis has never worked in his life … He’d like it better here. Julian wouldn’t be far away either.”’

 

We see that the members of the group can picture no way of living differently from the one in which they are currently engaged. This is an attitude shared by most people in college. The first four or five years of one’s adulthood have a lasting transformative effect on the rest of their life. It is for this reason that college can be both a blessing and a curse, as it provides a safe environment for us to experiment with different ways of looking at the world, and cultivate new tastes and attitudes about how we wish to conduct ourselves in the future. The flip-side of this is that the environment can be too safe, a bubble of semi-adulthood in which we get only a taste of the real world, with few chances to experience the full range of consequences that come with our mistakes. A person can become so used to this, that when the time comes to enter into real adulthood, they feel overwhelmed. Tartt’s novel not only captures this feeling but magnifies it to mythic proportions. From the very beginning, Richard makes clear his dissatisfaction with his upbringing and desire to live a greater life – a life defined by beauty.  He believes Campden will be the gateway to such a life, and devotes so much energy to cultivating an image of the college as a perfect haven of beauty and intellectualism, that even long after the image has shattered and he has left Campden, it remains an integral part of his life, saying: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”  

“The Secret History” may not be to everyone’s taste, but those who are susceptible to its charms will find themselves fully enraptured in a novel unlike any other, one that blends style with substance, and makes you belive that true beauty comes with pain.