For about a decade now, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been one of the titles I’ll rattle off if asked to name my favorite novel. “Oh, it’s wonderful,” I always say, but when pressed, I’m usually unable to reveal much of the plot. “Well,” I’ll say, “it’s about – boarding school, you see, and the classics, and murder.”
“Murder?” people sometimes ask.
“Yes, but it’s a very lovely murder.”
“Wait, maybe there’s more than one? Anyway, a group of friends all hang out together, and then they start killing.”
“Like Fight Club,” the person who’s asked me might supply, helpfully.
“Not quite. It’s fancier. The killing isn’t really the point, though. The point is more that everyone has great clothes and they drink a lot.”
“Well, okay,” people say politely. “Sure. That sounds fun.”
It’s not so much that I’m terrible at summarizing books – I could handily win a pub trivia night on The Magicians, and I can rattle off all of Amy’s tricks in Gone Girl. It’s more that The Secret History, though I’ve read it at least twice, is more about atmosphere than anything: about a world so lush and entrancing that you’ll do anything to belong to it. The beauty is the point. The killing is, it seems, just incidental.
The narrator of The Secret History is Richard Papen, a man whose name I believe I can forgive myself for not remembering until this, my third reread. Papen’s favorite novel is The Great Gatsby; he once, in narration, mournfully compares himself to Gatsby, since Papen too is a social climber who comes from unremarkable origins, but this is ironic, since Papen as a narrator is much more of a Nick Carraway (another elided-ass narrator whose name I can never remember without Googling).
Papen has this to say about his childhood in California: that he can’t remember much about it except:
“… a certain mood that permeated most of (those years), a melancholy feeling that I associate with watching ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day – early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong – but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn’t pay too much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; 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.”
He’s spent his life longing, but until he – on a whim – applies to Hampden, an elite Vermont liberal arts college, that longing hasn’t had an object. Only when he arrives does he believe he finally knows what he’s been wanting. He falls in love with the campus, the apple-cheeked girls walking, his homelike dorm room with its high ceilings.
Almost immediately, of course, he’s dissatisfied.
The Secret History is about elitism, about climbing up and up and up in pursuit of a truer reality; it’s about echelons, about scaling one peak to discover that the true summit is further up and further in. At Hampden, Papen wants to continue studying Greek, but the only professor who teaches it is a strange sort; his class is only five large, and, as he tells Papen, seeming sad, it’s already too full. His students must drop most other classes, learning exclusively from him in his un-classroom-like classroom, which is filled in all seasons with hothouse flowers. There’s no room for Richard in the exclusive classics major bunch.
Papen, of course, cannot take no for an answer. When he overhears the five students debating declensions in the library, he pops in to suggest the locative case, and suddenly there’s room for him in the class.
(I feel obliged, here, to mention that I myself have never taken Latin or Greek, but that everyone I know who has studied them has been perfectly lovely and have, to my knowledge, never murdered anyone.)
He regrets his decision, a bit; the other students aren’t exactly the most welcoming. Bunny, the one who will be sacrificed (we’re told of his murder on the first page, and the rest of the novel is a study in why), is a blithe rich jock, terrible with money but obsessed with class. Henry is a polyglot with a glass eye and an off-putting manner. Francis is foppish and handsome and mysterious. Camilla and Charles, two beautiful twins, wear only white and look as if they’ve emerged from a Renaissance painting.
At first, Papen is sure that they’ll sniff him out as an impostor. He expends a lot of energy thinking about clothes while fighting off a near-constant hangover, worried about the impression he’s giving off. (It’s no wonder I like this book: that’s pretty much how I constantly felt at Iowa.) Everyone in the class is possessed of a quiet certainty: they are deserving members of the most exclusive society at an already-exclusive college, and they’ve agreed to have very little to do with the rest of the world. (At one point, Henry is stunned to learn – from Papen – that men have actually landed on the moon. “No, they didn’t,” he says. “When?”) And this is what’s going to hurt them, in the end.
Lately, especially in reference to policing, my future father-in-law has been fond of referencing Animal Farm. “All pigs are equal,” he says, “but some are more equal than others.”
The Secret History is a novel about that belief – about how this small group of classics majors become convinced that their lives simply matter more than the others around them — that by dint of their talent and youth and wealth and beauty, they are simply more human, more real.
This, of course, is what’s going to lead them to their murders: the secret Bacchanalian forest revelries in which they tear people apart with their bare hands, all in pursuit of a wildness that their professor has told them is the sole truth of the world.
“The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep the will away entirely,” Julian says, twinkling. He’s not warning them against these impulses; he’s celebrating them, albeit in subtext.
Some animals are more equal than others, Papen learns. And sometimes to be counted as one of those equals, one of the people who truly matter, you’ve got to push your friend off a cliff and walk away.
The novel wouldn’t work if we weren’t granted other perspectives, glimpses into what these people truly are. Tartt manages to make her narrator condescending and dismissive, but not enough that he’s successful in drowning out side characters, loud voices like the magnificently-named Judy Poovey, a costume designer with rock-hard abs and a crush on Papen. While brushing her teeth in the dorm kitchen sink, she warns him about the clique he’s fallen into. She tells him about how, at a party last year, she tossed her drink into Camilla’s face; it started a fight, and she was startled to find that the Latin and Greek nerds absolutely trounced her two-hundred-pound biker friend. “I guess when uptight people like that get mad, they get really mad,” she says, and then adds, “Like my father.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Papen says, looking into the mirror and adjusting the knot in his tie.
He’s warned by other people, too; in each one of those warnings, the characters delivering them allude in some way to their own interior life. Real life is happening all around Richard Papen, but he’s too obsessed with his own ego, with the pursuit of his ideal of a rich and true world, to notice – or to realize how many, many chances he has to turn back from what he’ll eventually do.
At the end of their conversation, Judy Poovey notices that Richard’s jacket is too warm for the weather, so she goes to her room and gets him a proper one that she was meaning to rip up and use.
“The jacket, unexpectedly, was wonderful,” Richard says, “old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green.”
Optimistic, he runs off to his lunch date with Bunny.
“Lovely piece,” Bunny says, rubbing the rich, yellowy cloth. “Not quite the thing for this time of year, though.”
That’s the game, of course – no beauty, for these people, is ever quite good enough.
I realize that it’s a little weird that I chose, today, to write about a novel that came out nearly thirty years ago. In terms of The Secret History, there’s no news; they aren’t making a movie out of it (after a few failed attempts, it’s rumored that Tartt isn’t interested in selling the rights), and I can’t see any way a sequel would work. Plus, it does feel strange, in these times, to relax cozily into a tale of wealthy white people reading ancient literature in gorgeous rooms (then doing a murder or two, just for kicks).
I think it’s important, though, to think about comfort and its prices, and to ponder how exactly people become convinced that they’re the most powerful and important entities in the world. And The Secret History does this so well that I, like Papen, can’t help but watch.
*Also, look at how cool Donna Tartt is. I need that suit, I need that bob, I need it all.
**”All,” in this case, being zero social media presence, as well as a longstanding friendship/rivalry with Bret Easton Ellis.