The Secret History

I loved this book. Loved it in a deep, personal way that I don't think I've felt about a piece of written fiction since [[Idaho]], which had a similarly profound effect on me at the time of reading [^1]

First, the obvious thing: this is a tremendously fun book to read, and I can recommend it on those merits alone. It hits all of the pleasure centers of my brain: academia, pretension, convalescent identity, murder mystery, booze, New England riche, shiny prose. [^2] These are not surprising or novel pleasure centers: it is, at its core, an expertly written book about the Breakfast Club in Star's Hollow murdering someone, and if that's not a sell line I don't know what is.

But there are fun books and there are books you love. When I think about this book, my mind goes in two directions:

  1. The fun this book has with the conventional narrative arc. We open with the book's presumptive climax, and the first half of the book is a retelling of the moments that lead up to Bunny's death — and then it happens, and our protagonists survive, and we are done with the conventional story arc, and then the second half of the book happens. I have written a couple times about how much I love "the story after the story" (this is perhaps most famous in [[Game of Thrones]], and I think it's true of Cowboy Bebop as well.) When I was poking around Goodreads there were a number of complaints about how "slow" or "repetitive" the book was in its back half, which — yes! That's the point! That's what makes this so interesting, and not just a deconstruction. The subtle perceptual shift from Richard-as-mostly-disaffected-observer to Richard-as-protagonist (and your shift, as the reader, from thinking of him as largely an unbiased lens into what's happening into realizing — as he does — just how much your perception of the world has been colored by his yearning to be with these people.)
  2. It is perhaps hard to understate how much I deeply — embarrassingly! — identify with the protagonist, identify with Richard's immediate enchantment with a host of people who seem so magical and desirous from the outside and what it feels like to be swept into a world replete with everything you once thought yourself too miserable to warrant. I think this book works for me because I can see myself exactly as a college freshman in his shoes, and I know intimately all of the little stabs and songs and revelations he went through. (This is perhaps the perfect credit to the book: the interpersonal relationships between these characters is nuanced and weird and perfect.)

There was perhaps — okay, definitely — a bit too much melodrama at the end; I think Tartt leaned too far into the decadent evil of it all in a way that felt distinctly nineties. The incest and the suicide attempts and all that was... heavy-handed, and a lot of it would have been better feinted at than said outright.

But this book stirred up so much in me, it was equal parts savor and whirlwind, and it is more than tempting to open it up from the first page and begin anew. It is a deeply entertaining book, masterfully written, that you can probably accuse of being more surface than depth but — if you are like me, for whom college was a time of deep revelation and deep forfeiture, this will dreg up memories and hit you like a sounding bell.

[^1]: There is a difference — one that I haven't given much thought to — between books that arrest you after you've read them and those that arrest you as you're reading them. [^2]: I have learned of the term "dark academia" thanks to this book, which is apparently a big aesthetic amongst the youths now.

7/17/2022

Highlights

And I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.
If the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless.
“You know that thing Julian used to say,” said Francis. “Which thing?” “About a Hindu saint being able to slay a thousand on the battlefield and it not being a sin unless he felt remorse.” I had heard Julian say this, but had never understood what he meant. “We’re not Hindus,” I said.
I think about a lot of things. I think about the first time I ever saw a birch tree; about the last time I saw Julian; about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek. **Beauty is harsh.**
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