By Donna Tartt
I unwittingly read two back-to-back similar sounding books: outsider freshman in isolated American liberal arts college ends up in unusual class led by unorthodox, charismatic professor.
But this is where the similarities end.
The Cheese Monkeys is light, funny and satirical. The Secret History is the equivalent of a modern Greek tragedy in collegiate proportions. The main character, Richard Pepin, finally able to escape his small town roots in California, starts a new life in a New England college. With some previous background in Greek, he discovers a class taught by a distinguished classics scholar who accepts only a limited number of students. When another professor informs him that Julian Morrow conducts his selection on a personal rather than academic basis, and that he and his students have virtually no contact with the rest of the campus, Richard is intrigued.
How Richard gradually ingratiates himself with the professor and the classics clique is well executed and really sucked me into the narrative. At first, he observes the oddly anachronistic students from afar. There’s Henry, who is quiet, unassuming and always in a suit; Charles and Camilla, who like to dress in white; Francis, who’s a bit of a dandy, and lastly, Bunny, an affable freeloader. The early stages of friendship are just awkward enough to make it realistic and compelling enough to make it interesting. Like Richard, getting to know these people is like getting sucked into another time and place outside of “asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture”. You want to know more about these characters, and what happens next.
Richard’s first day in Julian’s class, in the inner sanctum, is also excellently described. Julian’s exquisite taste has transformed a drab office into a philosopher’s library, and Richard realizes why his students are so devoted as “ he was a marvelous talker, a magical talker.” The discussion that day also sets the tone for the rest of the novel: Plato’s four divine madnesses, the burden of self, why people want to lose the self in the first place, and the powerful mystery of the Dionysiac ritual. That seductive desire to become absolutely free, to attain that “fire of pure being”, if only for a fleeting moment.
Sure enough, the clique holds an unusual secret. But we only see it through the perspective of Richard, the newcomer, who is liked but not yet fully accepted into the circle. As the reader, you really don’t know what’s going on, everything seems opaque. Let’s just say the fragile harmony of the group is thrown off when they embark on their own customized Dionysiac clusterfuck, and things go downhill from there. One of the clique undergoes psychological change from familiar friend to cutting, vindictive tormentor and this has deadly ramifications for the entire group.
The novel also has an unusual structure, where you’re informed at the beginning that one of the main characters is murdered, and Richard reflects back on what happened. The mystery isn’t about who killed whom. This doesn’t interest Tartt, so much as using the framing of the Greek tragedy to explore the darkness that lurks in human nature. What makes reasonably intelligent people latch onto to each other and succumb to the pack instinct? What forces or catalytic factors propel otherwise civilized people into barbaric murderers?
There was also good sociological insight into the relationship between the individuals in the clique against the rest of the students at the isolated liberal arts college. One of the main reasons The Secret History was given to Olman when it first came out was that the setting was so much like Reed.
Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmostphere made it a thriving black Petri dish of melodrama and distortion. I remember well, for instance, the blind animal terror which ensued when some townie set off the civil defense sirens as a joke.
The Secret History was published in 1992, and the setting was of that period in time, but I kept picturing the story taking place much earlier in the century, like the 1920’s or 30’s. The style of writing, the way the professors and students spoke with each other and behaved, their strangely anachronistic lifestyle. The only people that seemed contemporary were the students outside of that clique. But this is the only part where I could find fault in Tartt’s writing. She excels in her classic style of writing and philosophical discourse, but slangy urban banter sounds somewhat forced and stilted. But I guess it’d be hard to write in slang when topics of conversation tend to be about arguing how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion had stood, or whether Hesiod’s primordial Chaos was simply empty space or chaos in the modern sense of the word!
So this novel had just about everything. Sociological insight. Manipulation, paranoia and psychological tension. Some police/FBI investigation thrown in. The familiar tragic ingredients of love, sacrifice, betrayal. And just a tiny bit of the supernatural to seriously creep you out. Tartt confidently weaves all these together, making for a marvelously satisfying read. The story is rich, dense, complex and apparently took 10 non-continuous years to write. This is indeed a beautiful and terrifying book. I would definitely be interested in reading Tartt’s next book, The Little Friend.