Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004.

The original copyright year is 1992, so that explains why everyone uses payphones, and most knowledge–or rather, information–still, is available only at a premium, that is, by the study of untranslated primary texts, or contact with the educated.

The book is dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis; it turns out that Ellis mentions the characters in one of his own novels. I wonder if the market for cocaine-rusted LA kids with gray-colored glasses has been saturated by Ellis and Tartt? It must be fun for method writers.

The Secret History has a melodramatic pacing and a gossipy narrative. I didn’t mind this, and I even enjoyed it for the first half of the book. The second half however struck me as Tartt’s obsessive compulsion to match (exceed, in fact) the length of the first half. Hundreds of pages are spent describing in minute detail, for example, the items that Richard collects before, say, a trip to the library; or attempting to build suspense by Charles’s despondent lapse into alcoholism. But nothing really happens for hundreds of pages, and Tartt’s prosaic flourishes are not justified by their aesthetics.

My favorite passages:

  • p. 29. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless.
  • p. 31. They shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world. … It was not spontaneity but superior art which made it seem unstudied.
  • p. 36 [Julian] was a marvelous talker, a magical talker … it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one.
  • p. 36. It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one … Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us.
    • Did Henry and Camilla comprehend each other?
  • p. 37. And how did [The Furies] drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue.
    • Are Furries embracing or rejecting the self?
  • p. 37. Love? … One loses oneself for the sake of the other, but in doing so becomes enslaved and miserable to the most capricious of all the gods.
  • p. 42. Dionysus
  • p. 56. She was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath.
  • p. 109. All I remember about the paper was that it ended with the sentence “And as we leave Donne and Walton on the shores of Metahemeralism, we wave a fond farewell to those famous chums of yore.”
    • This was the most hilarious line in the book. Oh, Bunny.
  • p. 379. This manifestation of grief for Bunny was … an affirmation of community, a formulaic expression of homage and dread. … Play-acting was itself a kind of work, and people went about their grief as seriously as small children will sometimes play quite grimly and without pleasure in make-believe offices and stores.

The book was 559 pages.

I noticed that the author uses a lot of Greek-derived English words (epicene, phalanx, …); I like that sort of relevant texture, although I have already forgotten what “epicene” means.

I do not like that many of the political (“Isrami government”) and cultural (“Someone—was it van Gogh?—said that orange is the color of insanity”) references in the book were apparently invented by Tartt. This seems pointless and just mucks up my brain.