The Secret History neatly performs an exquisite balancing act: one the one hand, it’s full of classical allusions and Greek phrases and lush, evocative descriptions of lovely things, and on the other it’s absolutely deliciously tawdry, full of every seamy literary delight: sex, drugs and murder. Although basically as trashy as any episode of Jerry Springer, its patina of academic respectability leaves you feeling like a highbrowed intellectual, and therein lies its deadly charm: candy for breakfast, dressed up as high fiber.
Richard Papen, our narrator, is a dink, a liar and a hollow man. He despises his flat, boring life and unimaginative parents, and applies to school in a place as unlike his Plano, California town as can be. He ends up at the tiny northeastern liberal arts college of Hampden, and is immediately drawn to the glamorous Greek class, comprised of only five students: twins Charles and Camilla, fey Francis, reserved Henry and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, the cheerful mooch. With a little smooth talking and a judicious amount of falsehood, Richard earns the approval of Julian, the Greek professor, and joins the class. Julian manages their academic lives entirely, and as such they are isolated from the rest of the school, taking almost all of their classes exclusively with Julian. This arrangement is allowed by the administration due to Julian’s famous wealth and influence, whether or not it’s ultimately in the students’ best interest.
And of course, for students like these, education is essentially beside the point. Hampden comes across as a fashionable kindergarten for the lesser sons and daughters of the rich to sport with their compatriots and do a lot of drugs. While the Greek class eschews the society of the school, and does focus powerfully on a classical education, only Richard will really have to shift for himself after graduation. He lacks the family connections and wealth that assure the others a place in the world, no matter what their degree. This gives the rest of them, however, considerable latitude and little sense of consequence. That this crew ends up committing manslaughter whilst in the extremis of an orgiastic religious fervor, an honest-to-Greek-God Bacchanal, seems somehow inevitable. That they get away with it… is both relief and guilty thrill.
Of course, while they don’t get actual jail sentences, they find there are consequences, and then they compound their problems with another murder. Kids today!
Even though, on the whole of it, the book is peopled with total jerks, the first half is pleasantly idyllic. Before the first murder, they have a lot of paradise to lose: weekends at Francis’ country home, lazy picnics and walks in the woods, lavish drinking, convivial Sunday dinners. Of course, soon all their easy routines become shell activities clung to in order to evade suspicion, and things get ugly. Richard learns just how ugly in a series of increasingly portentious scenes that end in a hectic little frenzy of cathartic drama.
Although Richard is the main character, I’m not sure you’re supposed to like him. Henry is far and away the most appealing person in the book, with a deep and sincere interest in intellectual pursuits and possessed of his own, admittedly skewed, sense of honor. The others are charming in their way, and even boorish Bunny is redeemed here and there, with his love for terrible jokes and the first snow of the year.
Tartt is gifted at both the slow reveal and the call-back, and her writing is atmospheric and meticulously organized. Although I’ve read the book many times, it still casts a real spell on me. Consider this passage from early in the book:
Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those days as I’d never really been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting and the steady thrum of wasps around them. Commons clocktower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up out of the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.
Even after so many readings, like Richard, I am always willing to be complicit in Bunny’s murder (this isn’t a spoiler, as the book opens with his death) because the others are beautiful and mysterious and I want to be like them. I guess that’s also why I dislike Richard as much as I do: you always hate others for what you can’t abide in yourself. Although I’d like to think that in real life I wouldn’t help kill a man just to get in good with the In Crowd, I’m pretty sure you can only see your own fatal flaws in hindsight.