Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Long: "Secret History" by Donna Tartt

Long: Secret History by Donna Tartt, 1992, Wisconsin Digital Library. Narrated by Tartt.

A loooong novel. 28 audio sections at approximately .75 hour each. The first Tartt novel I have read or heard and this one came out back in 1992. Tartt must have been a wunderkind when this appeared. She was about 29-years-old at the time.

The year of the setting is a bit vague. Many references made me think 1984 but late in the novel is a reference to Salman Rushdie. The fatwa for Rushdie's head was not until February, 1989. So, since this took place over a school year let's just say 1988-1989.

That school year takes place at Hampden College in New Hampshire (Vermont?). Hampden seems to be widely presumed as a stand-in for Bennington College in Vermont (New Hampshire?) where Tartt graduated. I don't know if Tartt has ever confirmed this. More importantly, it does not fucking matter. It's a novel. But, Tartt does pull in some actual history of Bennington into the story.

What is important is that small town California kid Richard liked the college's brochure, wanted to escape his family, and transfers his two years of community college credit into the land of preppy. Hampden College is well regarded for academics but is also a drop-off for the underachieving and intoxicated legacies of wealthy alumni. I was listening to this and couldn't help but think of Lisa Birnbach and Bret Easton Ellis.

Richard ends up joining a group of five Classics majors who study almost exclusively with the Classics Department's sole instructor, Julian. In fact, Richard has trouble getting Julian to admit Richard into Julian's classes. Richard studied Greek and Latin (maybe just Greek) at his previous school and was very, very keen on continuing. Richard succeeds in joining the program and slowly joins the very tight knit group.

Julian himself is loved by his few students. He has a somewhat mysterious background as a bon vivant among the jet set of Paris and other cities. Julian is also independently wealthy and the College does not have to pay him. This monetary advantage and Julian's popular reputation means Julian can run the Classics department almost independently of the College's administration.

The Classics students themselves - Richard, Charles, Henry, Francis, Bunny, Camilla - are the focus of the story. They have few courses outside Classics - Richard's only other class is French. They are mostly an insular group and don't socialize too much outside their circle. Henry and Francis have wealthy families and healthy monthly allowances. Charles and Camilla are fraternal twins and are not rich but certainly not poor. Richard fakes wealth with vague, fabricated stories of Hollywood connected parents. Bunny is a gregarious and oblivious dope whose wealthy family gives him zero bucks. Bunny's lack of cash drives him to his own death.

Beware of spoilers: the five core students have been keeping secrets from Richard. Although the six have together lazed away weekends at the country estate of Francis's wealthy relation.  But, over the past couple months the five others have had late night attempts at bacchanal. Maybe bacchanal means to you what it means to me: intoxication, sex, drugs, and throwing aside all morals and mores. To these devoted students of Ancient Greece bacchanal means a intoxicated ceremony to call Dionysus into human form. Ok. That's some intense devotion there, fellas. What's more, all the students but Bunny firmly believe in this ongoing project.

The bacchanal attempts were not successful and part of this the blame of Bunny The Oblivious Jackass and Nitwit. Bunny stops taking the attempts seriously so the rest of the group ditch him. When they try on their own one November evening the remaining four people succeed in entering a trance, running through the woods, and witnessing something following along with them. All this is fine and great and they're having a early A.M. pseudo-religious experience and running barefoot through the forest. Too bad that Henry had a little bit of a wig-out and bashed in the brain's of a farmer they stumbled upon. Oops.

Richard is let in on this secret by Henry as the second semester begins. Bunny quickly figures out by the behavior of Richard and a news article of the farmer's death that the four of them killed the farmer. Bunny is a talker and the four are worried. Bunny is also constantly broke and mooching and takes advantage of this by bleeding Henry of money. New clothing, dinners, booze, and a holiday trip to Italy paid off of Henry's trust allowance.

More things happen as the five conspire to murder the one. A drunken Bunny is pushed off a cliff. The five worry about police. The five worry about Julian finding out. The five tolerate a funeral with Bunny's asshole family.

Enough plot summary bullshit. Here are my thoughts.

1. Tartt takes forever to write her novels and the text is thick but very readable. Richard narrates with exact language. We get a description of Henry inscribing a line in the dirt with the ferrule of his umbrella. He wasn't just drawing in the dirt with an umbrella tip. What's more he was walking around with a fucking umbrella in February in Vermont. Which brings me to...
2. 1980s Preppy Central. Rich kids and wanna be kids from the East Coast practicing for elite adulthood.  They wear ties every day, never wear jeans, speak in a drawl, look down on others. They lounge at a country estate (literally an estate: big house, surrounding acres, a caretaker). Wealthy people with a trust fund allowance. A 1984 Bret Easton Ellis/Lisa Birnbach feel. (Which then brings unpleasant thoughts of Judge Kavanaugh.)
3. Goddamn. Tartt and Easton Ellis both attended Bennington College.
4. Double goddamn, Tartt actually dated Easton Ellis. Tartt was steeped in the middle of a preppie teapot.
5. There is a bit of slapstick humor in some of this. When everyone travels to see Bunny's family in Connecticut (or something) there is a humorous scene of furtive pot smoking at the house with mom Bunny's mother unaware.
6. I likely never would have tried one of Tartt's novels except she narrated True Grit. Tartt narrated this as well. The narration is kinda monotone and doll but I took that as a reflection of Richard.
7. The ending is a let down. A few more people end up dead by the end but the kicker is how Julian learns of the murders of the farmer and Bunny and just leaves the college and city. Julian refuses all contacts with the students. When Julian takes off his absence leaves a void for the students. The students are left adrift and missing their academic god. But, Tartt wrote this long story without putting much of Julian the Teacher in there.  Julian is written as more mystery than man. The mass of the plot was focused on the group of students much more than Julian and the classes. Julian's departure meant bupkis to me, the reader and internet blatherer.


Todd Mason said...

Triple Goddamn. Jonathan Lethem was in the same class (of '86) with Tartt and Ellis. He chose to drop out, though I assume that's not why he's the best writer of the three. She's better than Ellis, but that's not too tough. (They're all my age, too. I'm not keeping up.)

I suspect the Rushdie reference probably was added late, even given, as you mention, her long gestation periods. Even prolific writers have to wait a year or so most of the time to see their novels in print.

Todd Mason said...


I met Lisa Birnbach, but barely spoke with her, in 1983, as it happens. She was doing her followup to THE PREPPIE HANDBOOK, her COLLEGE GUIDE. She stopped into the the offices of the student government on the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus to speak with the student senators, of which I was one, but no one told me about this. I just happened to walk by, notice she was there and was very cute, said hello and not much more while picking up my mail. She was rather a small person (as in not to tall nor bulky), and probably remains so. (I had been elected as a Green in 1983. I had been for one month the Editor of HAWAII REVIEW. I was the president of the Honolulu Science Fiction Society. I had won the campus writing award. I dropped out at the end of the semester. The way things go.)

Having been graduated from a prep school, Punahou, I certainly knew the Barnard College vibe, and knew some kids whose parents were profoundly rich. As an upper middle-class kid, as was among the less well-off.

Todd Mason said...

Hah. I wrote Barnard, when I meant Bennington. My running mate for the student senate, Keiko Hassler, never served, because she transferred to Barnard for '83-'84, and was soon roommates with Audrey Schulman, who also won the campus writing award, only in her case at Columbia. She's since written several novels...not too shabby. Two other Greens ran with us, and they've had relatively interesting careers since, as well.

Gerard Saylor said...

Mason brings the truth once more.

I best know Birnbach from THE COLLEGE GUIDE. We had a copy of that in my house when my older brother was looking at colleges in the mid-'80s. I am certain I read every entry in the book.

Todd Mason said...

Birnbach seemed rather overly impressed by how revealing the shorts were on some of the women at UH. Very Prep. (I hadn't read the HANDBOOK and didn't know who she was when we met.)

Did the book help either of you decide on a campus?

Now if my education had prepared me to not type "to" when I meant "too" above.

Gerard Saylor said...

My brother and I both chose smaller schools and I don't recall if they were in Birnbach's book. He went to Grinnell College which has high enough of a reputation and weird enough of a hippy vibe that it may have made her book.

I've wanted to reread or leaf through the book again but have not tried to acquire a copy. The book's focus was on sex, booze, campus life and the various greek systems.

ABE Books has copies of the book starting at $20. That seems a bit high for a 1984 college guide. I could ILL a copy but I've barely been reading the books I already have at home.

Todd Mason said...

Yes, I have, or had, in a storage box somewhere in the house a remaindered copy of the oversized paperback, which is where I picked up on her awe in re the visibility of the lower buttocks curves among many young women in their short pants on the UH campus ca.'re right that she was hitting hard on Greek life, which student senators other than myself would be better equipped to discuss, which is probably why I wasn't invited to her chat...likewise, the members of the Maranatha Xian group, including the student president, secretary and treasurer--the Veep was a reasonable frat guy in his turn, who had not run with the president; we Greens had mostly run against the Xian Right cult members--probably weren't in on her info gathering on Party Hearty stats. (One of our quartet is the brother of one of the Maranathas. It had its interesting aspects, my term in what I considered the lowest elected state office in Hawaii.) $20 is a bit steep for mild nostalgia.