Boys Club Murder Fun

by dhaaruni


            I finally succumbed and read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and well, I really wasn’t a fan and maybe my expectations were too high. I avoided spoilers (somehow) and I had the vague idea it was about rich people behaving badly but I didn’t have any specific knowledge of the plot beyond the names of the characters. On one hand, there are some passages that I find truly beautiful, but on the whole, the book sort of left me cold and I think that might be the disconnect of my own personality with that of Tartt or her characters. Here’s the thing: I never found the cool, distant, Ivory Tower aesthetic of the first part of the novel remotely attractive because I’ve been rebelling against that for my whole life and I couldn’t grasp WHY Richard was so enamored of it.

            The Ivory Tower is in short, a huge ruse that the novel deconstructs. But as somebody who lives in the Ivory Tower, and is inundated with an excess of elitism and superiority, I didn’t understand why it took 600+ pages for Richard to realize that it’s downright awful and results in the disintegration of relationships and substance abuse and etc etc etc. The fact is that believing oneself to be ultimately rational, as Henry and Julian and Richard seem to, is the downfall of mankind because the crux of humanity is that we are not inherently rational beings. We love and hate and destroy and create and do things that make us all, in the words of Christine Korsgaard, “true irrationals.” We know what we are doing is wrong or destructive or just plainly a bad idea and yet we do it anyway and the acceptance of that fact is the only path away from the neurotic destructiveness that characterizes TSH. It’s not a difficult concept though, and the fact that Richard kept on describing Henry and the rest of them as so goddamn intelligent and alluring when I saw through it instantly both in the novel and in real life turned me off a lot to the novel because I just found it tiresome how downright thick all of them were.

            But then again, I think Richard’s homosexual awakening may explain his extreme infatuation with Henry Winter, Charles MacCauley and the Classics Group in general. Richard Papen is the ultimate unreliable narrative but he’s extremely transparent as far as those go; Flannery Culp, Tyler Durden, Humbert Humbert all accomplish this in a much more successful manner, but maybe that was Tartt’s intent, to almost ridicule the general populace’s fascination with what is beautiful and wealthy no matter how rotten it obviously is. This quote struck me:

“They all shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had the strange cold breath of the ancient world : they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks – sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat.”

HOW DOES ONE MISS THE ULTIMATE LOATHSOMENESS OF THAT AESTHETIC? That was the reasoning behind my eternal disgust with Richard though obviously, there’s the fact he’s also a raging misogynist but seriously: every male in the novel is. Attraction because of cruel detachment is different than attachment despite cruel detachment and the first fundamentally makes no logical sense to me.

            The structure of the novel as a WhyDoneIt instead of a WhoDoneIt was interesting I guess but I just reviewed The Basic Eight and I know I’m biased but I like it so much more. As in, I found Flan’s actions far more justifiable and sympathetic than the Classics’ group because Fran was certifiably going mad as the novel progressed, and I didn’t consider any of the characters in TSH remotely insane and just think of them as objectively terrible human beings, with the possible exception of Camilla. Like, Henry Winter bored me. I go to school with wannabe Henry Winters, I’ve dated wannabe Henry Winters, and it just makes me eye roll all the way to Timbuktu. He’s rich and intelligent and a borderline sociopath who can justify cold-blooded murder as a redistribution of matter and commits suicide at the prime of his so called brilliance, though I’d honestly refer to his whole being as egotistical false rationality. That’s not attractive to me in a character, that’s honestly disgusting and the concept as a whole scares me a lot because I can think of people in real life who are the same way. Lauding a lack of empathy as trendy is the ultimate downfall of people that could have been great and I’ve lost patience for it, especially from those who are so privileged and well educated and from whom I expect so much more.

            But, I did find Camilla extremely appealing, partially because she was the only girl in an all boys club, and also because I’m predictably interested in forbidden love and tend to be more attached to female characters than male ones. The fact Richard never understood Camilla and we only perceived her through his tinted glasses was ironic since I think we know more about her as a person than I would have expected to. She’s not a heroine by any means since she’s an enabler in two murders, but her and Charles seem more aware of the wrongness of the Classics Group’s actions than the rest of them. Francis dissolves into panic attacks post Bunny’s death, but Charles and Camilla become hugely unhinged by the murders; Charles becomes a raging abusive alcoholic and Camilla begins sleeping with Henry, when I honestly don’t think she ever loved him no matter what she may say. And, her constant description as parallel to Charles was well done because is she still an individual when she isn’t seen as anything but Charles’ shadow? That all being said, the passage when Richard discovers Charles and Camilla’s relationship was probably my favorite in the novel since it was extremely emotionally driven and heartbreaking especially in contrast to the detached “Greek idea of beauty” that seems to define Henry and what the others aspire to.

“He came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders; bending low, he put his lips close to the nape of her neck. “How about a kiss for your jailbird brother?” he said.      

She turned halfway, as if to touch her lips to his cheek, but he slid a palm down her back and tipped her face up to his and kissed her full on the mouth – not a brotherly kiss, there was no mistaking it for that, but a long, slow, greedy kiss, messy and voluptuous. His bathrobe fell slightly open as his left hand sank from her chin to neck, collarbone, base of throat, his fingertips just inside the edge of her thin polka-dot shirt and trembling over the warm skin there.”

Like, that was one of the few places I found Tartt’s writing truly compelling and it might just be that my personal interests are more about Romance with a capital R than terrible people justifying their terribleness, but also, I objectively believe that her oxymoronically simple denseness is just highly appropriate when discussing complicated, tense relationships and not as much so when attempting to deal with complicated ethical issues. And it somehow seems a lot more genuinely pure than the rest of the novel no matter how toxic it is because it’s not rotten or abusive, at least not at first until the fallout from the murders. 

            But that’s my take on The Secret History. I don’t actually hate it like I do certain other novels (lots and lots of other books don’t even get me started) but I’m a) slightly confused at its popularity as an “intellectual” work because the conceptualization is extremely simple in my opinion and b) more than slightly disturbed by how people perceive and/or admire the main characters. They’re first and foremost, murderers or accomplices in murders, and just disgustingly terrible people in their own ways, and for no real reason besides their own selfishness, which is vastly different than villains like Cersei Lannister who have a very detailed backstory and Freudian excuses despite still committing awful acts. But that conclusion is colored by my own life and personal experiences obviously and if you want to read the 700-page novel, be my guest.