Literary Gchats of Epic Length: The Secret History Edition

Rejectionist: Hello, my dove! To-day, for the Author-friends' (almost typed Author-fiends, oops) delectation, let us journey together to the shores of Metahemeralism, and discuss that topic that is so dear to both our hearts--Books That Are Like The Secret History. Or, in your words, the genre of That Time When I Was Twenty and Everything Was Great Before It All Went to Shit. What is your favorite, do you think, of the almost-TSHs we have shared?

Chérie l'Ecrivain: Oh god, there are so many. I don’t know if The Likeness is my "favorite" but it certainly has a special place in my heart for being the "most like" TSH, and by "most like" I mean "the most audacious in terms of the author’s willingness to shamelessly appropriate every conceivable aspect of Tartt’s masterpiece, large and small, from the aged and well-loved mansion to the name Marchbanks, which is Henry’s middle name in TSH but which Tana French at least has the sense to shorten to 'March' before tacking it on as the Henry character’s last name." I stand by my original assessment of The Likeness, which is that it’s the perfect thing to read if you just finished rereading TSH, like, last week and it’s too soon to pick it up again. Also, the suspension of disbelief required is easiest obtained with the help of alcohol and/or painkillers, since The Likeness is best enjoyed if one is kind of woozy.

Rejectionist: The Likeness is indeed satisfying, even if a person spends most of the book wondering how her editor let her get away with recreating TSH page-by-page. And I suppose in a way it's more tightly written--there are no repetitive confessions, or excessive abuses of the adverb, and there's no scene in which the Henry character smokes forty cigarettes in the space of five minutes.

I find The Great Gatsby to be the Ur-text of this genre, but I love that book for very different reasons even though it has a lot of the same elements, and I don't reread it obsessively every year or listen to the audiobook on repeat for weeks on end--which reminds me, I think it's about due for another listen.

Chérie l'Ecrivain: Some day we should host an epic listening party for the TSH audiobook, and we’ll turn it into a drinking game, and every time Donna Tartt reads the line "Henry lit another cigarette" everyone has to do a shot.

I think Brideshead Revisited is the best antecedent I can think of, it so perfectly captures that "Everything Was Perfect For a Minute When I was Twenty" (EWPFMWIWT) feeling, and that’s the thing I think a lot of these books are trying to create--almost all of the fake TSHes are taking the best parts of Brideshead and throwing in a murder or a covered-up accidental death, and then the publicity department includes the phrase "Fans of The Secret History will love" somewhere in the jacket copy EVEN THOUGH TSH CAME OUT IN 1992 and another bestseller is made. I started rereading Brideshead the other day and I came to that gorgeous passage where Charles is talking about "the low door in the wall" and the enchanted garden. That’s what is at the heart of TSH--Richard finding that low door in the wall, and then later the door closes, and is closed forever. Tartt captures it so beautifully--the lazy joy of those days at Francis’s house in particular, and those magical classes in Julian’s office--it’s no wonder we want to go back and relive those moments again and again. LIKE BUNNY’S RAGGED LAUGHTER ACROSS THE LAWN DURING THE CROQUET GAME, "THAT LAUGHTER HAUNTS ME STILL," JESUS H CHRIST THAT LINE KILLS ME EVERY TIME

Rejectionist: The Talented Mr. Ripley is another book that does similar things for me. There is also such a voyeuristic delight in watching someone poor trying to pass himself off as someone rich, which that book is about in an even more intense way. Richard is so desperate to be part of Henry's circle that he covers up their murder, but Ripley takes it a step further. And all that gallivanting around Europe and cocktail-drinking which figures prominently in both books. And as a reader you know, and you know the author knows, that the enchanted garden is totally corrupt and morally bankrupt, but you still want in, right? I mean, who doesn't want that, at least a little bit--we're not supposed to admit it, but we all do, I think. But it's easy to love Henry, and it's not easy to love Ripley--he's a fantastic character, but he's far more reprehensible. You can't imagine yourself particularly caring if Ripley likes you. But Henry you want to impress.

We both recently read The Poison Tree, which is obviously aiming for the same target, but I think you liked it better than I did. (Speaking of audacious, way to reuse Tana French's cover design, Viking.)

Chérie l'Ecrivain: I always think of Richard’s description of the first dinner party he attends, where he is forced to listen to that interminable argument about how far apart the Roman soldiers stood, as a sort of subtle way that Tartt establishes the type of people we’re dealing with--like, that is typical dinner conversation. And initially Richard is so out of their league, but then later when Henry needs him, he starts laying on the flattery ("Very good, I knew you would figure it out," etc etc) and treating Richard like an equal. I’d love to see Ripley and Henry locked in some kind of battle of the wits. Maybe one of these days we can write some "Alien vs Predator" style fanfiction. Although clearly Ripley’s sense of self-preservation is much stronger, since ultimately Henry shoots himself in the head to make a point.

What can I say about The Poison Tree. I literally could not put it down. And yet, keep in mind, I was reading it poolside, and again, there were painkillers involved. Is there some kind of award that we can give to a novel where not a single believable thing happens? I might find the premise of The Likeness more believable than the idea that Karen would wait ten years for Rex, the wettest blanket ever committed to the printed page. The actual descriptions of the EWPFMWIWT era seemed so brief in comparison to the other parts that dragged on and on and on--like the chapters that took place in the present, which I skimmed. And the prologue pretty much gave away the big "reveal" at the end. Still, in comparison to, say, Dismantled, Poison Tree is a real facemelter.

Rejectionist: I think Ripley would win without breaking a sweat, much as I would like to cast my vote for Henry.

The Poison Tree's plot was so preposterous I couldn't get past it, and I didn't find the EWPFMWIWT compelling enough to make up for all the shenanigans. I think another mistake most people make is to try and make their main characters likable, when the truth is that people who are so taken in by someone else's glamour--not just impressed, but taken in to the extent that they are willing to, like, kill people--are probably carrying around some pretty hefty flaws themselves. Richard is odious, there's no way around it--Henry is far more likable, and so are Camilla and even Charles. It's hard to pull off a narrator who's so unpleasant and make a compelling story, but I think that might be a key ingredient.

Chérie l'Ecrivain: I also think that involving small children--a la Dismantled and Poison Tree--makes the story so much more pedestrian and uninteresting to me. Ultimately Poison Tree is another book about a woman who (cue dramatic voice over) "will do anything to protect her family," and I guess I’m way more fascinated by stories about deeply flawed people desperate to reinvent themselves.

And you totes have a point about the unlikable characters, which, I think, makes for a nice segue into The Raising. Was there a single likable character in that entire book? I think I liked the roommate, until I found out he fucked his besty’s girl. I was pretty enchanted by the "is the supernatural at work" aspect of that book and there were definitely a number of moments that sincerely gave me chills. But when the big reveals started coming I realized I would have much preferred a story that was about college dudes boning down on the ghost of a sorority girl, then losing their minds and committing suicide, than what I got, which was a scenario so impossible to believe it ruined all the creepy goodness that came before it. There’s not much in TSH that relies on a ludicrous coincidence or a vast leap on the part of the reader into the land of suspended disbelief. Even once we get into the craziness at the end, what with the twincest and the mysterious letter from Bunny that was conveniently misplaced for several months, I don’t think there’s a single moment where you have to make a choice to keep going even though you truly believe that what you’re reading could never happen.

Rejectionist: I am a selfish and narcissistic person who most enjoys reading about other selfish and narcissistic people. But the great trick of having an unlikable narrator is that you can insert yourself in the story as a reader--you can think, "Oh, I would have done this so much better than not-too-smart Richard, and now Henry and I would be drinking gin and tonics on Francis's porch discussing the Upanishads." I think also the wackadoodle elements work best when a writer is willing to go whole hog. Donna Tartt is Not Afraid to Go to the Land of Twincest, and OF COURSE Charles and Camilla are sleeping together, and they have a bacchanal and tear apart a deer and beat a farmer to death and don't care, and you don't care as a reader either.

It is only just now occurring to me that our relationship to TSH is its own EWPFMWIWT. "Everything was so amazing when I found this book at the age of fifteen, and nothing since then has been any good."

Chérie l'Ecrivain: Discovering the audiobook last year was a truly magical experience, and I know no greater delight than falling asleep whilst listening to the soothing sound of Donna Tartt’s voice as she describes the moment when Henry bravely removes a shard of glass from Camilla’s foot, or the first time Richard see the house in the country, or the party he goes to with Judy (Judy! Judy, god bless her!) after handily taking some Demerol. I also find that, once again, if I throw some painkillers into the mix myself it starts to border on a religious experience, drifting off to sleep in an opiate haze that makes me feel more like I am inside the book than listening to it. Also, I think there’s something about these stories about students--whether it’s Brideshead or TSH or even god help us The Raising--that speak to our (or at least my) utter fetishization of the College Experience. There is absolutely nothing more boring than a book that is about college students, but if you throw in a little intrigue or a whiff a Gothic mystery to a story set on an exclusive campus I will read the whole thing cover to cover no matter how fucking ridiculous it is. Do you think it would be possible to have a bacchanal? Not that I’m saying I want to, but I totes bet there a bunch of TSH fans out there who have tried their hardest to follow Henry’s description from the book, sans accidental mutilation of some poor farmer ("I mean, this was not Voltaire we killed, but still").

Rejectionist: Gatsby's Nick is a student of sorts, anyway--he is a student of passing in the same way Richard is. Maybe it is sacrilegious to compare Donna Tartt to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but there you go. Aim high, is the lesson here, and write about nasty people.

I am certain there are at least a few Oberlin freshmen still trying to have bacchanals.


There’s even that nice moment in TSH when Richard reads Gatsby to cheer himself up but ends up more depressed because he recognizes all those flaws he shares with Nick. These stories are always written from the outsider's point of view. I’m glad that TSH is narrated by Richard, but if it were Henry at least we would know what he whispers to Camilla at the end.

Rejectionist: "I watched his back receding down the long, gleaming hall." I still cry. Every time.