Monday, November 25, 2013

The Secret History

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Secret History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Previously at the Bookshelf, I explained that I have been ordering newly-released novels by whomever gets the lead feature in Entertainment Weekly, and tiding myself with an earlier novel by that author while waiting. To this end, while waiting for Marisha Pessl's Night Film, I read her previous Special Topics in Calamity Physics. More recently, I ordered The Goldfinch, the new release by Donna Tartt, and read The Secret History, her 1992 debut, in the meantime.

I recap this so that you can understand how really, really weird it was to tackle Special Topics first, and then read The Secret History. Had I written the earlier book, I'd have been a little unhappy with Pessl. Of the two, I genuinely enjoyed Special Topics better, but I'm a little less taken with it now. It's awfully, uncomfortably similar.

Both novels feature a young narrator moving into an exclusive school setting for intellectual misfits, and finding themselves fitting awkwardly into a really high-strung clique of young pretentious oddballs with too close a relationship with their instructor. Both novels find the increased tension snapping when somebody dies, and both novels provide a little detail about the death in the prologue, so readers will have the long, agonizing buildup to a character's inevitable end. The clique of young pretentious oddballs in each book contains at least one whom readers would like to thump in the nose.

While there are quite wide differences in the plots of each of these books, they're close enough to have made me a little uncomfortable. Also, The Secret History has at least five male characters that need a thumping. One of these is the victim described in the prologue, whose name is Bunny and who strikes a pose somewhere between Thurston Howell III and Clare Quilty doing an impression of a 1920s toff. He's so ridiculous and mannered that I was ready for him to die before he actually does anything to warrant it.

The more I read of this book, the less that I liked it. I didn't sympathize with the narrator, I didn't like any of his smug, drunk friends, and the entirety of the plot is built around characters telling lies. This story could have ended at any time that somebody picked up the phone to call the police. Somebody badly needed to. I didn't enjoy this book, and I didn't enjoy the feeling of having another book that I liked getting knocked down a rung in my affections. (Not that I was all that affectionate toward it, but I'd have preferred to believe it a more original story than it was.) Bah.

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