Though a mystery story, Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, holds few secrets. It is as open as a child: its revelations are too frequent to be significant, and its secrets too helpless to be revealing. It is a fairytale about a poor Californian who arrives at a rich New England college and quickly falls in with glamour and murder. Apparently about the nature of evil, it is full of wonder and romance – the romance of money, class, intelligence and beauty. It is swoonily compulsive, like listening to your own heartbeat: its sequence flatters you with what you want to hear. As the book’s narrator, Richard Papen, discovers the golden campus and its gang of five mysterious Classics students, so his yearning to find out more about this cosy world becomes identical with the reader’s, and a childish pact is joined (as in the best romances).
Tartt’s writing has the self-delighted explicitness and wonderment that we know so well from children’s fiction, or from adult versions like Swift and Dickens. This is not to be despised, for this wonderment returns fiction to its first principles, its primal scene. But it is startling to find it so openly done in a contemporary American novel. The wonderment begins where it must, at the beginning of the real story. What has happened to Richard Papen in California before his arrival at Hampden College, Vermont, is lightly sketched in a few opening pages, because it is strictly unimportant: this story, not life, must confer enchantment. So, only a few pages into the book, Richard gets off the bus in Hampden, and is duly enchanted. ‘The sun was rising over mountains, and birches, and impossibly green meadows ... it was like a country from a dream.’ Richard wants to major in Classics, but he is told that the subject is in the hands of one professor, Julian Morrow, who has only five students. He decides to seek out Morrow, and the writing excitedly complies:
Once at the top I found myself in a long, deserted hallway. Enjoying the noise of my shoes on the linoleum, I walked along briskly, looking at the closed doors for numbers or names until I came to one that had a brass card holder and, within it, an engraved card that read JULIAN MORROW. I stood there for a moment and then I knocked, three short raps. A minute or so passed, and another, and then the white door opened just a crack. A face looked out at me.
Thus the narrator becomes the reader, and we share an ecstasy of wide-eyedness. Repeatedly, the novel returns to this function:
as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk. ‘Geez,’ I said.
This novel is a prolonged and happy ‘Geez’.
Richard first encounters the five Classics students in the library. (‘My interest in Julian Morrow and his Greek pupils, though still keen, was starting to wane when a curious coincidence happened. It happened the Wednesday morning of my second week, when I was in the library.’) The five are working together and discussing aloud the merits of the dative. (‘Ablative’s the ticket, old man,’ suggests Bunny.) Richard speaks a password – ‘I’m sorry, but would the locative case do?’ – and is given membership of the group. Its leader is Henry Winter, who ‘wore dark English suits’ and apparently published a translation of Anacreon, with commentary, when still 18. Later in the novel he expresses surprise to learn that man has walked on the Moon. The oaf of the gang is Bunny Corcoran, Bunny ‘being somehow short for Edmund’ (presumably a little allusion of Tartt’s: Bunny was Edmund Wilson’s nickname); Francis Abernathy is the wimp; and the twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, are the beauties.
The members of the gang have no life outside their poses. There is nothing here unmotivated, no detail that is not telling (‘he carried an umbrella, a bizarre sight in Hampden’), no revelation that is not a disclosure. Too zealously mapped, the novel cannot go its own way. The story compels, but it doesn’t involve. We do not really care when Richard learns that the gang (minus Bunny) have murdered a farmer while dancing in the woods in a bacchanalian frenzy. Nor when the gang (plus Richard) kill Bunny, who figures out, too late, that his friends are murderers.
This is the sealed chamber of the fantastic, where everything fits. It is strange that Donna Tartt should have gone this way, for there are moments in the book when she proves herself a decent realist with a hospitable ear. Outside the ludicrousness of the gang, for instance, she provides a very sharp portrait of an expensive liberal arts college (she herself went to Bennington). Consider the names of some of the other students: Judy Poovey (a Californian who turns out to be the novel’s true hero). Cloke Rayburn (the campus coke-dealer). Laura Stora, Jack Teitelbaum, Sophie Dearbold, Flipper Leach. Here is Judy Poovey’s conversation: ‘You know, I think Laura has an eating disorder, not anorexia, but that Karen Carpenter thing where you make yourself puke. Last night I went with her and Trace to the Brasserie, and I’m totally serious, she stuffed herself until she could not breathe. Then she went into the men’s room to barf and Tracy and I were looking at each other, like, is this normal?’
Now consider the feeble inaccuracy of the naming of the gang, and the implausibility of their speech, and it is difficult not to see the failure as instructive. With cold brilliance, Tartt sees accurately a world (of drugs and MTV and mindlessness) she clearly despises; but she is unable to do the same with a world (of pretension, class-consciousness and difficult learning) about which she is rather lovingly ambivalent. Is it unfair to suggest that the author’s ambivalence – more in love with the glamour than she can admit – clouds her depiction of this world? That just as the novel too happily satisfies the reader’s wants, so, perhaps, these unlikely Classics students satisfy her own wants? Their implausibility, after all, protects them from the censure of realism: they are murderers, but they are not real murderers; above all, they remain glamorous (‘ablative’s the ticket old man’). The novel is not really about the glamour of evil, but the glamour of glamour. This is the novel’s childishness: it offers mysteries and polished revelations on every page, but its true secrets are too deep, too unintended to be menacing or profound.
This kind of moral vagueness is hardly new in American fiction of course. What separates Tartt’s first novel from Fitzgerald’s, for example, is its slyness and strange maturity. This Side of Paradise is hopelessly in love with glamour, and never seeks to hide it: Tartt’s book has none of that uncalculated rapture and hapless sublimity.Tartt’s novel is clever, mature and utterly calculated, down to its references to Gatsby and to Philip Roth’s first novel Goodbye, Columbus. Her ambivalence is less easily fathomed than Fitzgerald’s and less likeable.
Thanks to its $450,000 advance, Tartt’s novel arrived in this country with a red flag going before it. Its opposite in every way, Jane Smiley’s novel came much more silently, but trailing a jet-stream of prizes (it won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award). It is a quiet, easy, irritating novel which is deeper than Tartt’s but without any of its lively shallowness. It is irritating because it is too wise, and because it thinks it isn’t telling a story. On a farm in Iowa, King Lear is replayed. An old farmer, Larry, decides to hand his thousand acres over to his daughters. Ginny, who narrates the novel, accepts her share, as does her sister Rose. But Caroline hesitates ... Her father cuts her off, and begins to go mad with bitterness.
Curiously, the novel’s weakness has nothing to do with its indebtedness to King Lear. It says much about the mythic power still available to American fiction that this novel can so casually repress Shakespeare’s story (it is nowhere mentioned in the text: compare this with the chronic dependence of an English version, such as Marina Warner’s Tempest novel, Indigo). But it is precisely the novel’s self-mythologising which is the problem. It is as if the book were continually trying to excuse itself from the room of fiction. Smiley tries not to tell a story, so as to give us the sense of a world in place long before the start of the book, a world with a kind of heavily cross-referenced existence: everything in it relates to something else within it. ‘And maybe he’s gotten a little thick in the middle, the way you do when there’s plenty of meat and potatoes around ... his waist came straight up out of his waistband; his thighs seemed to bow a little, so you got the sense of his muscles inside his jeans. From behind too, he didn’t look like anyone else at the pig roast ... he didn’t walk like a farmer, either, that’s something else you noticed from behind. Most men walk in their hip sockets, just kicking their legs out one at a time, but Jess Clark moved from the small of his back, as if, any time, he might do a few handsprings.’ Or this: ‘He had good manners, one of the things about a man, I often thought, that lasts and lasts.’
How much of this familial omniscience and buffed contentment one can take is largely a matter of taste; but that deeply sentimental ‘the way you do when there’s plenty of meat and potatoes around’ (particularly in that studiedly casual ‘around’) was enough for this reader. The sentimentality is never banished. Rose has breast cancer, and Ginny is taking her for her regular check-up: ‘Our plan was to shop a little after the hospital ... but it all depended on the doctor’s appointment. It the news was bad, there would be no telling what we would do – the future would lie before us as a blank, and somehow, we would honour that.’
Tartt’s novel was a narrative of easy revelation: Smiley’s is a narrative of easy gossip. Like a gossip, Ginny lets the reader in on a world already in existence. Smiley is so determined to be casual about detail (the very opposite of Tartt) that she fills the book with it. The novel, desperate to be undressy, exults in its own raggedness. We learn far too much about hogs and slurry systems and combine harvesters: ‘I was putting in tomato plants the next day, a hundred tomato plants, mostly Better Boys, Gurney Girls and Romas ... I had a knack with tomatoes that I had developed into a fairly ritualised procedure, planting deep in a mixture of peat, bonemeal, and alfalfa meal ... Around that, leaves of the Des Moines Register, then mounds of half-decayed grass cuttings on top of those.’ This is a very American kind of writing, partly inherited and partly invented by creative-writing programmes, in which detail is confused with storytelling: ‘Daddy ordered the full hot dinner special – roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes, canned string beans, ice cream, three cups of coffee. I had grilled cheese on Roman meal bread, potato chips, pickle, and a Coke.’ The idea is that America-the-poem – America is itself the greatest poem, wrote Whitman – will write the novel for you, if you let it overwhelm you. It sinks this one.