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46 of 56 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent literary fiction, seriously flawed., February 10, 2008
This review is from: The Secret History (Paperback)
I come away from this book at a loss as to what to say about it: It deserves both high praise and heavy criticism. It is a rapturous, beautiful, intricate and balanced work of art; it is also oddly archaic, strangely disconnected from reality, and oftentimes more dissolute than well-worked.

In praise, its insight into the kind of effete degeneracy that seems to well up when one isolates maturing intellectuals with one another is chillingly apt: It is apt, however, more in the sense of metaphor than in any naturalistic sense. The romance, luxuriousness, and cruel beauty of the cultivated degeneracy Tartt takes as her theme is evoked with brilliance and not inconsiderable talent.

In way of criticism, however, the novel is long and hangs loosely on its frame; its narrator, a character standing halfway between the position of a blank-slate observer and a character in his own right, vacillates between transparency and muddiness, his gestures toward the development of a personality alternatingly muddy and tragic, and this narratorial shapelessness contributes to the baggy-monsterness of the text as a whole.

Though it is easy to identify the themes of the work in broad strokes, I come away from an attentive reading of the text without being able to put my finger on its moral center, which is, I think, a flaw in Tartt's writing, not an element of her design; _The Secret History_ works very hard to achieve a sense of this moral center, and it is a very grave and wise one, at that; but it fails to alight on it definitively. The novel does not easily settle into the sum of its parts.

A very unsettling element of this book is the weird timelessness of its setting: I had to guess continuously when it might have been set, my first guess being the sixties, then gradually moving up through the decades as bits of background information trickled through the text. As nearly as I can tell, it takes place in the eighties--a time during which students use typewriters and rely on pay phones, but contextually after the sixties and seventies. Being the eighties, however, virtually every character speaks in his own bizarrely archaic voice: Bunny sounds like a hybrid of Teddy Roosevelt and Gatsby; Francis like a Victorian effeminate; and the unflattering peripheral characters like technicolor Californians or oddly outdated cokeheads. I can't determine whether this is an element of its structure or a flaw.

Finally, as a Classicist myself I came away with the uncertain suspicion that Tartt does not actually herself possess any classical languages. Virtually every instance of Greek in the text is orthographically wrong in some way; for instance I saw a lambda mysteriously mistyped as a gamma, that is, flipped upside down in the transcription process (it caused the word to read "pogyeides" not "polyeides"); and when the diacritical marks aren't wrong, they're lacking. These quibbles aside, it may well be that we ought to blame the typesetter, not the author, because Tartt's use of classical material in the text is unwaveringly appropriate and often quite erudite.

Despite its flaws, the book is intoxicating: I took a long shower the day I finished it, when I was about halfway through; I didn't realize until halfway through the thirty-minute soak that I was lingering because I actually felt _infected_ by the guilt of Tartt's characters, that my immersion in this book had made me uncleanly complicit to their crimes, their dread. This little work of sympathetic magic on her part is a testament to the intellectual and moral impact of her text, and, I think, excuses in itself the flaws one may point out in it; it is, moreover, beautifully written and unflaggingly rich. This book may never be a classic, but it is without a doubt fiction of literary merit.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 28, 2010 6:42:08 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 13, 2011 10:06:08 AM PDT]

Posted on Sep 12, 2011 12:41:55 PM PDT
I spit on your grave!

Posted on Jun 16, 2015 8:29:31 AM PDT
Donna Hill says:
I agree with "my immersion in this book had made me uncleanly complicit in their crimes." I felt the same way. It was a rather eerie experience!
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Location: University of Virginia, Charlottesville

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