The best books for long sticky days are the ones that unwind slowly, ideally over the backdrop of erotic tension and impending doom: This summer, while we’re all stuck more or less away from other people, I’d suggest Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History. And if you’ve already read it, try reading it again.
The book, which even unfinished sold for half a million dollars and was published when Tartt was barely 30, is most often described as an inverted detective story: From the first page, the reader learns that the protagonists will eventually come to kill one of their own. But it’s also a story about the madness that comes with isolation, and doing evil things to the people you spend all of your time with, perhaps because you are horny and overcome with ennui.
For these reasons, and for its narrative focus on the hedonistic rituals of a bunch of relentlessly uptight nerds, it’s the perfect quarantine book for a summer that may never actually come to an end.
The engine of the novel is allegedly a reader’s desire to figure out why a character must die: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation,” the novel’s first line reads. But as its author told an overeager Vanity Fair reporter during the book’s initial marketing push: “I mean, this is basically a novel about repressed sexuality. There’s sex all in the book, but it’s really pressed down.”
The Secret History is recounted through the eyes of Richard Papen, a rather blank and impressionable young man who escapes the tract homes and drive-ins of Plano, California, on a scholarship to attend Hampden College, a pastoral liberal arts school in Vermont heavily suggestive of Bennington College, where Tartt began working on the book. Papen falls in with an exclusive clique of students invited to take all their classes with a single professor, a man rumored to have been “a great intellectual in the forties” and a close friend of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
The six students all study Classics, translating texts from their original Greek and centering their lives around the romance of antiquity, encouraged by the sole adult in their lives: There’s the cool and brilliant Henry, taken with obscure forms of scholarship; the exacting and wealthy Francis; a pair of beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, dressed like “long dead celebrants of some forgotten garden party,” and the ill-fated Bunny, the crude, back-slapping child of a banker, boarding-school educated but without the pocket money or polite reserve that signals the rest of the groups’ social class.
“As different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the last but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world,” Papen thinks, and desperate to fit in, he fabricates much of his own history—which doesn’t so much gain him entrance into the group as allow him to float alongside it until he’s pulling into a plan that feels “as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we’d take.”
Gradually, the harmless if fanciful rituals of a tightly wound group of college students obsessed with their own myth-making—in this case, for example, addressing each other in ancient languages and wearing decadent outfits, including English suits and a memorable pair of fake pince-nez—expand to include a literal Dionysian rite. Four of the undergraduates hold an orgiastic night together in the woods where, they claim, the moon changes shape and the river runs white. A local farmer is killed somewhere along the way. Questions about the various sexual pairings that night loom over the rest of the book.
When Bunny learns of the murder it becomes obvious why he has been doomed from the start of the novel, though it’s never quite clear whether his friends kill him to silence a tattletale or expel someone whose breeding didn’t conform to their very particular sense of style. It all feels, improbably, very believable, which is the spookiest and most enduring pleasure of the book.
In the years since Donna Tartt published The Secret History, readers have generally been eager to find parallels between the author’s own time at Bennington and the pseudo-fictional Hampden College where the novel was set. In part, the fascination stems from the fact that Tartt’s classmates included Bret Easton Ellis—a friend and early booster of the book—along with Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt, a generation of writers forged in what Esquire referred to in a lengthy oral history as “the 1980s most decadent college.” It’s also probably due to Tartt’s own decades-long refusal to talk about her own life, which, paired with her reputation as a canny and mysterious icon, makes for enticing stuff.
But while it’s unlikely Tartt held orgies in the woods or knew of a murder on campus, it’s clear she learned some lessons from her peers at Bennington, which through the ’90s continued to be one of the country’s most expensive schools: The carefully constructed and entirely irrelevant microclimates cultivated by the very rich, for instance, and the tendency of its offspring to mistake taste for depth. There is no real moral to Tartt’s wonderful first novel, but its lethargic crawl towards evil makes for great summer stuff.