Saturday, August 8, 2009

Late night reading - Spoiler alert!

So I should probably wait to post this until someone else opens the conversation, but I'm going to forget my thoughts if I put it off - even though just like Mrs. Darwin mentioned in her email, The Secret History keeps your eyelids peeled. When I started the book last week, I wasn't immediately drawn in. Richard is kind of an offputting narrator. But then I hit the exciting part, and stayed up until 3 am reading the middle 300 pages – just one more section, just one more page, just one more… I was standing in the bathroom because my husband had just come home from a 10 day trip right in the middle of phase 2, and I really meant to go to bed after he fell asleep. The last time I stood to read for so long was either Alice MacDermott’s After This, another bittersweet tale of people bent on self-destruction, or Harry Potter 7. Reading that late at night made me feel almost like I was in a drunken stupor mixed with some kind of after midnight high – a part of the drug and alcohol paranoia infused mood of the book.
Even though I couldn’t put The Secret History down, I’m still not sure I’d list it as a favorite, or even vigorously recommend it, even though I liked it. The characters were interesting, if a little inconsistent, the plot was gripping, the descriptions vivid. But such a downer. I keep asking myself if there is a redemptive moment. I loved the descriptions of the classes with Julian, and wish my Program of Liberal Studies seminars had measured up to something so intimate. But I couldn’t buy that these were undergraduates. Maybe I don’t know enough ennui-filled rich people. For awhile I thought there might be a Twilight twist: These 5 students are actually centenarian vampires and Julian is their leader! So the actual secret seemed a little mundane: oh, just a gruesome bacchanalian murder, nothing paranormal, except the bacchanal itself, I guess. But once I gave up the vampire theory, I enjoyed the book more.
Some quibbles: My suspension of disbelief was tested if this is not supposed to be fantasy: Would Dr. Roland and Julian really have been so clueless? Would Richard really have been able to pass as a rich Californian if his background was as bluecollar as he claimed? I didn’t buy that he was able to fit in so quickly. And I felt like I had to revise my mental image of Charles, Henry, and Francis a couple of times.
I wanted more about the bacchanal. Fascinating idea. And I liked the idea that they had to actually believe for it to work. But I thought at one point Henry said something about telling Julian all about it, but at the end Julian apparently didn’t know anything.
Did it seem like it was better for Bunny to be alive than dead? Did Henry really want to kill Charles? At one point I suspected Henry of having a deeper strain of evil, when he is hiding Camilla and sending Richard and Francis on his errands. But is he actually good at heart, just ensnared by his lies? And does Richard sometimes seem the least noble of them all? A dissembler, a hanger-on, a loyalty-shifter?
What I liked was the depiction of the escalation of the wages of sin. They keep falling deeper into darkness. Sin begets sin. Was there a point where they could’ve stopped the descent and turned away? Maybe the scene at the very end where Francis and Camilla and Richard go to the Ash Wednesday service? Are they all lost souls at the end of the novel? Sunk in perpetual alienation after sharing an intimacy most people don’t experience? Could love save any of them?
For some reason Henry’s statement about how the bacchanal freed him from his intellectual impotence, how he was able to discover a life of action w/o thought, struck me: I think sometimes I share that tendency to overanalyze, to fret something to death so that I can’t act on an impulse, or even act on a conviction. But Henry's final act seems almost a condemnation of action. Both extremes come off as dangerous.
I'm sure I've missed some things. Really enjoyed reading this. Didn't do any digging on the author, other than to notice she went to school in Mississippi before moving north, and what Mrs. Darwin said about her being Catholic. I wonder if when she wrote this book, she saw something appealing in the idea of being a part of a mystery, even though it has a destructive side. Do you think she idealizes the classical mindset, with its ideals of beauty, honor, loyalty and nobility in the person of Julian, whom all the students love like a father, but then realizes his shortcomings? His inability to love the actual person, only the ideal? He doesn't have the kind of personal love that Christianity could inspire? I wish there were a little more at the beginning to show that relationship. The students say they love him, but I didn't really see it.

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