The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Binky Urban. I keep seeing her name in the Acknowledgments section of books by young authors. She’s an agent, a mover and shaker in the literary world (I can hear “Binky darling!” being called out across crowded rooms at a thousand New York parties). But here’s the thing: why didn’t she tell Donna Tartt that her novel was twice as long as it needed to be? Because it is, and after the halfway point I found myself laboring along in desultory fashion until I ground to a halt at page 350 (with over two hundred pages to go). I did read the ending (hysteria, culminating in a suicide) and the Epilogue (Purple Prose). The hysteria and Purple Prose were a surprise, because for the first half things were under control. I diagnosed Tartt as an obsessive-compulsive. She constructed History carefully; part of its length is due to how complete everything is (except the murder of the farmer during the Bacchanalian revel, which is left hazy due to its improbability). I’m okay with OCD writing as long as things don’t get stagnant. A lot of the credit for the book’s readability goes to the first person narrator; I was smoothly persuaded to accept the premise of an assemblage of oddball college geniuses studying Greek under the tutelage of the enigmatic Julian. A few minor glitches. For so careful as writer, there are gaps in logic (which I won’t go into). And the Edenesque world of privilege Tartt creates was marred by the occasional intrusion of Bret Easton Ellis’s brand of ennui (he was her classmate at Bennington and she dedicated the book to him). Part One ends with the murder that was foretold in the Prologue; the scene is done with admirable restraint, so I entered Part Two in a good frame of mind. It’s here that Binky should have intervened: “Donna, girl, is all this necessary? I mean the investigation, the tactics to avoid detection. It goes on and on, and it’s really not that interesting. We just need to know what effects their deed has on the principals. Maybe you could close with a chance meeting between Richard and Camilla years later?” Instead I think Tartt was encouraged to go on and on (maybe Binky saw a blockbuster as more marketable). It also seems as if, in true OCD fashion, Tartt couldn’t let go of characters she had become enraptured with. Indiscriminate encouragement and rapture are a bad combo, especially for a young writer, and would account for the book’s nosedive in the second half. And so it is that yet another meteor in the literary firmament fizzles out in the aboveground backyard pool. In closing, I want to thank Binky Urban for making this review possible.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
For much of this book I didn’t like or sympathize with Lily Bart. Wharton constantly lavishes praise on her social skills, composure and, most of all, her beauty. In a two page stretch she’s described as “tall and noble” and having a “slender majesty.” The words “noble” and “majesty” don’t seem appropriate for a woman who is pursuing marriage to a man she has absolutely no feelings for simply because his wealth can enable her to live in the gilded world she’s accustomed to. It’s a world in which possessions and parties and knowing the right people are what counts; morally, ethically and intellectually it’s a wasteland. Selden tries to convince Lily that there’s a more worthwhile way of life. Lily perceives that he’s right, but that doesn’t sway her. Lily and Selden could be in love; but, for Lily, he doesn’t have money; and, in Selden’s case, he’s always ready to retreat from a true commitment. The convoluted prose in which the story is told shows the pernicious influence of Henry James. Still, it was an active book, with much social maneuvering, and it held my attention. Then, near the end, an emotional sea change took place. Lily descends into the dinginess she had always feared: a boarding house, a job in a workroom making hats. And she can’t do that competently: “Since she was brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but her discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency.” There’s a solution to her money woes, but it would involve blackmail; though the victim eminently deserves it, Lily can’t save herself by this means. She finally took shape for me: a flawed person, but not a bad or hurtful one. I felt the sympathy I had long withheld. Felt it fully. I was moved by the paragraphs in which she takes too much chloral; this perfectly-executed presentation of a state of mind is given to us with no convolutions. Just the straight truth of a woman who desires above all the oblivion offered by sleep. She welcomes the sense of subjugation the drug brings to her; before she yields to the warm abyss of unconsciousness she thinks, languidly, “Tomorrow would not be so difficult after all: she felt sure she would have the strength to meet it. She did not quite remember what she had been afraid to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her.”
May Flavin – Myron Brinig
Up to the halfway point this had been a grounded, naturalistic novel about the lives of uneducated slum-dwellers. Then, abruptly, the plot introduces a sultry prostitute, a knife fight, etc. What had been realistic became garishly ludicrous. Maybe Brinig decided that the joys and travails of his characters were lacking in interest and that he needed to spice things up. But there’s drama to be found in any life; what’s needed is an author with the imagination and empathy to see the uniqueness and importance of so-called “common” people. Brinig committed the cardinal sin in fiction: he resorted to melodrama. I quit reading when the knives came out, though I did peek at the ending; and, sure enough, two of May and Mike’s children become world-famous movie stars. Yeah, right, and I’m the Queen of Sheba.