1. Could you tell us the name of a book you love, and why? The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. It belongs to a genre I made up, or at least I like to pretend I did: the literate mystery. Not quite a literary mystery, although there’s literature involved, and not quite a traditional mystery, in that the perpetrators of the crime are identified immediately. And it’s not fair to take it out of the literary fiction category, since it’s extremely well written and clearly the product of a very sharp intellect. Donna Tartt calls it a “whydunit” as opposed to a “whodunit,” but I think that doesn’t give it enough credit for the ways, subtle and otherwise, that it subverts the conventional mystery genre. I love it because it has everything I want in fiction: well drawn characters, a plot that makes me want to turn each page before I’ve even finished reading it, and language that forces me to slow down.
I heard about it as soon as it came out, which was during my first year in college, and I wanted to read it immediately, but even as a lowly freshman I had already established some spending rules regarding books: first, no hardcovers, and second, no non-academic book purchases until the end of the semester. The latter rule ended up leading to what I came to think of as the book-buying binge, a habit I’ve only managed to temper a little bit over the last however-many years.
If I’ve got my math right, then, I probably bought the first of many paperback versions I’ve owned after the first semester of my sophomore year. I barely even remember reading it for the first time; I think it happened in a day because once I started I couldn’t stop.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Very much so, particularly with respect to my reading and writing life.
For background: as did many of the people who are likely to be reading this, I grew up as a seriously hard-core bookworm. Reading with a flashlight in a closet, that sort of thing. I was lucky enough to be able to read really fast and to have parents who let me read whatever I wanted, which I took advantage of by reading some pretty trashy books as a child, and then as a teenager. I remember a series of books about Anglican priests and their tawdry affairs, and I was obsessed with Sybil at far too early an age. Some books I used to re-read yearly—Dune, The Stand, Rebecca, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Jitterbug Perfume. All terrific fun, but by and large not a lot of work.
And then I got to college and started taking literature classes. This was right during the heart of hard-core postmodernism—I think three of my first four classes included The Crying of Lot 49. White Noise blew my mind, as did “The Dunyazadiad” from The Chimera. But I was almost embarrassed to talk to my classmates about the kind of books I used to read for fun. A lot of them had gone to private school, which I hadn’t, and they’d read more than The Scarlet Letter in their English classes. I felt like I’d spent years missing “real” books and now I had to catch up.
My end-of-semester book-buying binges that first year of college largely consisted of more books by the authors I’d only just learned about. More DeLillo, more Calvino, more Nabokov. After the women’s lit class: Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Louise Erdrich. And all the books were great, so great that I don’t think I would have thought there was anything missing, at the time.
Then The Secret History came out in paperback. Finally. At first it reminded me of the books I’d read as a kid: it opens with a murder, and there’s lots of juicy tension and sexual intrigue to fuel the race to the end, to find out what happens. I hadn’t realized I’d been missing plot. And it’s not even fair to say that the books I’d been reading didn’t have plots; they just weren’t the focus, and I’d learned to shift my attention elsewhere, even if I didn’t always want to.
And yet it wasn’t as if The Secret History couldn’t hold its own against the books I was reading at school. The structure seemed conventional—a prologue, books I and II divided into chapters, and an epilogue that tells us what happened to all the bit players. But the book constantly, consciously subverted expectations about where it was going, from the revelation of the murder on the first page to the reversal of tension when the narrator finds out just how close he was to becoming the fall guy for everything. The juxtaposition of traditional elements of the mystery novel with post-modern tweaks that presupposed the intelligence of the readership—I didn’t realize that was something I wanted, but there it was.
The book wasn’t the first to blur the lines between literary fiction and genre, but it seems like it was one of the first to make it okay, and it paved the way for some other books I love: Motherless Brooklyn, The Intuitionist, The Keep. And it freed me to feel like I could write the kinds of books I want to read, about the ghosts of murdered high school students loitering in locker rooms, searching for their killers. (Though I might be the only person who wants to read that book. So far.)
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
I’m not usually one to mark up a text, but there were a few lines that stood out.
The narrator, Richard, is a typical fish out of water—he doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and at the beginning of the book, he’s discovered that transferring to a new college hasn’t really changed anything. And then he sees the elite Classics students walking across campus:
“[T]hey were magnificent creatures….I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensively cultivated….Studied or not, I wanted to be like them. It was heady to think that these qualities were acquired ones and that, perhaps, this was the way I might learn them.”
And upon actually meeting them:
“I was confused by this sudden glare of attention; it was as if the characters in a favorite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me.”
The book is also occasionally wry and funny, such as when the elitist Classics instructor, who’s taken the group under his wing, worries that one of them is contemplating a religious conversion:
“Well, whatever one things of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that sort of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbytarians.”
5. Who did you send this book to, and why?
Who haven’t I sent it to? I recently went home to visit my parents and found three copies—I’d bought it for both my mother and my father, mistake number one, and then forgotten both purchases and given it to one of them again. Can’t remember which one, but it doesn’t matter, since I haven’t yet persuaded either one of them to actually read it. (My mother denies that I bought that third copy for one of them; it might be an old one I left at home, or one I bought for my sister.)
I made my brother buy it. He said it was ok. Then he told me he didn’t want to offend me but he was done with literary fiction and would be switching over to biographies and airport mysteries for the indefinite future. I’m making those two things sound connected when they aren’t—some time passed between the first sentence and the second. Maybe even years. I would make a terrible memoirist.
I found a ratty old copy in a hotel in the French part of Thailand (I know, who knew there was a French part? But the chocolate mousse there was badass. As was the shark). I reread it for the third or fourth time and then made my law school roommate read it.
I’m pretty sure there’s at least a handful of other people upon whom I’ve forced copies. Most of them enjoyed it, I think, or at least that’s what they’ve told me.
Bio: Michelle Falkoff’s fiction and reviews have appeared in ZYZZYVA, DoubleTake (RIP), and The Harvard Review. She just made her summer class read The Secret History.