Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications

The coming of age tale has long held an important and cherished place in American literature, and the college novel has taken this genre to complex heights in the past several decades. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is arguably one of the best examples in recent memory, as it examines both the seductive and alienating aspects of the modern campus. Richard Papen, the main character and narrator, flees an unfulfilling existence in California for the small and exclusive environs of Hampden College in Vermont. There, he soon falls in with a small group of Classics students: stoic and brilliant Henry; the enigmatic twins Charles and Camilla; neurotic Francis; and oafish Bunny. Their elitist instructor, Julian, leads them in the search of beauty and knowledge, creating a bubble that exists on the edges of the school. On the surface, it appears to be a dream existence for all of them; however, a series of tragedies shows that dreams never last, and the real world always brings a harsh reckoning.

Richard remains an outsider through much of the book, despite becoming part of the group and forming close relationships with the others; he shows shame concerning his background, creating fabrications or withholding details about his past in California. Bunny, in particular, tends to needle him for being different from the rest of them, constantly cracking jokes about things concerning Richard’s past that do not add up. Bunny, in his interactions with the rest of the group, is unable to realize that things which are just a game to him are of the utmost seriousness to the others, causing constant mental strain that eventually forces a disastrous break.

The social dynamics of the group create both a unique sense of comradery and constant tensions that build up over time. The members largely come from some form of affluent background, save Richard, and already have a skewed idea of how the world works. Julian, their teacher and talisman of sorts, is independently wealthy and thus separated from the world around him in many ways. Richard even observes that the rest of the group seem disdainful of what is going on in the larger world in regards to politics and other current events. The group is also barely aware of their community beyond the Classics courses, which is already a tight nit and exclusive liberal arts college attached to a small New England community. All of this creates a sense of elitism, especially in Henry. He is content with becoming lost within the Greek translations Julian assigns, or some other literary or artistic pursuit that he alone understands or has interest in. He cuts himself off in numerous ways from everyone, including his closest friends, though we do get glimpses of humanity from him, especially when it concerns Julian.

The class and the group become their entire world. Some take it more seriously than others. It is arguable that Bunny takes nothing seriously, that life is a series of games and jokes and the only thing of importance to him is the fulfillment of base desire. Charles, Camilla, and Francis often seem along for the ride, in search of some form of comradery in a world they do not feel connected to. However, Henry, like Julian, is a true believer, though they are possibly searching for different things to believe in. Julian is clearly drawn to beauty, whatever that may mean; he finds most things in the larger world ugly and vulgar. Henry, with his youthful obsessions, seems to be searching for some form of truth that he cannot find, and most likely does not exist. The others often fall in lockstep with him, which leads them down a road of destruction and madness. And then there is Richard, who just wants to find something that matters, and clings to that idea for as long as possible until it shatters like everything else. Perhaps that is why he moves forward slightly better than the others. Despite his deceptions of who he truly is, to the others and to himself, perhaps being that type of nobody, the type of person that can shift identities as a situation necessitates, allows him to drift through the world without being consumed by its many tribulations.

Ultimately, Richard and the rest of the group are just kids, college students trying to find their way in the world. It is possible that Julian does them a disservice by cutting them off from the rest of the college’s community; he sees this as a positive and the best way for them to learn, but the subsequent isolation and loneliness eventually accelerates their deterioration. Bunny and Richard do a moderately better job in remaining connected to other people. However, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis become trapped in a kind of echo chamber, stranded with each other and, often, inside their own heads. They are the ones that were in the forest the night of the local farmer’s death, which begins the group’s cataclysmic fall; they are the ones that act as the driving force for the climactic event of the novel; and they are the ones that ultimately suffer the most in the end. Richard does as well, of course, but in a different way. He always seems to be the one that is completely afloat, never fully becoming part of the tight band of friends. The others are completely aware of what came before Richard and their fateful Bacchanal. After that ideal falls apart, they are unable to find anything to hold on to and cannot deal properly with the guilt of what they have done.

I did not read this book when I was college student. I read it several years after finishing graduate school, and reread it recently, which prompted this blog post. I cannot say for sure if it would have been a positive or negative force for me at that point in life. It is easy to become lost in the Romantic aspects of the plot: the closeness of the main characters; their experiences with good books and good food; and being young and beautiful in a place that allows escape into a world of deceptively few consequences. However, this can blind the reader to all the negative aspects of that world that Tartt skillfully uncovers: the strange solitude and self-isolation, even when surrounded by so many potentially likeminded people, and the odd unreality of being stuck between youth and adulthood. One of the driving forces of the novel is that when young, one is often shocked into realizing life and its many decisions have actual consequences. Tartt’s characters, including Julian, the primary example of ‘adulthood,’ become trapped in a dreamlike revelry, and, when yanked out of it, must deal with this fact. As they discover, you rarely come out of the other side of these situations the same person, and sometimes, you do not come out of the other side at all.

Library promotion time! The 3rd and 4th floor stacks are back open for the fall semester. However, if you have reservations about browsing these areas or getting a book from upstairs, McWherter Library is still offering an Item Pickup Request service; you can find the online form here. Our workers in the Circulation Department will pull the book and notify you once it is ready for checkout. Remember: please be wearing your mask and have your University of Memphis ID card ready in order to get into the library. And most importantly: stay safe and healthy!

If you want to read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, it is currently available for checkout at McWherter Library and can be checked out using the Pickup Request service.

Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a novel of conflict, both quiet and deafeningly loud. Everything in it, including a large cast of main characters, is linked by interactions with trees. At times, the book reads like a work of scientific study, with countless species of trees described in tireless detail by the author. However, there is an artistry in the natural world, something not everyone sees. Many look at a forest and see the countless resources that can come from it on a surface level: the houses that will be built from lumber; the crops that will be grown on the cleared land; and minerals underneath the ground that will be refined. Others, like several of the characters in this book, see deeper meaning in the towering trees and the forest’s undergrowth teeming with unnoticed life. Powers uses these competing visions to create an intricate and philosophical, albeit sometimes uneven, look at the relationships we develop with each other and the greater world.

The strength of this novel is its examination of the characters and their relationships to nature. For some, it is the only way they can feel part of something bigger than themselves. All of the characters Powers follows are loners in some sense. Nicholas Hoel survives, totally by chance, an accident that kills his remaining family members. Mimi Ma is devastated by the suicide of her father and the illness of her mother. Douglas Pavlicek serves in Vietnam and comes home forever damaged, a wanderer by choice with no roots. And the list goes on. The potential challenge of a book like this one is that some of the characters flourish and feel more part of the central story, while others fade to the periphery. One of the latter seems to be Neelay Mehta, who falls from a tree as a child and is confined to a wheelchair. However, his lifelong obsession with computers, fostered by his father, becomes intertwined with a fascination towards a stand of exotic trees on his California college campus, leading him to create a virtual world that people around the world can inhabit and build within. In ways, the creation becomes more important than character, serving as a mirror to the real world and the people that inhabit it, a debate between wonton consumption and the creativity that can come from working around limitations that prove necessary to extend the life and complexity of ‘the game.’

The relationship of human society to the natural world is an ongoing tension in our own society that drives the action of the novel. Many readers bring their own personal viewpoint to what they are reading, and this book certainly bets that will add richness to this particular experience. The main characters find themselves in constant conflict with the rest of the world concerning their relationships to the trees and forests they come to love. And these passions teach them to become more human, to form bonds that some of them no longer thought possible after experiencing soul-wrenching tragedy. The most touching of these links proves to be between Nicholas Hoel and Olivia Vandergriff. Both wayward souls, they meet under the most random of consequences and form a bond that seems mystical in nature. From his home in the Midwest, they head to the Pacific Coast, where they become part of a guerilla ecological group attempting to halt the overlogging of old growth forests. This is the point where most of the characters converge and become a part of the overarching plot Powers creates. Some of them go so far as to engage in ecoterrorism, as the cause of protecting the trees, and essentially the natural world, they feel at home in becomes increasingly desperate. At this point, the question must be asked: what price are they willing to pay to protect what they believe in?

There are larger philosophical and societal explorations at work in ‘The Overstory,’ and this fact makes it a heavy work in more ways than one. It is a bit of a doorstop, so if you like long sweeping epics that cover massive amounts of time and involve a wide cast of characters, pick this one up. One of these characters, Patricia Westerford, provides the spiritual compass of this tale, even though her life is dedicated to science. She feels more at home in the woods than anywhere. She is unfairly ostracized by the academic world while theorizing that trees communicate with each other, to warn each other of danger that could affect the entire ecosystem. These beliefs are eventually proven and vindicated; Patricia then writes a book that becomes a kind of linking guide for characters such as Nicholas and Olivia, struggling on the frontlines to keep the fight alive. Ultimately, the Powers’s novel explores, at least partially, the battle over who gets to determine the future of this world and how people will live in it. There are multiple scenes where characters are confronted by loggers, police officers, and other authority figures, all arguing that the cutting of the trees they are protecting creates jobs and puts food on the table for their families. However, Nicholas, after the group of characters that become ecowarriors breaks apart following tragedy, experiences a landslide that devastates several homes. Thus, what is the price you are willing to pay, or watch other people pay, for your definition of progress?

It is a question that is wrestled with in every section of this novel, the last of which is labelled as ‘Seeds.’ The plot stretches roughly to the early years of our current century and covers a time period now famous for intense environmental battles, in forests and courtrooms alike. Today, in the news, we see diatribes from multiple points of view concerning climate change, urban sprawl, deforestation, and other topics predicting a potentially dire future if human society does not take drastic action. Perhaps those seeds planted by an earlier generation, on all sides of this battle, are beginning to take root and flourish. It will be interesting to see, just like in the forests frequented throughout ‘The Overstory,’ what will grow and be created moving forward.

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers is currently available for checkout at the McWherter Library. It is located on the first floor as part of the rotating book display in the Rotunda, near the entrance to Government Publications, which contains popular releases (if you are looking for a fun read to take a break from your studies) and themed temporary collections based on the month. If you want to learn more, please check out this fun LibGuide covering the items currently available in this display.

Book Review: There There by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange

Though a work of fiction, Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is steeped in history. And not just one kind. Entire chapters deal directly with the history of Native peoples in the Americas and their largely tragic encounters with European colonizers. It can be argued that the entire book, set in modern day, permeates with the centuries old theme of searching for identity in the face of cultural destruction. On a different level, it also explores the private histories that shape the everyday actions of all people. Orange expertly weaves together numerous personal stories into one greater tale, one where the individuals he follows, all with at least some Native lineage, make their way towards a sprawling powwow event in Oakland, California. And like much of the history that Orange touches upon throughout the novel, this book turns into a tragedy by the final pages. However, like in all tales, there are moments of beauty and sadness and humor that give the novel its soul. Individuals are the driving force of being human, and that is no different here. Eventually, these vignettes all come crashing together to create a complex story where multiple strands eventually connect into a heartbreaking tapestry.

Orange’s technique of highlighting a wide variety of characters proves to be both the strength and weakness of There There. The ones that hit truly hit. They make you feel both the huge theme of the Native American experience in the United States, particularly the one born in urban areas, while also exploring the pain that is both common and unique to all of us.  A young man named Edwin Black was one of my favorites. In his first featured vignette, he is awkward, overweight, and self-isolated, totally unsure of where he fits in the world. Which brings up a question: what is it like to feel ostracized within a larger group that is already largely excluded from the society it exists in? Eventually, though, his arc transforms into one of cautious hopefulness. He becomes deeply involved in the planning of the powwow and contacts the man he believes to be his father through his mom’s Facebook account. Another character that helps bring true emotional depth to the book is that of a woman named Jacquie Red Feather. Her devastating story of family strife, abandonment, and alcoholism is perhaps the most powerful among several worthy contenders. A speech she gives at an AA meeting led by the long-disappeared father of her first child perfectly encapsulates the struggles felt throughout the novel, those of regret and tenuous optimism for the future. Continue reading

Halloween Book Review: From Hell by Alan Moore

The “Jack the Ripper” murders of the 1880s in London have long held the imagination of popular culture in both England, where they occurred, and the United States, where a fair number of people hold a fascination with famous serial killers. The graphic novel From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, proved to be an interesting read this Halloween season for these very reasons. It would probably be a stretch to define it as work of horror, but there are certain elements present that make it a prime example of unsettling and weird fiction.

Moore uses his fictionalized telling of the murders of several prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London to posit a theory about who Jack the Ripper may have been. It would be impossible to talk about all of the truly massive cast of characters in this graphic novel, but two certainly stand out: Sir William Gull and Fred Abberline (Spoilers ahead). Gull is the royal physician to Queen Victoria and a high-ranking member of the Freemasons in London. After her grandson has an illegitimate child, Victoria tasks Gull with essentially making the problem go away. Thus begins the action of the story, as Gull sets out to kill the women who know about the scandal in order to protect the royal family. However, he also begins to see the murders as a spiritual experience, having visions of the future during which we as modern readers know to be actual truth. Continue reading

Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

cover of the book Milkman

Anna Burns’s 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman is a unique account of one girl’s experience with sexual menace in a hyper specific time and location. The narrator is a teenage girl in 1970’s Northern Ireland, when the country was torn by the Troubles, a nationalist conflict that brought division and violence to the region for decades. The unnamed Irish city (possibly Belfast) and its community is revealed through her. The city is divided into sides, with paramilitaries controlling and threatening both sides based on “the right religion” or “the wrong religion,” but the issues of the conflict itself are alluded to rather than explained (check out our reference sources for that!). Community members are divided and categorized based on their rightness or wrongness related to religion, and further categorized based on their ability to (or lack thereof) to amalgamate, to weave themselves without notice into the fabric of daily town life, or be deemed “beyond-the-pales” and socially isolated. 

Our narrator, unnamed, is a daughter and sister, a maybe-girlfriend to a young mechanic, a runner, and a reader of pre-20th century literature. She is known for long-distance solo runs and for reading while walking. Her reading while walking is an issue for the community, because it isn’t possible to melt seamlessly into the fabric of the community while reading rather than, say, looking at your surroundings. She is desired by, and targeted by, a local paramilitary bruiser known as the Milkman, who finds ways to isolate her and threaten her well-being, leading her to be increasingly paranoid and anxious. This story, as relevant today in our contemporary #metoo moment, was explored with a depth not often seen in literature describing sexual assault and menace. I was most compelled at the infrequent but utterly fraught encounters between our narrator and the Milkman. 

I know next to nothing about this particular conflict and found the world-building to be fascinating, and the narrator’s voice completely unique. The issue I had with this novel was the dizzying prose that Burns builds into towering paragraphs that go for pages. Any facet of the community could be a topic for lengthy diversions from the main thread. For example, passages detailing the creation and history of a small outsider sect of feminists, the unusual media literacy of the narrator’s many sisters, and the sublime realization that sunsets contain many colors, typically invisible to the community’s myopic eye. Burns loves constructions of threes, much like the previous sentence of this review, a tactic that feels fresh at first, then increasingly meandering and stale. 

The community itself is examined for its levels of outsiderness, each member having no real name (naming conventions are also thoroughly critiqued) but for having an illness, a death, an occupation, something to separate them and name them. Some of the nicknames: maybe-boyfriend, tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody, real milkman. (For more about the naming and the not-naming, see this review at NPR.) The divergence from the central thread of the story to include many overlapping and interwoven stories felt burdensome at times. However, it was a richly-realized portrayal of the communal anxiety of life during wartime, where boundaries and hierarchies are created among people to make the inflicted boundaries of “peace-walls” more bearable. 

The voice of the narrator is specific, rich, unique to her sense of self and her community. But it also, often, felt like a vehicle for oblique references I didn’t understand. At times, I wondered if the narrator was really the voice I was reading, or if it had somehow merged, chorus-like, with the community’s. The stream of consciousness was self-conscious, and didn’t always feel like a teenage girl, even one who read 19th century novels. I can’t help but draw similarities to the stream-of-consciousness of a Virginia Woolf character, which so often switches and subsumes another voice, or group of voices. I felt very aware of the writing, and the machinations of the author (the names, the digressions, the things said in threes), and never once sank into the narrative voice of the girl. That said, the book is intellectually challenging and colorful. I do recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Ireland, the Northern Irish conflict, the life experience of teenage girls during wartime, or sunsets.

 

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Written by Benjamin Clanton, Government Publications:

Esi Edugyan, with the highly acclaimed novel Washington Black (one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2018!), has written a harsh but touching story of a runaway slave and his journey to find identity and his place in the world. The title character, Washington Black, or Wash as he comes to be known, is a field slave early in life on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Watched over by a female slave named Big Kit, his world is one of unceasing labor and vicious treatment at the hands of the plantation owner and overseers. Erasmus Wilde, whose family owns Faith Plantation, rules over it with brutality, displayed in his almost casual violence towards the slaves, viewing them truly as mere property. Sugar plantations were historically notorious in the Caribbean for their awful and inhumane working conditions. Therefore, it is not unrealistic that Erasmus treats his slaves in such a manner, something he explains to his brother Christopher: ‘My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend . . . They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.’ Continue reading