27 May 2021
When English teachers started to ask “and what do you think that means?” I started to think about dropping out. Before then, I thought stories were told either to be delighted in or because they were indoctrinating you into giving up lying. It was a simpler time, when it was widely accepted across preschool carpets that wolves eat boys when hungry, attention-seeking or not, and those who believed the boy represented the psychically malnourished soul kept it to themselves.
It should’ve stayed that way, but Symbolism caught on quick in English classes of young and impressionable freshmen, and it came to be that books are always in need of serious discussion.
Where can you find a good story once you’ve outgrown Harry Potter?
I first heard about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History when Googling cult classic books, and was drawn to it because it sounded like a movie. Rich white students of ancient Greek, impeccable dressers and cigarette smokers– and not a word about the human condition. Instead of putting a few bizarre objects in front of you (the raven who’s not actually a raven, etc.) and leaving the room, Tartt’s style is to lead you through the story at a run, occasionally handing you accounts of doing cocaine off of mirrors in dorm rooms and Greek lessons with an old friend of Gertrude Stein. I loved it. The characters are explained to you –skinny, chain-smoking, compulsive Francis, and Julian, the teacher you always wanted to have, and Richard Papen, whose ability to fit compliantly in the lives of others, water-like, makes him an extremely satisfying narrator– through their clothing, speech, and their ugliest habits. They don’t have to be symbols. They’re shocking and memorable characters as they are.
When I was a kid my mother told me that some writers write books that they know people want to read first, and only once they’ve established a safety net do they start to publish what they want to write. It’s not surprising that Tartt’s second book, The Little Friend, is about twelve-year-old Harriet who lives in Mississippi, the same state where Tartt grew up. Harriet reads the books that Tartt was obsessed with in her own childhood, including the diary chronicling Captain Robert Scott’s fatal expedition through the Arctic, and has fantastical dreams of penguins at the theater for a Houdini show, probably inspired by the writer’s own codeine-infused nighttime wanderings. Tartt’s great-grandfather had been convinced by her “sickliness” as a child that she was going to die young, and “perhaps he was simply trying to make me comfortable in what he thought were my last days… and –between the fever and the whiskey and the codeine– I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerful altered state of consciousness.”
The book, incidentally, leaves you with absolutely no takeaways about childhood– the premise is that Harriet is on the run from the local white-trash meth addict, whom she ultimately faces in the town’s rusty, rotten water tower. And maybe because of the lack of a message, apart from “I have a story to tell you”, it’s a book that made me feel like a kid again. Harriet hates summer camp because the Christian counselors are invasively cheerful. Her father is never home and her mother stays locked in her room, and so Harriet roams the house at night, listening for an intruder and eating Popsicles for dinner.
The trope of a kid left to his own devices is used again in The Goldfinch, Tartt’s third and last novel. Theodore Decker, whose mother is killed in a museum terrorist attack, spends his teen years wandering the desert with the alcoholic, thieving, brilliant Ukrainian-Australian, Boris. Theo grows up to be an antiques dealer and an art obsessee, a high-functioning drug addict plagued with PTSD and feelings of general despair. The Goldfinch surprised me because it —published twenty-one years after The Secret History— was Tartt’s first novel with a character who gripes like a human.
The Secret History’s Richard Papen faced misery –the guilt of the murder, the listless life after the disbanding of his college group– with an acceptance no bigger than a pinchful of pages, seemingly unperturbed by his own sadness. The movie-screen aesthetics of the ending (cigarettes at the train station, the dancer girlfriend who didn’t work out) add as much color to his character as his narrative does. Harriet doesn’t age past twelve in her book; hers is Tartt’s only work told in third-person, and she’s a character with tendencies toward intensity and focus rather than despair. The Goldfinch, on the other hand, talks about hopelessness in plain and long terms.
“A great sorrow, and one I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts… We don’t get to choose the people we are,” says Theo. “What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Or–like Boris– is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
Why do some writers hide their messages in stories, while the characters of others say what they have to say in plain words? And how could critics use the same words (“has the intensity”, “this or any other century”, “the mind and heart”) to describe both kinds of writing?
To quote Boris: “Hang on. This is a question worth struggling with.”