Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reading for Writing: The Secret History

I haven’t done one of these in forever, so here we go: some things I learned (or just admired) about writing as I read Donna Tartt’s A Secret History

Goodreads Link
Note - for those who haven't read it yet, there aren't any spoilers here that you wouldn't encounter in the first few pages, even if it might seem otherwise. 

Giving it all away and still making it work

The Secret History opens with a prologue, beginning with this sentence:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. 

So, obviously, attention-grabbing opening, which is exactly what you want. But look at the corner Tartt has painted herself into.  

(Sidenote: this is the first time I’ve imagined that phrase in my head, and it’s totally something I would do. I always seem to mop and sweep myself into corners.) 

She’s told the reader who dies at the climax of the book, and then she actually goes on in the prologue to reveal where and how he died, who planned the murder, and that the guilty parties were never arrested. It looks like she’s given away all of the information that would keep people reading in suspense, just for the sake of a killer first line. 

And the thing is, Tartt could have hedged her bets, opening with the death without giving the whole game away. She could have referred to Bunny as simply “he” or “the body,” casting a shadow of death over the rest of the novel while leaving readers wondering who would eventually fall under it. But she lays everything out there – Bunny dies and Henry and his friends kill him. When I first read it I thought that perhaps Bunny was a secret nickname that wouldn’t be revealed until later in the book, accomplishing the same mystery. But nope, there’s Edmund getting introduced as Bunny on page 18.
The prologue ends with a beautiful transition line

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell. 

and then backtracks to the time just before the narrator meets the victim and fellow murderers for the first time. There are now hundreds of pages before you reach the foreshadowed death of Bunny.

But here’s the thing… It Works. I still wanted to read every bit of it; I still stayed up late because I couldn't put it down. So why does it work?

1. The Why
The prologue answered who, how, when, and where, but of course there’s still the mystery of Why. The suspense becomes embedded in character study. Why do these people become murderers? Do they have it in them, hidden below the surface, from the start? Or does something happen that fundamentally changes who they are and what they are capable of doing? Tartt also does two other smart things with the Why question:

The narrator is less in-the-know than the other characters; it’s clear that the rest of the group is hiding quite a lot from him since he’s the newest member. So he and the reader are equally curious about their true natures and their secrets. At the same time, since the reader knows a lot about the narrator, there's the persistent question of how he gets roped into the mess and how complicit or participatory he becomes. 

Bunny is not a very likeable character, but he's also not a villain or someone who clearly deserves death. (Several punches in the face? Yes.) So every time he does something odious you start to wonder…That couldn’t be the reason that they killed him… could it?

Fairly accurate depiction of Bunny. Source
2. Awesome Distractions
But the thing is, if the book was only about why some friends turned against one of their own, it probably wouldn’t hold up over hundreds of pages. If you’re going to take the gamble that Tartt did, you have to make sure that there are reasons to read other than the murder mystery. And there are – Tartt is an expert wanderer and weaver, incorporating eccentric professors, ancient Greek literature and philosophy, adolescent angst and ennui, complicated romantic relationships, drug use, class differences, hallucinations, serious illness and injury, and the entertaining idiosyncrasies of life at a liberal arts college. It doesn’t hurt that there’s some damn fine prose, either. 

3. Balance
And these components – the murder and the rest of the characters’ lives – have to be balanced. Every once in a while, as a reminder of sorts, the narrator foreshadows Bunny’s death again. But it’s never overdone; if it was mentioned every chapter, for example, it might feel like Tartt was annoyingly dangling it like a carrot for the reader (Keep reading - we're getting to the juicy stuff that I promised, I promise!). Instead she throws it in when it fits and otherwise just trusts that the rest of the book (see above) is enough to hold the reader’s interest. Balance. 

Okay...I was also going to include some comments on Tartt's character description, but since I want to make comparisons to some other books and since this is rather lengthy already, I’ll save that for a future post.


  1. I loved this book, and I love this post!
    I also stayed up way too late reading this, even though -- you're right -- I knew exactly what was going to happen. I think you nailed it when you said the suspense comes from the Why, and the whole thing becomes some bizarre character study.
    Very gutsy of her -- and it worked!

  2. Thanks - I'm glad you liked both :-D And 'bizarre' and 'gutsy' are definitely the right words for it!