What a cluster of a series. I serious doubt that I'll get around to completing the Foundation trilogy, so I'll let this review serve as adequate for tWhat a cluster of a series. I serious doubt that I'll get around to completing the Foundation trilogy, so I'll let this review serve as adequate for the first two volumes.
The Good - This is a novel about ideas, and it adequately explores some of these ideas.
The Bad - The primary idea that the Foundation series explores is psychohistory - mathematically perfect modeling of sociological behavior over a long enough time, with a large enough population. A fascinating idea that has, unfortunately, been proven to not work. Asimov might have had high expectations that one day it would become a real field of study, but time has only proven him wrong. Perhaps with 35 thousand years of recorded history and quadrillions of people, we might see something more accurate, but I frankly doubt it. For a novel exclusively about a particular idea, it is unfortunately that the central idea is incorrect. Not Asimov's fault personally, but it is a bad way to start.
The significantly more heinous sin is that neither Foundation nor Foundation and Empire adequately explore the idea that they are centered around. The characters are forced to have faith in the perfection of psychohistory, because in order for the mathematics to work out properly, the population must not be swayed by the way they think things "must" happen. When the audience is kept in the dark, however, there isn't much to talk about. When we find out that psychohistory is wrong, we are just as surprised as when it is right. It is a deus ex machina from the world most boring machine.
The Ugly - Foundation and Foundation and Empire are barely even novels. They have no narrative. They have no real protagonists. There is no plot. Asimov might have been attempting to support his own philosophical points by not focusing on individuals, but he did it in a manner that is both boring and unclear.
Asimov commits a number of cardinal sins. There are almost no scenes that establish setting and time frame - an absolute necessity for a novel that refuses to follow a single narrative. The gap between two chapters might be a few days, and the next gap between chapters might be decades. Not making this clear to the reader is only unhelpful - nothing more. Maybe even worse, this sin is frequently committed within chapters. A line break is often all the audience has to signify that days or weeks are passing, or that focus is changing to other characters. Asimov sometimes uses section breaks to indicate this, but more frequently than not, he gives you nothing.
Sitting here writing this review is just making me angry. So, I'm not going to even try and present my argument in a logical fashion any more. What the fuck was he thinking? Characters have no distinctive voice, no real distinctive character at all! The author never actually shows any action, just people sitting around talking about it after it happens. I don't know anyone, I've never seen the Empire at its height or at its downfall, so why the fuck do I care that it's ruined now? I don't! Not even a bit. I mean, honestly, in one chapter we see the capital planet of Trantor still up and running, still controlling most of the galaxy. The next time, it's been completely ruined for years! What the fuck happened? This is a book designed to parallel The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You know what happened in that book? You actually saw the Empire decline and fall! Nothing happens in this fucking book. Nothing.
Honestly, I'm not only baffled about why anyone thought this was worth reading, I'm actually pissed off that people think it's such a classic. This book is shit. It is one of the worst written novels I've ever read. Reading it was a fucking waste of my life. If I could go back and spend that time watching paint dry instead of reading this shitty as book, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I can't believe that I've spent this much time even attempting to write a meaningful review. I'm not going to waste any more of my life on this shit....more
Honestly, The Stand is a mess of a novel. It’s 1400 pages (in the trade paperback, unabridged, uncut edition,) and could have easily been half that. AHonestly, The Stand is a mess of a novel. It’s 1400 pages (in the trade paperback, unabridged, uncut edition,) and could have easily been half that. And yet, I still found myself feeling like I was missing something.. This is the third novel of King’s that I’ve read, and it solidifies his place, in my mind at least, as the master of using too many words to say too few things. I’d make a joke about Hemmingway taking a machete to his manuscripts here, but the over use of adverbs or the like isn’t exactly what I mean here. Entire sections of the novel are, to say the least, extraneous to the story. (Yes, I understand I read the uncut edition. If my analysis isn’t equally correct in the original, I’ll eat my hat.) He spends most of his time creating internal lives of his characters both intimate and broad in scope, and I admit that these portraits do lead us to a greater understanding of the characters, the depth is barely related to the amount of time and space it took to get there.
As is the case in other novels by King, the characters are a diverse array of well drawn to utterly forgettable. The insufferable nerd who can even use his survival in the apocalypse as proof of his victimization – Harold – is a wonderfuly rounded character. His arc is believable, and in some ways, inevitable due to its grounding. On the other hand, one of the three secondary antagonists, Nadine, is utterly devoid of personality. Even her age is unclear. Why she has a compelling need to join forces with Flagg is utterly beyond me. That’s ultimately the case with all of Flagg’s men though, to be frank. Who would join this guy? He’s obviously evil, everybody knows it, they’re getting nothing out of their relationship with him, and the Boulder Free Zone is clearly not a real threat to any of them. Obvious comparisons to Hitler are made, but he’s not even Hitler. He’s mecha-Hitler from the end of Wolfenstein, and he’s not even saving the people from an otherwise unavoidable catastrophe. As a symbol of pure evil, he’s great. As a leader, he’s hilariously unsuited.
More on these characters. Stu is apparently a hero, although he spends most of the novel going somewhere and then not making it, and going back. He’s not even part of the action. Fran appears to be the protagonist, until she arrives in Boulder, and then just has a lot of sex and stops doing much. Glen is memorable, but the forth member of the hero squad at the end, Ralph, is so forgettable that I still don’t remember who he was, when he was introduced, or what his relationship was to everyone else. Lloyd was a well drawn at first, but by the end of the novel was so radically different that he might as well have been someone else, but never, at any point, did he go through a change. He is literally raped by a guy with a gun, and never references it again. Larry turned into a passable hero, but ends up sacrificing his life to save a woman that we’ve never actually been introduced to. And you will never be able to convince me that a deaf-mute can read lips so perfectly that he can seamlessly join in a conversation with a dozen other people while walking in the dark. Why was he deaf at all? How did that change his character? His disability was made to be of such minor importance, he might as well have not had it at all!
The setting was the same way. We hear all about Colorado and Nevada and Utah and we read a lot of road signs and hear a lot of town names, but there’s not a single description of what the terrain looks like. Other than the traffic jams on the highways around tunnels, we don’t see anything of the land.
Honestly, the more I think about this, the more angry I get at Stephen King. Why did you write so damn much and say so little? Imagine reading Lord of the Rings and you get chapters of every single day they travel down the river, every meal they eat, every conversation they have about their fear of Sauron, and suddenly an orc shows up and the hobbits get separated, all in two pages. Then we see them climbing up Mt. Doom, being all scared. Then a page of the ring falling into the lava, and then they’re walking back again. What the hell happened? Why did we have to hear so much about their conversations while walking around? Why did we have to get introduced to so many characters who never show up again? Why does the plot happen in chapters a page or two long, in between fifty page chapters of exposition?
WHY, WHY, WHY??!?!?!?!?!
I’ve never gotten so mad while reviewing a novel before!
There is no rhythm to this novel. No reason to its madness. Some parts are long and intricate, some are swept under the rug. After trying, I still haven’t really even begun to describe what a mess this book is. It’s a train wreck.
Honestly, there are only so many ways to say that a book is bad. I won’t give in to King’s sin. The Stand is bad. ...more
Danielewski's latest novel is the stereotype of postmodern literature. That's not a compliment. It's the literary personification of self-indulgence,Danielewski's latest novel is the stereotype of postmodern literature. That's not a compliment. It's the literary personification of self-indulgence, a masturbatory circle jerk of the author and a dozen clones of himself. I've never seen so little restraint shown where so much was needed. It's like a Kiss concert.
The masterpiece that is House of Leaves appears to be nothing more than lightning in a bottle. This is a novel for teenagers learning about non-classroom reading for the first time. And if the rumors are true, there are 26 more volumes of this coming down the line. I pity the trees....more
Leebaert's work of history is hefty, very well documented, and ambitious. Unfortunately, the writing itself comes up short of the courageous subject mLeebaert's work of history is hefty, very well documented, and ambitious. Unfortunately, the writing itself comes up short of the courageous subject matter he deals with.
The book claims to be a history of special operations stretching across the entirety of recorded history, but it is almost exclusively about the modern world, make no mistake. His descriptions of the special operations taken by Odysseus in the Trojan War reads like something just less than a Wikipedia plot. In fact, the first time he really sinks his teeth into an engagement by explaining the key players, strategy, tactic, and technology used by the special operators is 150 pages in, concerning Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs. Until this point, Leebaert gives the reader little more than basic information concerning the special operators and the situations they found themselves in.
There are two ironic things about this book. The first is what I've alluded to here: It takes 150 pages to get to the 1500's, which seems like plenty of space to cover the pre-modern world. However, at 600 pages, it is disproportionate, to say the least. Still, I suppose a talented author can do a lot of good in 150 pages. This is the second bit of irony.
To Dare and to Conquer is a wordy, thick book that uses a lot of words to say very little. The reader is relayed the same basic information (what makes a special operation special, how fewer men are frequently better, what role technology does or does not play,) over and over and over, in equally unclear terms. We are frequently left with a very poorly painted picture of exactly who the commandos are, what side they are fighting on, what limitations they face, or, most importantly, exactly what differentiates special operations from not-exactly-mainstream military tactics.
As a historian, Leebaert has done a good job, but I don't believe that he ultimately lives up to the ambitious goal he sets himself at the beginning: to tell the untold story of special operations, frequently overlooked by the more strategic, birds eye view historical texts of others. The main problem is that I don't think this point is all that valid. Obviously, a historical overview of a certain military action must stick to the general facts, and that does mean that smaller, special operations frequently get left behind. However, it's equally true that what often stands out are the unique stories that break the mold. The siege of Tyre, for example, is wildly different from the way war was typically waged, but this uniqueness makes it more widely known, not less. Leebaert covers situations that are unique, but not exclusively situations that are unknown or even under-researched.
At best, To Dare and to Conquer explains a few of history's more interesting military maneuvers within a grander context that is frequently forgotten by other historians. At its core, however, it is a well-researched but poorly written attempt to retell stories that have already been covered in better, clearer, and more interesting detail elsewhere....more
Demian is an odd little novel that seems quite different from Hesse’s other works, if memory suits me. The critics have claimed it as a philosophicalDemian is an odd little novel that seems quite different from Hesse’s other works, if memory suits me. The critics have claimed it as a philosophical novel in the vein of Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, but I find that to be a bit of a stretch. Ultimately, the novel seeks to raise the worship of Abraxas, the Gnostic duality-encompassing god, to the same level, or higher, than the worship of the Abrahamic God, or the God of Moses, or Jehovah. But try as he might, Hesse (I suppose technically it’s the protagonists view, not the authors, but I’ll label it as such for now) is unable to do so. By the end of the novel, the internal journey that Sinclair, the protagonist, goes through seems childish and imaginative.
It is a difficult struggle, sure. Upon realizing that the objectivity he once saw in the world is nothing more than the subjectivity of the majority, Sinclair must painfully reconstruct meaning in the world in a manner that he can comprehend and reconcile to his increasingly aberrant beliefs. The “new” paradigm that he ends up with, however, is not terribly different from the classic arguments in favor of atheism. God is one sided, he realizes, and one cannot truly love the world without loving the world’s fullness, which includes evil just as much as it includes good. Abraxas, the “true” god, contains the darkness alongside the light, contains Christ as well as Satan, and must therefore be a higher power.
Even if the basic premise of this argument were correct (God is strictly good and thus incomplete,) which I think is arguable, Hesse is making a foolish mistake that I wished he were above: he finds the majority to be incorrect, simply because they are the majority. This is a logical fallacy in every direction. Nothing is correct or incorrect based on the identity or number of people who believe it. They are two different qualities.
Ultimately, the most fundamental premise of Hesse’s argument is not that God is incomplete, although that is how he frames it. Rather, he is arguing that one group of people is superior to another. This distinction is not drawn along any national or ethnic lines, as would have been the case in Germany less than a decade later, but along more subtle, almost amorphous criteria. Sinclair expresses how different he is from his peers, and has this belief reinforced by Demian, the titular character who seems to be some form of his own id. According to themselves, they think more deeply, feel more keenly, love more deeply, hurt more sharply, and exist more fully. It should come as little surprise that Sinclair spends his days reading Nietzsche, the most famous proponent of the supremacy of the Uberman. I won’t adhere to Graham’s law here and insist that Hesse is a Nazis, but Sinclair’s belief of his own innate superiority over the more animalistic masses results from the same philosophical traditions that would later spawn White supremacist movements, both in Germany and around the world.
Once we take for granted that some humans are simply greater than others, the rest of the problematic theories fall into place much more easily. The Ubermen, or, in this case, those with the Mark of Cain necessarily cannot make up the majority. They necessarily cannot even be part of the majority. Therefore, it follows that the majority is necessarily incorrect in its beliefs.
This is how the novel begins, after all! Sinclair’s mind is first broadened by the idea that Cain’s murder of his brother was not the origin of the Mark that put the fear of God into others, but rather, the Mark came first, and the masses attributed extremes of crime and murder to those that had the Mark. It’s the same justification that a schoolyard bully uses to steal lunch money. “I only did what comes naturally to me. It was others who labeled my actions as evil. They could also do what comes naturally to them.” It is a childish understanding of cause and effect.
I feel confident that over the years Sinclair’s philosophy has been derided as Satanic at best. I won’t take it that far. I want to give Hesse the benefit of the doubt and defend that he is at least attempting to explore a new understanding of religion, but it’s a difficult defense to make. I will not suggest that Sinclair’s actions and emotions (scorn, egotism, lust, intemperance, and wrath,) are strictly “Satanic” or non-Godly things. What I will say, however, is that as much as Sinclair claims to be seeking a personal world view that encompasses the good and evil, the only thing he reflects on is what we traditionally consider to be evil. It’s like a less obviously Satanic Fox News. Fair and Balanced my ass.
So, like I said, any attempt to transcend traditional religion results in little more than adolescent whining. Sinclair truly believes that his struggle justifies his philosophy. He doesn’t realize that human struggling will occur no matter what important he puts on it. Indeed, his struggle is admirable, but he falls short of the mark in every way.
It’s no secret that Hesse has an immense talent, however. His prose is beautiful, and evokes emotion with a clarity and specificity that allows us to truly commiserate with Sinclair’s pain, even those of us who dislike him. The characters are well drawn, real change takes place over the action of the story, and Hesse at the very least is struggling with the most important questions of the age. He can’t be judged too harshly for coming up short. I don’t really know if anyone doesn’t come up short, honestly. As far as misguided philosophy is concerned, this is probably the best way to ingest it.
Tl;dr: Although well written, Hesse’s attempt to explore religion at a more fundamental level than Judeo-Christianity is misguided and comes across as adolescent whining, rather than the well-developed philosophical novels of his contemporaries. ...more
I have limited experience with Dave Eggers, so I have trouble comparing this novel to his other work, but I really enjoyed it. I was extremely surprisI have limited experience with Dave Eggers, so I have trouble comparing this novel to his other work, but I really enjoyed it. I was extremely surprised to see how poorly it was received. It is an odd novel, that’s for sure, told exclusively in dialogue. The ultimate exercise in “show, don’t tell.” For such a restriction, Eggers did an excellent job creating a setting. I had a clear picture of the entire setting, and even though I occasionally had trouble telling what time of day it was, the sensory details were all there in my head. Further, I’d say that I had equally clear pictures of the characters, which was a common complaint from critics. Particularly with the main character, I could get as far as describing his clothes and facial hair.
If you ask me, I think this was poorly reviewed because it didn’t resonate with a lot of people. The position Thomas is in feels very familiar to me, as a young white male who grew up in a middle class family. Thomas is ultimately missing an existential purpose. There is tension between a lot of different stresses and pressures. On the one hand, Thomas is victim of circumstance. His home life was out of his control, and he suffered under his mother’s string of boyfriends and her own negligence. He was, arguably, sexually abused as a kid. On the other hand, however, he still had the ability to make his own choices. Making a scene at the hospital and trying to burn it down cannot be excused by any childhood malady. This question of how much is within or without our control is the central question of the novel, in my opinion.
Thomas’ first victim, the astronaut Kev, is the anchor that his argument rests upon. Kev could have been the victim of his circumstance. Instead of abandoning his dreams as a kid after difficulties in his family, he stuck with it and became an astronaut. Despite his hard work and pulling himself up by his bootstraps and so on, he still lost the ability to get on the space shuttle because of NASA’s lack of funding. Kev is the guy who could have gone wrong, but didn’t, and was still made a victim of the man.
Don, the invisible presence that seems to haunt Thomas, is the opposite. He made bad choices despite what he had going for him. His death by the police’s excessive force was wrong, but it was ultimately still his choice. Part of the mystery of the novel is that we cannot truly know what happened to Don. We can never know if he was truly a threat or if the use of force was truly excessive. All we can do is compare him to Kev. In the end, neither got what they wanted.
I think that Thomas is the victim of Plato’s “Great Fiction,” that anyone can do what they want if they put their minds to it. That is simply not true, no matter how many times our generation has been told. I don’t know what Thomas was expecting, and he doesn’t either. Whatever it is, it wasn’t this. He’s caught between people telling him that he’s not a victim, being legitimately victimized, hearing the Great Fiction, and realizing that it’s been a lie. Everything has just been so vanilla, so dull, so boring, but efforts to change it are quashed by unseen forces higher up on some unseen chain of command.
It’s a tough thing to describe without sounding like an asshole, but I think Eggers does it. Thomas just doesn't “get it.” I personally believe that he can make the choices he wants, but I do completely feel his struggle. The general sense that something, probably a sense of meaning and purpose, is missing. Being pulled in so many different directions by so many people. Facing this faceless bureaucracy that everyone else seems to be a part of. Public figures don’t have your best interests at heart, anyone can be kicked out of anywhere at an accusation of insanity, parents don’t put their kids first, an accusation of rape is just as harmful as a conviction, groups can stick together to mask the truth etc. etc.
In the end, Eggers is describing a hole, a nothingness, and if you don’t have that hole in yourself, then you can’t get it. Well, I don’t “get” this world, but as a result, I do “get” this book. All of these ideas are coming out of a novel constructed of strictly dialogue. I think that’s a hell of a book. ...more
Well, you can’t write a review of The Shining without comparing it to the movie, so let’s get that out of the way first. I love Stanley Kubrick, and IWell, you can’t write a review of The Shining without comparing it to the movie, so let’s get that out of the way first. I love Stanley Kubrick, and I loved The Shining for years before I read the book. I know that Stephen King doesn’t particularly like the film, and I can understand why now. A lot of the themes were changed, a lot of content was removed, and the ending is drastically different. It’s a very personal novel for King, so I can understand why he wouldn’t like the adaptation. Honestly, I don’t have much sympathy for him. Any author would give their life to have their novel adapted by Stanley Kubrick. And regardless of his personal feelings for his own book, the Shining is a phenomenal movie. It’s different enough that I don’t think it diminishes the book at all. Much in the same way Peter Jackson made a good adaptation of LotR by sticking to the core of the story and changing/deleting in ways to support that core, so did Kubrick stay true to what made The Shining a good novel, and made changes that would be better for the film.
So, now that that’s done, here’s my review of the novel itself.
I’m not very familiar with King’s writing, but I was surprised by a few things. It really was a page turner, honestly. I guess I was expecting it to be lower quality. That’s probably my own prejudice against authors that churn out work as quickly as he does. Quantity does not mean quality, but at least in this case, King definitely did achieve quality. His characterization was very strong. I had clear pictures of every character in my head, and they didn’t always coincide with the film, which is a really amazing achievement. I think Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson will always be those characters in peoples’ minds, but they were just so damn perfect that I think that’s totally fine. The other characters, Danny, Wendy, and Ullman (Al, too,) were extremely well drawn, and remained wholly separate in my head from the actors in the film.
King’s descriptive abilities are well known, and I’d say rightful so. He created a strong sense of claustrophobia. The family’s quarters feel dangerously small and exposed by the end. The Overlook itself is perfectly described in its isolation, which is easy to do with big snowstorms, but I felt the isolation on Closing Day, weeks before snow fell. However, I do feel that it lacked a sense of simultaneous agoraphobia, which is what I think he was going for. I didn’t feel lost in the hotel. It seemed a lot like the Wyndham hotel I worked at in Gettysburg. Everything seemed like straight shots off the lobby. I got the sense that it was a big hotel, but there is an important difference between big and labyrinthine. Creating that tension between the isolation, the maze, and the close quarters is an extremely difficult task, and I don’t think less of King for not doing it perfectly, but I definitely noticed.
Ultimately, the novel can rest its laurels on its horrifying honesty. It’s hard for me to say how I would have felt if I hadn’t known about King’s life ahead of time, but the novel just felt like it was totally autobiographical, which it was. The Shining was King exploring his own feelings toward his own addiction. That’s part of writing, right? Everything is autobiographical at a certain level. But this was noticeably so, and that’s not necessarily a compliment. There were times when I felt removed from the action, because I was considering King’s own life, rather than Jack Torrence’s. But still, for any weakness this might have created, particularly around Jack’s character, it was a tremendous boon for the honesty of the story. The real horror here isn’t the ghosts in The Overlook, it’s the reality of alcoholism. King pulls no punches about Jack’s violence toward those around him, his family, and himself. We can see and hear and nearly smell the beatings Jack’s father gives to his mother, and the similar experiences Jack has with Danny and Wendy. We can feel Jack’s fear, and can later feel Danny’s just as strong. This is something I was not expecting. I supposed that blood and guts were a necessary part of King’s repertoire, but I didn’t expect it to be from such non-supernatural sources.
The relationships between the family members are described just as well as the horror of addiction. We can feel the tension between Jack’s violent tendencies and his very genuine love for his family. That’s tough to do. Like all humans, Jack is big enough to hold two contradictory emotions within himself. He truly loves his wife and son, and truly hates himself. He truly believes in his own infallibility, and truly believes all his problems are Wendy’s fault. And Wendy’s contradictions are just as well crafted. She too truly loves Jack, and is truly afraid of him. It is very telling that when Jack descends to the depths of insanity, she keeps telling Danny that the thing attacking them is not truly Jack, it is The Overlook, and I think she really believes. Jack is a deeply flawed man fighting for goodness. The attacker is the hotel. (Side note – Even as I write this, I question my own analysis. Does Wendy tell Danny that the attacker isn’t truly Jack because King wants to be relieved of fault for his own alcoholism? Is this passage more of a form of wish fulfillment, that he could act on his alcoholic urges while still blaming them on an external force? I can’t tell what is good story telling and what is wish fulfillment.)
Probably the major stumbling block I see in The Shining is its length. Obviously, I have no problem with long books, but The Shining just seemed to drag on and on. Danny had too many seizures/premonitions, it took too long to admit that something supernatural was happening in The Overlook, we spent too much time with Dick trying to get up to the snow surrounded hotel. I found the entire idea of the topiary animals coming to life to stalk Danny and Jack, and later to defend the hotel, just a little tired. That idea has to have been more fully explored in earlier works by some other author. They didn’t match the novel at all, if you ask me. Imagining these giant green, leafy lions walking around doesn’t match the blizzard isolation that King spent so much time creating. What I enjoyed about the film was that almost everything could be explained as non-supernatural, so alcoholism truly became the villain. In the novel, that’s not as true. However, everything supernatural that did occur was related to the hotel and its past. The building was slipping through time, back and forth, and the ghastly residents of the hotel were not so much ghosts as they were psychic residue that broke free from our normal time line. The topiary animals really didn’t have anything to do with the crimes committed in The Overlook in the past. I found them unnecessary and unconvincing and out of place.
So all in all, yes, I liked the novel. King did a lot of difficult things very well. It faltered only at a bit of over indulgence you would expect from a young, gifted, inexperienced writer. In a novel so dominated by so few characters, it is obviously important that those characters be perfected, and King got them pretty damn perfect. It works as a horror novel, a classic haunted house story, but also succeeds in creating the most lasting, psychologically disturbing horror through a distinctly non-supernatural source: alcoholism. I think that’s a great achievement. ...more
Donna Tartt’s novel started off as an obvious 5-star novel for me; the perfect thing to break a long streak of lackluster prose I’ve been suffering thDonna Tartt’s novel started off as an obvious 5-star novel for me; the perfect thing to break a long streak of lackluster prose I’ve been suffering through lately. By the middle, it was a solid 4-star, but still had me feeling great. By the end, I can confidently rate it a 3-star. What went wrong?
First, if I have to read “It’s not a WHOdunit, it’s a WHYdunnit!” one more time, I’m going to flip out like a ninja and kill somebody. From the first sentence, the audience knows that the narrator is part of a small group of people who killed another member of their social circle. It’s true that we don’t completely understand why he is murdered for a couple hundred pages, but to say that this is a mystery novel at all is certainly incorrect. It’s more similar to Crime and Punishment (a comparison that is not lost on the well-read narrator.) The novel is full to the brim with guilt, even in the opening pages when the murder is still months away.
The characterization of the narrator is skillfully done from the beginning. His early life as an unwanted anomaly in a blue collar, mediocre family is in some ways simple and perhaps over done, but Tartt nevertheless makes him relatable, even though it is his own cold, detached voice describing it. He begins college as a complete poser, a second rate actor, at best, surrounded by the real deal. We see, as time goes on, however, that the opulent walls constructed by the other students are nothing more than elaborate facades covering the same shameful laziness, greed, haughtiness, fear, and superiority complexes that the narrator hides behind. The revelation that the untouchable gods are no more than Men Behind the Curtain is expertly done by Tartt, especially as it occurs within the first few months of college. The short time frame made the entire experience more realistic than less, and I applaud Tartt for depicting that part of the college experience so well. Whether high class or low, it doesn’t take long for the walls to fall. Now, all of that being said, I was occasionally caught off guard when I thought I had understood a character clearly and I was incorrect. The physical descriptions of the characters is not clear, and when they were occasionally mentioned, they were radically different than the ideas I had in my head. This led to more than one confusing moment as I wondered who was actually speaking, and to whom the speaker was actually referring. In particularly, I never had a good understanding of Francis (either in his physical description or his character traits, honestly,) which is totally unacceptable in a novel so focused on the interplay of a relatively small number of characters.
The plot is a bit weak, but it was obviously the author’s intention to write a story more focused on the subtleties of character action than big, sweeping events. Still, there are moments where the plot feels like it is happening just as a vehicle to learn more about these characters, rather than unfolding in an organic way. I was probably only 90-95% convinced that Bunny “needed” to be murdered. That’s damn close to perfect, but there was still a grain of doubt that said they could have figured out a way to avoid his death. Further, I’d say that quite a few things were easily guessable. As our narrator enters this group of well-established friends, they hold quite a secret from him. I think the secret was somewhat obvious, and felt a little let down at its revelation. The ultimate conclusion of the novel was not hard to see coming, which, mixed with the lackluster second half, was a major disappointment.
The biggest issue of the novel, however, is in the vast difference between quality of the first and second part. The first part of the novel, from the introduction of the narrator to Bunny’s murder, was engrossing. It pulled you in and pulled you along. You wanted to know the secrets of this group (even if they seemed a little obvious, as I stated.) Frankly, I found it hard to put down. The second half of the novel deals with the aftermath of his murder, both in the actions of the characters and the guilt that weighs on them. This is where the book drags.
First, the actions of the characters, or “plot.” With the exception of a couple flurries of action at the end, very little happens in the second half. In particular, an extremely extended chapter detailing the disastrous funeral of Bunny could have been dealt with in a couple paragraphs, if not simply removed in its entirety. There is a lot of the narrator walking around town, looking for his friends and not finding them, having semi-cryptic conversations, and feeling ill. The entire thing felt like a dénouement, which would be alright if it hadn’t been stretched out to the same length as the first part. When the “plot” finally happens, it is an explosive bolt which, rather than being made more powerful by the long lead up to it, only feels confusing and disorienting as a result.
Second, the emotional state of the characters, or the “guilt.” What I really liked about Tartt’s writing in the first part is that it is infused with guilt, even before we know exactly what has happened. Ironically, however, now that the murder has occurred, the narrator seems to feel little guilt. He spends little time regretting the murder, wishing he could have stopped it, or thinking how things might have been different. We get easily expected reactions from cold, calculating Henry, emotional Francis, and alcoholic Charles, but the narrator himself seems far more interested in the emotional states of his friends than his own. Now, I recognize that this could be an intentional effort on the part of the author to further prove that these people are all antisocial sociopaths with little ability to emotionally connect with others (this argument is bolstered by a few sentences in the epilogue,) but if it was intentional, it was very inexpertly done. If we are meant to believe that he is antisocial, why is the first part so laden with guilt? Even if he is a liar, he still tells us that he feels guilty, and in fact his actions do seem obviously led by that guilt, but we just never feel it. I don’t know exactly what the author intended here, but I feel confident that it wasn’t this.
The Secret History is still a strong novel, even though I have a lot of negative things to say about the second half. Especially as a debut novel, it reads much more like a classic than a contemporary novel, and I mean that to be a compliment. The novel suffers from inexperience, but it is still a compelling story about the lives of engrossing characters, and I can confidently say “I like it!” thus earning it a 3 star rating. ...more