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  • Katherine Dahl

The Secret History: A TikTok Sensation in Four Songs

As a bit of a departure from my usual picks, this week I’ll be writing about a book that took the novel-obsessed side of TikTok by storm over the past year: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Given to me as a Christmas present, I was a bit skeptical about the story to start, but, like the rest of the internet, I was soon absorbed by Tartt’s masterful weaving of character and setting. Narrated by college student Richard Papen, the story follows his induction into the elite classical Greek program at Hampden College (a small liberal arts school) in Vermont. The Secret History is an inverted detective story, meaning the novel opens with a description of how Richard’s friends execute the murder of their friend, Bunny Cocoran. As the story unfolds, the almost cult-like nature of the Greek program becomes clear, and mysteries about the members of it (Francis, Henry, Bunny, and the twins Charles and Camilla) continue to suspend the majority of the plot. Beware of MINOR SPOILERS if you have not read the book and are interested.

Although a novel deeply entrenched in the academic setting, much of it is marred by the student’s “extracurricular” activities; now, we’re not talking about soccer or a painting club. The Greek students commit themselves to weekend trips to Francis’ country house to drink themselves into a stupor—although they don’t need to leave campus to do so. This aspect of their lives leads me to choose “Drunken Lullabies” by Flogging Molly for the first song. Beyond the drinking, they also have an insane sense of morality and obsession; they have “knelt the conscience blessed to kill,” and, in order to achieve the mythical transcendence described in the ancient Greek texts, they “must take a life for [their] hateful eyes / to glisten once again,” especially Henry’s as the mastermind.

Henry was not only the driving force urging the group to murder Bunny, but also the death leading up to Bunny’s. In the process of achieving that “mythical transcendence," Charles, Camilla, Francis, and Henry killed a farmer in his own field because of their heightened hysteria and drugged madness. Bunny learned of this and threatened to expose them all, thus leading Henry to institute the plan to take him out of the picture; in this manner, Henry is the “devil” of the novel, and he is always sharply dressed. Richard acknowledges this at some point in the novel, remarking that “The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie," which is incidentally the second song for the book (by Colter Wall), Richard learns a lot from Henry, but “that man’s lessons / had a [sweet] price” given everything Henry involves him in, including Bunny’s murder. In the process of planning, executing, and covering up the crime, Richard loses a part of “[his] sweet soul, everlasting,” even though he cannot abandon his new friends at the same time. 

It’s only after multiple months of Bunny’s blackmailing of the entire group that Henry decides he needs to be taken out of the picture. In this, they all perceive Bunny as having a “Head Like a Hole” that is as “black as [his] soul,” like in Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 hit. He threatens them with giving him copious amounts of money, gifts, and blame for his actions. Henry spends much of the story avowing that Bunny “will get what [he] deserve[s]” no matter what happens. Most of the tension between them is a matter of control: both feel they can control the narrative and each other, which explodes while the rest of the group stands and watches. The mutual manipulation on either side is the crux of their conflicts, leading right up until the moment Henry pushes Bunny off the cliff. 

Unlike the past couple of books I’ve blogged about, the ending of The Secret History is not one I would call particularly happy. While Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Richard never get properly caught for their crimes, the experiences of both Hampden and his friends remain with Richard for the rest of his life, which induces him to record the experiences in the log we are reading as the novel. He was the one that “stood by watching as [their] world went up in flames” and now “[dreams] about [all of them] time and time again” in the years after leaving school. The final song is “Morbid Stuff” by PUP, which captures both the deadbeat college-kid experience and the melancholy of Richard’s memories. “The feeling” of his past remains ever-present in his mind, no matter the years that pass.

I loved The Secret History, and I now completely understand the hype. Unlike many of the other books I read and preach, it’s a solidly contemporary novel with both a classical type of nuance and a modern, suspenseful method of storytelling. It’s not for everybody; it’s a beast of a novel (sitting at over 500 pages), and much of the story is told through little, seemingly insignificant moments, which can make it slow. But the payoff is incredible, and I recommend it to anyone who is not adverse to a light challenge. It was an experience, for sure.

Runner-Ups: “Teenage Lobotomy” by Ramones, “No Control” by Bad Religion, “Easy” by Commodores, “Die, Die My Darling” by Misfits, “Finish What We Started” by Anti-Flag (I just noticed a punk theme).


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