My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Beneath the Hitchcockian murder plot at its center, The Secret History is about an undergraduate social experience that most people who go to college experience in one form or another. I still remember my own freshman year, sitting on the floor of my dorm, getting acquainted with these strangers from different cities who were, in many ways, more like me than most of the people I had grown up with. That sense of finding “your people,” the way they feel exotic yet familiar all at once, the sense that you are beginning to chisel the statue of your own particular experience out of the large granite slab of college, are fundamental to the book’s appeal.
But of course, that initial rush of excitement gives way to darker emotions: petty tribalism, anxiety at being left out (“you guys went to lunch without me?”), gradual irritation as your new friends’ idiosyncratic quirks turn to grating habits, a growing realization that differences in your upbringing have given you extremely different opinions on certain subjects. Eventually, it becomes a question of whether the similarities in the things you’ve chosen and the experiences you create can overcome the differences in the people you are.
Tartt’s understanding of these early-college friendships, in all their intensity and fear, is bone-deep. While the plot is a lurid criminal conspiracy, the sort of thing you’d expect Tom Ripley to have gotten involved in had he gone to college, the emotions it inspires aren’t all that different from the intensity of feeling you experience when you first leave home and find your first group of friends, nor are the self-destructive habits of characters whose scholastic intelligence has outpaced their emotional intelligence. They drink and take drugs and never seem to get enough sleep; they fuck unless they’re in love, fight unless they’re actually angry. And they’re always convinced they’re one adjustment away: one weekend break and they’ll get back on track with their work. One more drink, one more pill, and they’ll be right as rain. It never seems to occur to them that they might feel frightened, or guilty, or sad.
The characters, all of whom are majors in ancient Greek, are obsessed with the promise of transformation in the texts they study. It never seems to dawn on them that the gods only ever transform people into a reflection of their true selves. How perfectly fitting, then, that all their attempts at transcendence or metamorphosis only further reveal the frightened, limitary creatures they are. Those poor kids. What are they doing, and what is it doing to them?
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