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Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1992)








The Secret History is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it (I blame myself naturally). Curiously during the last twenty three years I’ve had a strange kind of shadow relationship with the novel; periodically I’d see a reference to it, or spot it in amongst a friend’s collection of books. Once I found a copy in the back yard of a house I was looking to rent, soggy from the rain that had passed overhead that day (it was unreadable of course). I’d overhear people talking about it in a cafe or I’d see a random picture of Tartt, a mysterious literary figure with her own striking sartorial style. In my mind an aura of mysterious allure surrounded both the book and the author and I knew that I would actually read it one day. Finally, having now read the novel, I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint.

In hindsight I realize that in being inexorably drawn to The Secret History I had something in common with narrator Richard Papen, who couldn’t resist the singular pull of the charismatic and exclusive coterie of Greek classics students taught by the enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. The alluring yet morally ambiguous world of the coldly intellectual Henry Winter, the debonair Francis Abernathy, the aloof twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay and the larger than life Bunny Corcoran was hard to resist. Tartt handles this ensemble of twenty-something students deftly and despite their arrogant elitism and murdering ways you really hope they literally get away with murder. This is undoubtedly authorial manipulation at its highest level.

As I was reading The Secret History I kept on marveling at just how a novel that reveals who is murdered and by whom right at the beginning can be so compelling. Of course there is the enticement of wanting to know why and how these characters were driven to murder, but ultimately it is novel’s tightly wound narrative tension and Tartt's coolly elegant prose that creates such a compelling novel. Tartt’s style is self consciously literary, yet she doesn’t overdo it, even though she regularly spreads baubles of linguistic beauty throughout the narrative. Tartt’s writing is so disciplined that she is able to make even the most mundane aspects of the narrative totally absorbing.

The characters are psychologically fascinating and the knowledge that there are mysteriously nefarious events going on in the background that will eventually be revealed creates exquisite tension. The novel is set in Vermont in the north east of America, providing an appropriately somber yet lush atmosphere of ornate campus buildings and autumnal forests for the plot’s tragic trajectory to play out in. Also impressive is Tartt’s ability to depict a realistic male narrator. Richard Papen’s psychological foibles are entirely convincing; his relationships with women, his insecurities and how he approaches life are all relatable to the reader, something that also applies to all of the characters, despite their individual eccentricities.

Reading The Secret History is like being seduced by someone who is extremely erudite, intelligent, mysterious and beautiful. It’s extremely addictive and wholly satisfying. I could barely put this book down, I read it on the train, late at night at home and on a camping trip; thinking about it obsessively as I climbed the peaks of the Stirling Ranges in the Australian autumn. It took ten years after the publication of The Secret History for Tartt’s next novel to emerge (The Little Friend - 2002) and then another eleven years for the Pulitzer prize winner The Goldfinch (2013). Fortunately I’m yet to read either of these novels. All that’s left to say at this point is that I’m grateful I’m not having to wait another ten years to read another Donna Tartt novel.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Solar Lottery - Philip K. Dick (1955)








The debut novel of any significant author is always a fascinating prospect, particularly after most of their later works have already been read. Solar Lottery reveals that Philip K. Dick arrived nearly fully formed, with many of his typical obsessive thematic threads featuring strongly.  Although Solar Lottery is certainly flawed and is not up there amongst his finest works, it still stands out due to Dick’s unique vision and writing style. When you read a Philip K. Dick novel you know that you are in for a weird time and Solar Lottery does not disappoint.

Solar Lottery is set hundreds of years in the future and humanity has colonized much of the solar system. This future solar civilization is ruled by a person selected at random by a computer generated lottery to hold the title of Quizmaster. Although governed by the Quizmaster, society is dominated by powerful corporations and most humans survive by pledging allegiance to both corporations and individuals. Ted Benteley, a typical Dick everyman, is dismissed from a corporation he hates, allowing him to attempt to work for the current Quizmaster - Reese Verrick. He succeeds only to learn that Verrick has been usurped by Leon Cartwright. Cartwright is also the leader of a society that follows the theories of John Preston, who’s life’s work focused on finding the legendary outer planet known as Flame Disc. Dick’s typically paranoid and cynical version of future humanity also involves sanctioned assassination attempts on the new Quizmaster and the unfortunate Benteley becomes embroiled in Verrick’s attempt to assassinate Cartwright. The novel’s convoluted plot is a bit creaky in places, but Dick ultimately manages to pull off what seems like two short stories melded into one narrative.


Solar Lottery features many of the tropes that would feature heavily in Philip K. Dick novels to come. Flying cars feature briefly, (but they don’t give unsolicited advice...), there’s controlling corporations, altered consciousness, telepaths, an android and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Typically for a Philip K. Dick novel there is a lot going on for what’s only a short novel and at times the narrative pace is frantic. At this early stage Dick’s writing style features abrupt segues and some pretty unnatural dialogue, however inadvertently these stylistic flaws create a hyper-real tone to the narrative that’s in keeping with Dick’s obsession with replicated or altered reality. The novel does have a pulpy tone, but Dick’s ideas are, as usual, intriguing and weird; exploring deeper themes than the average action oriented pulp novel from that era. I wonder how readers would have reacted to this novel back in 1955?

Although future novels would be superior both stylistically and thematically, Solar Lottery is well worth reading for any Dick-head. Dick would go on to craft an extraordinary body of work that would prove to be both prescient and highly influential. Dick was a unique voice and it’s such a pity that his lifestyle choices (including over a decade of abuse of legally sourced amphetamines) led to an early demise in 1982. In keeping with Dick’s vision, perhaps one day we’ll have a replicant Philip K. Dick AI churning out new novels for our amazement. Now that’s something I’d like to see.