Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I had no idea. I knew there was a lot of drug use in the eighties. I was in the Navy, and a good number of my friends and acquaintances were druggies. Certainly a number of them were heavy drinkers. I never took illicit drugs, but I have been known to tip a few, and still do. But I had no idea that the focus of virtually every college student was the acquisition, use, and perhaps distribution of, illegal narcotics. Constantly. All the time. That is the impression one gets from reading Infinite Jest, and the subject of this review, The Secret History.

As I mentioned in my review of that book, I hated Infinite Jest. But I enjoyed The Secret History. Both stories are about college kids in the pre-cellphone age. In both novels the characters and everyone they know are drug users to some extent. They drank (no problem) and they smoked (yuk). Incessantly. I find smoking disgusting and horrifying. The characters smoked so much that I feared getting lung cancer from reading The Secret History. But I liked it. Why? I think the answer is that the characters in The Secret History had the redeeming characteristic of being intellectual. Students of history, literature, and languages. The characters in Infinite Jest were stupid jocks (is that redundant?) I therefore was able to identify with the characters, at least at that level. We had two things in common: an interest in intellectual pursuits, and booze. That was enough to get me over the hump.

The Secret History is about a group of college students at some schmancy Vermont college who are in a special class where only a few students are accepted, where they have only one professor for all their subjects (except French) and where they are engaged in the ethereal task of learning ancient Greek and Latin, amongst other highfaluting subjects.

They are all a little eccentric, as is the teacher, and most of them are rich, with the exception of our narrator. One night, when some members of the group are out on some sort of drug induced vision quest, they encounter something they believe to be a farmer, and scrap with it. They are so out of their minds that they don’t really know what happens. Actually, the author never does come out and tell you, but it can be inferred from a few clues. Read carefully. They form the opinion that they killed this farmer. One of those not involved in this murder becomes aware of it. They fear that he will rat them out, either by actually talking to the police, or by running his drunken mouth. So they decide to do away with him. The story deals with events leading up to that murder, and the aftermath of it, and how they deal with it.

I enjoyed the book. I thought it was too long, but it was not the soul smashing burden to read that Atlas Shrugged and even The Fountainhead were, but it weighed in at over 500 pages of small print. Could have been shorter. But it was well done enough for that not to have been a big problem. The writing was smooth and clear.

There were two things I didn’t like. One, there was a prologue. I have come to hate prologues. And from the get go, we know that these people kill one of their own. The author tells us right up front. And you know how. Might have been better if she left it up in the air until the deed is done. Two, there is a bit of a hole in the story. After the boy they murder is discovered missing,  the FBI showed up, and appeared to be involved with the investigation of a small town disappearance and, and later (when the body is found) murder. The FBI would have no jurisdiction. In this type of matter. It’s a state law issue. Yet, none of these smarty pants even asked the question. Now, I know they were painted as some sort of geniuses who were above the mundane world relating to federal jurisdiction, but once the FBI got on the scene, one of them should have gone and checked what the heck the FBI did. That issue was touched on, and the agents themselves said they had no jurisdiction in the crime at hand (to the surprise of the protagonist and his compatriots), but none of our group of real smart friends questioned it. We are never really told why they were there. It seemed to me to be a thread that was dropped.

Outside of that, the story went quickly, was well written, and entertaining. I give it four stars. I dock it a star only because of the smoking. They all smoked all the time. I know that at the time there were few restrictions on smoking, but give it a rest. One or two guys constantly lighting up, blowing smoke, rubbing the horrible thing out in the ashtray is enough. But all of them? All the time and everywhere. In their rooms, in restaurants, during conversation, while out walking, while eating, while drinking, while studying, while doing anything or going anywhere. It got to be tiresome. I realize that part of it was to provide gestures for the characters during dialogue, but what’s wrong with rubbing an eye, or scratching a chin? There was less smoking in Atlas Shrugged, and that was written in the 40s.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Writing a Novel is Hard

Writing a novel, however, is the hardest thing I have ever done.  I have been a reactor operator on a submarine, earned a master’s degree in business, earned a law degree, passed the bar, and practiced law. Nothing, however, has been as difficult as writing a novel.

The first novel I completed I self-published. I was curious to see what that experience would be like, and I didn’t want to fool with trying to get an agent. Sitting on my desk in front of me now, though, is the most recent draft of my next novel. I’ve struggled with it for over two years. 

The first novel (which was really the second, as the one on my desk was started before it) I just sort of cranked out. I never intended to get a publisher, so it made me much less concerned with what they would be looking for. 

For the second novel, however, I intend to try to find an agent. For that reason, I’m much more concerned with story arc, character arc, structure, and proper form. Not only that, I always have in the back of my mind the question of what would an agent want to see, and serious doubts as to whether the novel is anything other than crap.

I hired an editor/mentor (at no small cost) which was a huge benefit. I learned a lot from her, and intend to still avail myself of her services. But she was a cruel master. I needed, valued, and took her advice (for the most part), and I needed her frank analysis. Every writer, new or experienced, needs that. But it is no way to build confidence and self-esteem.

The novel on my desk is the third draft. A few other drafts were abandoned in progress. The original version was 90,000 words. This version is 73,000 words. I wish it were more like 80,000 words, and it may yet be, but in the whole scheme of things, 73,000 is enough.

What’s the book about? Don’t laugh. Vampires. In Venice. Italy. Not really vampires, but critters known as shroud eaters. Did I really start out to write a novel about vampires? I don’t know. I started out thinking I would write a book about my experiences as an expat in Italy. Then this shroud eater thing came up. There was actually one found in a graveyard in Venice. The skeleton of a woman with a brick in her mouth, buried during the plague of 1576. During that plague they would open mass graves and find that previously buried corpses had tried to eat through their death shrouds. They thought that they were also eating the corpses of the other inhabitants of the grave, so they put a brick in its mouth to stop it. If they ate enough, they would rise from the grave as vampires. That piqued my curiosity. They really had vampires here. And Venice is a spooky place, anyway. Hence . . . .

Then I had second thoughts, based in no small part on comments from my editor. Maybe I should scrap the vampire thing. It’s beginning to be a little played. But then I wondered what the heck the story would be. I got 20,000 words into the new version, and then hit a wall. Now what? Maybe I should keep the vampires. So, back to work on the vamps. Then doubt crept in again. Back to no blood suckers. I was a deer in headlights.

I talked to my wife, who is a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Vamps or no? “If there are no vampires, then what’s your story?” she asked, cutting (as usual) right to the heart of the matter. Exactly! So, back to having vampires. And so it went, until I finally decided to keep them, finish the damn thing before I die of old age, and throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. 

This brings me to what’s so hard about writing.  First you’ve got to have a plot. Well, some idea of what the story is. All right, an idea as to how it starts, a vague notion of what happens in the middle, and some theories on how it might turn out. Then you have to have characters, know what they’re like, where they fit into the plan (to the extent that there is one) come up with some way of building conflict and tension, think of a climax, then have a way to tie it all together.

Then you start to write. They say that writing is a solitary act. It is. But you are not alone. There are demons. While you struggle to put this thing on paper, they torment you. “You can’t do it.” “No one will ever read that.” “You’re stupid.” “Your English is bad.”  “They will laugh at you.” “Quit.” “Give up.” “Have you seen the videos from agents? They are all jaded and cynical, and snotty. You want to subject yourself to that?” “They will hate you.” “Your plot sucks.”

But you can’t listen to these devils. If you are going to write, it is hard enough to come up with a story line, and put it down in a coherent form in something resembling proper English. You can’t worry about what others think. You need to have a good story and good characters. You’ve got to have tension and structure, and all that (i.e., you’ve got to know the craft). But you can’t write for everyone. Just write your story. Don’t worry about what will sell, you can never figure it out. Don’t worry about what agents look for, you have no way of telling. 

So, just put your little caboose in the chair and go to work. Cast out the demons, and write what you like. Find your own voice, and your own style. As the late Gore Vidal said: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” If you ever want to finish a novel, you can’t give a damn about what other people think.