Welcome to week two of May’s Vox Book Club report on The secret history by Donna Tartt. This week we’ll cover chapters 6 and 7, when the vulgar worldly world finally begins to invade our crew of cheerful killers. I have read the entire book, but in this post I will not go into spoilers. Feel free to discuss spoilers in the comments, but make sure you mark them clearly.
A lot happens in these two chapters. The gang commits to cover up in the face of an FBI investigation! We finally meet Bunny’s family and see his funeral! Richard continues to assure us that he is in love with Camilla while clearly more interested in Francis! Let’s go in there.
These two chapters are all about everyday vulgarity
For most of this book, Hampden has been an Oxonic dreamland for Richard, all sports jackets and civilized cups of tea and intense conversations about the nature of beauty in small private classrooms. But after the murder, the university, as it was for most people in the early 90s, rudely falls into its worldview.
Richard goes to one house party. He gets a hit from one bong. He joins one girl, and not even a girl who interacts exclusively with the boys and wears suits like Camilla, but just one ordinary girl. So mundane! So vulgar! So he has not shown us so far in accordance with the world.
But everything is less enchanted now, less rare than when Bunny was alive. The classics respond to the police as characters from the movies, not characters from a novel. They have to bring a TV to Henry’s monk-like apartment. They are starting to get interested in trashy sci-fi TV movies because they are more bearable than spending time with the Corcorans.
And the Corcorans come from a completely different world; the Corcorans with their Kennedy-like affections and their modernist house and their children who call each other ‘butt hole’. They are so contradictory to the classic child aesthetic that Henry spends his entire visit to their home with a sick headache, as if he is allergic to them. (Henry also omits bowls of milk for spirits and really wants to talk to the police, so hey, maybe he is!)
Bunny, we learn, was the best of the Corcorans, and it seems Bunny was the best of them, that his aesthetic was closer to the classic aesthetic of kids than the rest of the family can do. Bunny was gauche and he was vulgar, but in a way the classics could find endearing – until they no longer found it endearing and they killed him. They seem to find the rest of the Corcorans pathetic.
All of these aesthetic disturbances are part of what traditionally happens after the murder in a detective novel, especially when we are told by W.H. Auden’s essay “The guilty rectory, ”In which he explains the classic detective innovation structure. (I am indebted to my brilliant friend Lisbeth Redfield from Pen + brush because he pointed it out to me.)
According to Auden, innocent characters in a detective novel experience no disruption to their aesthetic interests as individuals and their ethical obligations to the world, and in the stasis they live in before the murder, they believe their entire community is the same. Murder disrupts this unity, however, and the detective’s job is to recreate what Auden calls “the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the ethical are one.” For Auden, that resolution makes detective stories so satisfying to read. When the detective solves the murder, they return us as readers to a state of innocent innocence in a world free from sin.
We talked a bit last week about how Henry is an inverted Sherlock Holmes figure to this reverse murder mystery. We also talked about how his murder is motivated more by aesthetics than ethics. Henry seems to kill Bunny mainly because Bunny aesthetically offends him. So if our Sherlock is also our killer, how can we ever go back to that flawless, sinless state?
In this section I have collected separate thoughts and questions I have about chapters 6 and 7 of The secret history. You can use them as a guide for your own conversation in our comments section or in your own community. Or start with your own questions! Please mark your spoilers and be nice to each other.
- For your mood listening pleasure, our commentator has composed Antonio Graniero the final Secret history playlist. To enjoy!
- In Book I, Henry and Bunny and Richard were the only classic children with discernible personalities, while Charles and Francis and Camilla floated amorphously into the background in a cloud of wealth and literary references. Here in Book II, however, with the shock and clarity of guilt, they begin to emerge as separate individuals with different flaws. Charles drinks, Francis picks up straight guys and hassle about the state of his car, and Camilla has dark secrets.
- Richard’s description of his connection to Francis is overwhelmingly more enthusiastic than his description of his connection to poor Mona Beale. Richard is secretly in love with Francis, isn’t he?
- Julian, meanwhile, has almost disappeared from the story after he seemed so central to everything at the beginning of Book I. Where did he go? Why does it disappear so thoroughly?
- Richard spends some time in these two chapters, claiming that he not only feels guilty about murdering Bunny, but also misses him as a human. I believe him about the first, but not about the second. YOU?
- For some reason, Hampden as a name sounds fundamentally incorrect, as if it should be Hampton or Hamden. What is so linguistically so baffling about it?
- Francis considers Gucci to be vulgar, but Henry thinks it is ‘quite grand’. What is Henry’s taste?
Sound out in the comments below, or anywhere else you want to talk, and meet us here next week to discuss everything from Chapter 8 through the epilogue. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, Sign up for our newsletter!