The Future of “The Secret History”

Posted in Book Reviews on October 25, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think I would be able to count all of the books that I have read during my life so far. However, there are only a small number of books that I re-read on a regular basis. Stephen King’s “Insomnia” is on that list, and so are Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News,” John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” One of the books I re-read most frequently, though, is Donna Tartt’s debut novel “The Secret History.”

And so when Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” came out in 2013, 11 years after her second novel, I grabbed it for my Kindle as soon as I could. However, it sat in my reading list, as I was waiting for some time to give it my undivided attention. What I found was, in addition to a rich novel of its own right, a set of crib notes to the motivations behind “The Secret History.”

In “The Secret History,” a group of students who do not fit into mainstream society in any discernible way cover up the accidental killing of a local farmer and then the extremely intentional murder of one of their own, when the first secret is about to unravel. The main character, one Richard Papen, is a young man aesthetically displeased with his upbringing. His surroundings at Hampden College in Vermont look like what he thinks college — and life — should be. The dorms look like cottages; the fall brings apple trees and red-cheeked girls just finishing their field hockey. However, Hampden is a college for people who did not do well anywhere else, and Richard and his cohorts have separated themselves from the rest of the college, as they take all of their courses from Julian Morrow, the Greek teacher who even has his own building on the edge of campus.

It is the pursuit of beauty for its own sake that undoes Richard; as his initial advisor at Hampden tells him, beauty can do nothing without truth. However, Richard falls in love with a group that turns out to be cold-blooded; gives his heart to a classmate who does not appear to have an affective cell in her body; he ends up in Southern California, just as wretched and alone at the end as he was when he first looked at brochures of Hampden College.

And so now, 15 years after “The Secret History” and 11 years after a wonderful mystery entitled “The Little Friend,” Tartt has taken on the topic of beauty again. One of the Greek epigrams that the crew in “The Secret History” learns is that “Beauty is harsh,” but nowhere is it harsher than in “The Goldfinch.”

The title of the book comes from a painting that Theodore Decker, the main character, loves because his mother loved it. The last day he spends with his mother is the day terrorists attack the art museum in New York City where they are visiting. Theodore ends up dazed in a gallery with an old man who gives him a ring and a cryptic destination — the green bell at an intersection in the city. He also spirits away “The Goldfinch” with him, “saving” it from the rubble of the museum but never quite managing to return it, or tell others where it is from.

Theodore loves the beauty of the painting so much that he keeps it with him always, but he is so afraid of losing it that he hides it inside a bag and then squirrels it away int a public storage unit — the irony, of course, being that no one gets to see the beauty of the painting at all.

In the painting, the bird is chained to its perch, much the same way in which the painting is held captive in its sack (or so Theodore thinks, but that would be a spoiler).

With his mother dead and his father having disappeared, Theodore moves in which the family of a friend to avoid the hell of life with a foster family; his father eventually shows up and drags him out to a new life in Las Vegas (as in “The Secret History,” there is nothing west of the Mississippi that is aesthetically pleasing). But his father ends up committing suicide, leaving Theodore once again quite alone.

Instead of being left at the mercy of Social Services, though, Theodore moves in with a man he had befriended shortly after the museum disaster — the person who lives behind the door with the green bell. James Hobart had been the business partner of the old man who gave Theodore the ring in the museum gallery. Theodore learns how to run Hobart’s business so that he gets out of trouble with the IRS; unfortunately, Theodore is fraudulently selling the furniture that Hobart is restoring by billing it as having a much finer provenance than it actually has, replacing the very real wrath of the IRS with the potential destruction of the business by ruining its reputation with buyers.

And so the old truism “Beauty is harsh” returns with a vengeance in “The Goldfinch.” A bitter rogue in the antiques industry uncovers the fraud and begins to blackmail Theodore; he realizes that the painting is not where he thought it was; the two loves of his life (Boris and Pippa) are not accessible to him in the way he wants; the woman he asks to marry him (Kitsey) is as ambivalent about him as he is about her. The questions that the end of the novel asks about the sufficiency of doing one’s best in life seem more like Theodore’s own soul-searching than anything else.

The best parts of Tartt’s writing involve the epic sweep of the tale, as well as the intricate workings of the description. Many reviewers compare her to Dickens in terms of the scope of her stories. I prefer to compare her to Fitzgerald, who seems to have been just as anxious to ensure that each word is in the right place before moving on to the next sentence, the next paragraph, even the next page. It is one thing to mass produce literature in the vein of today’s James Patterson. It is quite another to edge, one unit of thought at a time, across the vast canvas of a novel, until one steps back and realizes that a masterwork is at hand.

Both Theodore Decker and Richard Papen struggle to find a place in the modern world. No matter how many drinks or drugs they try, their very square shapes do not resolve to the round holes that the world has waiting for them. It is this tension that makes them characters of interest. It is the unstinting lens that Tartt gives the reader to view them that has added “The Goldfinch” to the list of books I plan to re-read. And re-read some more.

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Contract Pending

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on July 11, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

On July 9, 2014, the house at the corner of Maurice Avenue and Sears Street in Denison, Texas, went to closing. Mae Cummings, who had owned the home for almost 60 years, sold it to a young man looking for a starter home. And a starter home it is — two bedrooms, one bath, no central air conditioning. It is a corner lot, but the lot is just a block away from a fairly depressed retail strip. From the front porch, you can see the building that a psychic uses to tell fortunes. Over the past four decades, that building has also been a hair salon, a fried chicken joint and a thrift bakery.

When you walk inside that house from the front, you see carefully polished wooden floors in the living and dining room; a small but warm kitchen; and a hallway leading to the den, bedrooms and bath. But this house is also about just a bit more — at least to me. In other ways, it isn’t, but that might not be important.

For one thing, we never entered the house from the front. We always entered at the side door, at the garage. Mae is my great-aunt, and her husband, Harold, was my great-uncle. Somehow, they always knew when we were pulling up for a visit, so at least one of them would have piled out onto the top of the stairway at the side door to greet us. I would run up those stairs and hug them both, running past them, through the small contained porch into the kitchen. There was a yellow Bakelite kitchen set with four chairs — the kind you see in museums and retro stores now — and a stove with the only timer that used hands (instead of digital numbers) that I had seen.

The drawers in that kitchen contained mysteries by the dozen, because Aunt Mae never threw anything away. There was a penny contained inside a metal disc that was actually a campaign tchotchke for Rep. Ralph Hall (“All for Hall from Rockwall” was the slogan). Actually, there were a bunch of them. There were old church bulletins that Aunt Mae had saved for scratch paper. There were enough old plastic butter tubs and lids to store food that would fit in six refrigerators. There was a set of dominoes — one in every room, it seemed.

But back to that kitchen table. In the summers, my parents would sent me to visit Aunt Mae and Uncle Harold for a week or so, and at 10:00, Aunt Mae and I would watch “The Price is Right” while I read the newspaper to her. She would watch “The Young and the Restless” at 11, but I would wander out and find something else to do. In the evenings, we would eat dinner and then play dominoes until we could barely stay awake. I still know how to play 42, Mexican Train, Shoot the Moon, games that brought much more laughter than anyone has gotten out of “Flappy Birds.”

The dining room table barely fit into the dining room, especially with the chairs and the glass cabinets that stood in there. But that didn’t keep as many of us as possible from trying to cram there for holiday dinners. A small table on the side held an impossible pile of that wacky green jello salad with fruit, corn on the cob, ham, turkey, snap beans, creamed spinach, cornbread, and that table groaned as loudly as any feast of the Greeks. I don’t know how we all fit in there, just as I don’t know how Jesus fed all 5,000 of those people with a few loaves and fishes, or how the Texas Rangers ended up in two consecutive World Series, but I know that all of these things happened.

We almost never went into the formal living room. There was a couch, love seat and two rocking chairs in there, but we weren’t supposed to sit down on anything, unless it was time to open Christmas presents there. We spent our time in the kitchen and in the den — which was where I would sleep when we spent the night there — where we would all sleep (my parents and I) while my great-grandfather lived in the second bedroom. We didn’t watch TV much — there was only one reliable channel, a hybrid of NBC and CBS that always seemed to show soap operas and evangelists.

When I look back at it now, I wonder how anyone slept on that foldout pleather couch, which didn’t really fold out but begrudgingly flattened and widened, the protozoan Futon, held up oddly by five volumes of the 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica. Uncle Harold would sit in that room and smoke at his desk until he finally went to bed, while I slept with one eye shut, listening to him ruminate and cough to himself until he finally turned the light off and went to bed. In the absence of air conditioning, Uncle Harold would position fans at either end of the long hallway and one pointing at me, moving the air around to keep us cool throughout the night. But while we all sweated in our spots in that room, somehow it didn’t matter. We were still all able to ramble through that one bathroom and all get ready for church on Sunday, even though it took us a lot longer to get ready in bathrooms of our own at home.

If you drive by the house now, the yard is wild and overgrown inside a chain link fence. You can’t see where Uncle Harold and I would sit outside in the hot summer nights, listening to the great Jon Miller, then later Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel, narrating the games through a transistor radio that was a little larger than our iPhones are now. You can’t see the clothesline where Aunt Mae would hang her laundry; even though they had the money for a washer and dryer, their house didn’t have a laundry room and wouldn’t until Aunt Mae put in an expansion a few years after Uncle Harold passed away. Aunt Mae and I would go to the laundromat and run everything through the wash. I would buy a glass bottle of Mountain Dew (“It’ll tickle your innards!”) out of a machine that was decades old, and we would throw everything (wet) into the baskets and then hang it up on those lines, with clothespins that lived in an old bleach jug with the handle cut so it could perch on that line.

None of this is unique to the house at 321 Maurice, though. Every old house has its ghosts and memories, and in a few years, it will have another set that the young man who is buying the house now will pass down to those who come after him. I just didn’t want you to think that this was just another house. I mean, it is, but it isn’t.

“The Wrestler” Takes On “The Da Vinci Code”

Posted in Book Reviews on March 21, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The PsalterThe Psalter by Galen Watson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you enjoy historical fiction, thrillers about hidden secrets, all mixed in with individual drama, then Galen Watson’s “The Psalter” is a fun, fun read. The story switches back and forth between a present-day intrigue that is set in what may well be the last days of the papacy, depending on which prophecy you believe, and an intriguing period of time just before the advent of the Dark Ages, when what would become the modern Church was still very much a fragile institution clinging for all its life to the Italian peninsula, at the mercy of the Holy Roman Empire but also extremely vulnerable to invasions by Muslims from across the Mediterranean Sea.

In the modern section, the story follows Michael Romano, a brawler-turned-priest who also happens to be extremely interested in ancient scriptural texts. A papal secretary is murdered while carrying an ancient psalter. The psalter itself is not particularly valuable until invisible writings are discovered to have been added. An Aramaic (the original language that Jesus spoke) gospel declaring that Jesus had a twin named Thomas appears to have been left on the same page as some of the ancient psalms. And so a chase around Europe begins, involving a lovely translator and her father in Paris, leading up to an explosive confrontation at St. Peter’s in Rome.

The medieval section also follows the trail of these documents which were much more newly heretical — it took the Church a long time to decide which gospels were the true ones — as well as a Muslim plan to take the writings of the Church. There are parallels to the modern characters in this story as well — a lovely young woman who is very skilled at translation, a bishop with whom she forms an impossible relationship, and an elderly father figure who tries to help them both move toward the best.

The historical detail in this novel is its best feature. Creating a realistic sense of the Middle Ages is not easy, but the dusty, dangerous life in that era comes through in each section from the past. The intrigues that plagued the papacy back then, just one of the factors dooming Europe to centuries of darkness, come to life in ways that few stories have taken on.

The plot does wander into the whimsical a bit. The modern story loses focus a bit, as the real motives of the Children of the Book go from conflicting to confusing, but while it takes a few re-readings of the ending to understand where the modern story is heading, this is an interesting tale about dogma, greed and human nature.

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Spine-Tingling Short Fiction: Newton’s “The Reconstruction Descending”

Posted in Book Reviews on February 26, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

The Reconstruction DescendingThe Reconstruction Descending by Newton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The short story is a genre that should be more popular than it is. The shrinking national attention span should be creating more of a clamor for stories that range from several to a few pages in length. Writing such as Newton’s “The Reconstruction Descending” will create more of a desire for shorter fiction because of its ability to bring swift hammer blows of visceral meaning.

There are six stories in this short collection; if there is a common theme, it is the hostility that humanity faces, not only from the natural world, but from other worlds and even from its own creations. If Stephen King made his mark chronicling the various darknesses that swell inside us, Newton will make his mark leaving unsettling visions percolating in our minds long after we have put the stories down.

The best story in this collection is the last one, “Breathing Room.” It imagines a world in which people can use SimBots to spend time with recreations of loved ones who have passed away. A rogue judge uses the technology to recreate time with his wife; the fact that he is unspeakably cruel to the SimBot triggers a real simulation of his wife. Instead of the compliant blonde he expects, the angry, dead soul comes back to life and occupies the SimBot, with a vivid outcome.

“Quality of Life” turns cancer from a fatal disease to a malicious force that seeks to take over the bodies of its sufferers. The haunting battle between an elderly woman and her cancer is one that, shall we say, makes me less likely to swim in a lake near a nursing home.

The most effective parts of these stories are the philosophical questions that underlie them. There are some stories that could use a little more development, such as “Gifted” and “An Angel and the Devil Over Coffee.” The title story, “The Reconstruction Descending,” is powerful because of the existential chaos it believes to be coming toward us all.

All in all, these stories are definitely a diversion from what is mainstream. If you like your fiction to make you think about uncomfortable topics, this is a collection you will enjoy.

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Writing for a Cause: “The Last Train Home”

Posted in Writing for a Cause with tags , , on February 17, 2014 by onlookerslowdown

So now I’m branching out from just blogging to writing fiction…short stories and even a novel. To start getting the word out about my writing, I’m teaming up with my cousin Wesley White to bring awareness to two causes: to leukemia, and to my writing.

Wesley is currently in remission from leukemia. Before he came down with this disease, he had been training on a mountain bike and running, thinking about completing his first Half Ironman, until his diagnosis. He went through a successful stem cell transplant and is back on the road to full recovery. Unfortunately, the costs of his treatment — and for having to keep his custom auto body shop closed during several months in the hospital — mean that we’re all doing what we can to help him get caught up.

Here’s how it works: below you’ll find the opening to my latest short story, “The Last Train Home.”

If you like it, send a donation of at least $1 to this PayPal address: wesleywhite1918@gmail.com. Then I’ll send a copy of my story, in pdf and mobi (Kindle) formats, to you. Share this page so that even more money can go to help my cousin get things back up and running again.

Here’s a preview:

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Lydia cursed her husband as she shivered on the escalator down toward the subway station. A slight, slender woman in her late thirties, Lydia felt as though she would simply blow down the shaft. Her long auburn hair plumed up into the night. Just because she’d had a seizure a month before didn’t really mean she would be a bad driver. But he’d told her she couldn’t drive anymore, didn’t need to drive anymore, because now she was an epileptic.

Did that mean he’d gone out and gotten a better job so she could stay home? Or offered to drive her to work every day? Of course not. And so the icy blades of wind that threatened to slice her into bits on this long escalator ride left wounds that she hoped he could feel on his short four-mile drive home. From HIS job.

Public transportation really wasn’t all that bad where they lived, she thought. And she wasn’t stuck in traffic anymore, because he picked her up from the train every night, and rush hour didn’t go the way they went. But this wind –

Suddenly Lydia lurched forward, and she bumped into the person in front of her. A tall, solid form in a brown trenchcoat winced under the impact but did not fall forward to start a row of dominoes that would only spill onto the chilly tile at the bottom. Instead, the body turned, slowly, and two blue eyes pierced her so thoroughly that she forgot all about the cold wind. These were eyes that you only see when you’re fast asleep, and the wolf who’s chasing you through your dreams catches up with you. These were not eyes you wanted to bump into while riding down an escalator (which seemed to be going all too slowly).

“I-I’m sorry,” Lydia stammered. “Someone, someone pushed me.” The eyes looked over Lydia’s head, settling with such hate that she turned too.

No one was behind her. All the way to the top (and this was an escalator that was two stories tall), there were no passengers behind her. That was strange, because she had felt people crowding in behind her when she put her token into the slot and found the top of the escalator. She’d gotten a little dizzy and light-headed, in fact, because so many people were behind her. But then she’d snapped out of it and found herself on the way down.

The eyes came back to her. “I…I must have slipped,” Lydia apologized. “I won’t d-d-do it again.”

Want the rest? Send in your donation!
Note: Because this is for an individual, it’s NOT tax deductible. However, it will definitely help out!

Bizarro Khan and Life After William Shatner

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on July 21, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

The most resonant quality about the Star Trek series is that it always poses questions that demand an answer. There are way too many movies, shows, songs, books and other art forms that package the answer for us. Voldemort was always headed to the scrap pile of literary villains; Claire was always going to find Lorenzo in Letters to Juliet. You might say that Khan was headed into some form of incarceration from the beginning as well, but the questions that arise along the way are what make this a compelling story.

Before we really start, though, it’s worth noting that Benedict Cumberbatch possesses none of the swagger of the real Khan, one of Ricardo Montalban’s signature roles. In this clip, Khan is about to find out what he wants to know from Chekhov and another crew member.

Cumberbatch’s Khan is somewhat impressive, at least in terms of his ability to shoot Klingons, but his delivery is a little bit on the emo side. True, he has been frozen for quite a while, but Montalban’s mastery of the hubris that is an important part of playing a genetically superior warrior does not emerge in Cumberbatch’s handling of the role.

It’s true that this Khan is trying to worm his way into the sympathies of the crew of the Enterprise so that he can take over the bridge of that giant new starship that the Federation has created, the Vengeance. It is worth wondering what makes Chris Pine’s Kirk distrust Khan, but it is also worth noting that Khan does not unleash his violent side until after Kirk has stunned him to the floor of the bridge of the “enemy” Federation ship.

The questions that this movie asks are not new ones — not even new to the Star Trek series. Admiral Marcus has secretly built the Vengeance to bring war with the Klingons; in Star Trek: Insurrection, Admiral Dougherty had hatched a secret plan to harness the eternal youth that the Bak’u enjoyed; in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, elements within the Federation, Romulan and other powers try to use the destruction of the ozone layer on the Klingon home planet to eradicate their civilization rather than establish a lasting peace.

Of course, the production of Into Darkness has progressed to the point where we no longer have the great F. Murray Abraham made to look like an extremely annoyed Eeyore, as appears in Insurrection:

The questions that the Star Trek franchise has thrust at us are the same ones that have been around since the beginning of time, but they are also the same ones that we still haven’t answered —

  • What does power mean?
  • What is the best way to use power?
  • If you have power over others, what should you do with it?
  • Why is it so difficult to find peace?
  • What are the impulses with in us, as individuals, that make these questions so difficult to resolve?

Caught in a quandary deep in Klingon territory, Chris Pine’s Kirk tells his crewmates, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.” This is certainly a starting point when it comes to dealing with these questions.

Which brings me to the final observation. After the Star Trek reboot, I was not convinced that Pine was the one to carry what has been one of film’s most estimable roles forward — that of James Tiberius Kirk. After all, Shatner still rocks Priceline, and it was not that long ago that he was earning awards as Denny Crane. His booming voice, reckless certainty, and indestructibleness are still a major part of our culture.

Pine, though, appears finally ready to take the Enterprise on his own missions. His speech at the end of In Darkness, following his own resurrection, suggests that not only is this rebooted Kirk ready to take on a five-year voyage free of the baggage of the original stories — after all, we’ve already seen the alternative realities of Kirk and Spock’s origins, and having to deal with Khan — making the next set of adventures clearly his own. Pine looks ready to carry the role all the way.

Suffering for the Cameras

Posted in Theater of the Absurd with tags , , , on January 17, 2013 by onlookerslowdown

I find myself at odds, quite frequently, with the evangelical establishment in which I was raised. There are a lot of wonderful evangelical people out there, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on just why the establishment rankles me.

One of my friends from seminary days is now a pastor in Missouri, and he recently put up a Facebook posting saying that John MacArthur’s Found: God’s Will was available for free on Kindles. I’ve respected this friend’s opinion for some time, and so I ordered it, and I’ve been reading it in the weeks since.

MacArthur lists five things that believers need to do in order to find God’s will: be saved, be Spirit-filled, be sanctified, be submissive, and be suffering. I get it — you have to believe, and you have to let the Holy Spirit infuse your decision-making process, slowly sanctifying (making it more likely that you will make morally correct decisions) you. You also have to submit to the authority of those over you, when that authority does not go against God’s teachings. It’s that last part — the “suffering” — where the evangelicals and I differ.

MacArthur defines “suffering” as the annoyance of living as Christians in a secular world. Standing in line at the grocery store and looking at magazines with the latest Kardashian outrage on the cover. Watching gay couples holding hands, walking in the park. Listening to the drunks sitting behind you at the football game. Turning on the television and having to choose between “Two and a Half Men,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Big Rich Texas,” while your kids listen to another round of sex jokes on “Big Bang Theory” upstairs. Enduring this sort of culture, to MacArthur, is the sort of suffering that Christians must endure to put up with God’s will. One must be willing to confront these sorts of evils, wherever they exist.

This sounds really good, until you look at what Jesus confronted. Was the woman who had been married several times, and was now living with a man who was not her husband, making the best choices? We don’t know. We do know that Jesus was kind to her. He saved his ire — his “suffering” — for the religious leadership of the day. The author Donald Miller recently blogged about what the real source of the world’s problems is.

MacArthur, and the other evangelicals in his camp, would say that the world has become godless. God might agree, but not for the reasons that MacArthur might think. Instead, Miller suggests that we each ask these four questions of ourselves:

1. Am I contributing to solutions that make the world better?
2. Do I really believe I’m part of the problem in the world?
3. Where do I see hope operating in the world?
4. How can I be in the world but not of it? And what does that even mean?

If you decide to engage in these questions, you don’t even have time to notice that the writing on television shows has descended, in many cases, to a choice between shock value and schlock value. You don’t have time to notice how lost everyone is, because you’re too busy trying to make the world a better place. The “suffering” comes not from annoyance at those who are not as clean as you see yourself, but from the realization that the world should be better. Not that others should be better — but that we should all be better; the hardest part of the suffering is realizing how much better I need to be. Jesus drew others to him simply by the love He showed others; those who were able to resist His love had steeled themselves against love with laws and interpretations and loopholes. They were too busy “suffering” in front of others to realize the true nature of the anguish that points us toward Messiah, yanks our arms to constantly remind us that there is a place of peace that God has made for all of us, and shows us how far our own world is from resembling that place.

A church that was too busy changing the world to stop and complain would be much more compelling than what we have now. There are enough people who gripe; engagement is a much better way to lead one’s life; as Donald Miller would say, it leads to a much better story.