Friday, May 21, 2010

The Devil(s) You Know

In one of those happy accidents, I read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth right after I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Tartt owes a lot to Wharton (of course, who doesn't?), indeed, as The Times review of History says, Tartt's novel "owes more to the nineteenth century than the twentieth."

History has that close, dense, tightly knitted prose that makes postmodern readers, so used to sprawling patches of white space in their text, despair. In fact, it's sometimes a little jarring to remember that History is taking place on a bacchanalian campus instead of a restrained drawing room (and, although I also went to a small liberal arts college, I don't remember it being nearly as wild and drug-sodden as the grounds of upstate Hampden University - perhaps I was in the wrong dorm).

Californian Richard Papen, a product of tract homes and one-dimensional middle class life, escapes to the verdant hills of Vermont and promptly gifts himself with a new past, complete with prep school and oil money. Gifted in Greek, Papen tries to join a tiny and exclusive group of students who study with the university's only Greek professor, Julian, whose idiosyncratic methods are tolerated by the faculty for mysterious reasons. Initially rebuffed, Papen becomes fascinated with Julian's students, some of whom have money, but all of whom have an insouciant charm born of the utter confidence in their patrician backgrounds.

Papen is allowed to enter the group and eventually becomes friends, of a sort, with the other students, joining in their slavish devotion to the charming Julian and the exhaustive study of Greek classics, to the exclusion of everything else. But something holds Papen apart from the students - his invented past, his lack of breeding, his dearth of confidence? His fellow students - wealthy, gay Francis, beautiful twins Charles and Camilla (did Tartt intend that pun?), wealthy, disturbingly intelligent Henry, and boastful Edmund, form a tight circle devoted to their professor, Greek, and living an anachronistic life amongst the other college students, complete with moldering country house, outdated card games, and antiquated liquor.

Tartt is an undeniably gifted writer, but History employs a gambit that I've never really understood. Does murder really make you lose your mind from guilt - especially the murder of someone who really, genuinely, seems to be asking for it? I find it rather unbelievable that, instead of heaving a big sigh of relief and moving on with their lives after the murder of one particularly noxious character, everyone decides to run around losing their marbles instead, with fatal consequences.

And Papen is something of a cipher. His fascination with the sophisticated and intelligence Greek students is understandable- their monied, blue-blooded past is what he dreams of - but Edmund (nicknamed Bunny) is harder to place. Obnoxious and not particularly intelligence, he sticks out amongst the other students, and his eventual expulsion from their little sanctum isn't surprising - what he was doing there in the first place is.

The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder, is also about devil in man. The narrator, a young Englishwoman who calls herself Grey, is fresh out of an institution for some terrible but unspecified crime. Obsessed with the Japanese invasion of Nanking since finding a book about it among her parents' carefully sanitized library, she moves to Japan in pursuit of a Chinese man who allegedly possesses a videotape of a particularly spectacular atrocity. Grey runs into a slimy and callow American expat, who lives in a moldering dump of a Japanese mansion, and gets a job hostessing at what may be the Weirdest Nightclub in Japan (and that's saying something).

Grey zeroes in on an ancient Japanese geezer, rumored to have some sort of special medicine that prolongs his life, and promises to find it and deliver it to the Chinese professor in exchange for the videotape. Of course, the geezer WOULD be yakuza, and protected by a particularly sadistic bodyguard, his Nurse (nee the Beast of Seitama, and the suspect in the mutilation of a couple of erring henchmen).

Hayder knows her history, and Grey's search for Mr. Fuyuki's mysterious elixir is interspersed with narratives from Nanking, as the Chinese professor and his wife try to flee the murderous Japanese soldiers.

Oddly though, for a narrative that builds up as much steam as this one does, the big reveal falls kind of flat, which may be because it's hard to deliver something so awful, so atrocious, that the reader is actually going to squirm (especially in an age where you see stuff like this baby cannibal on the news). The Devil left me wondering if that was really it?

Which I'm pretty sure means I'm actually a terrible person.

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