Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Secret Formula

One of my favorite books is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.  After reading it, I told everyone who would listen about it.  My sister told me that if I thought that book was good, I should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has the same premise, but which she said was even better.  Since then, my sister and I have agreed to disagree about which one is better, but the literary world is on her side.  A BBC list of the 100 best books of all time just circulated among my Facebook friends, and while Secret History has a solid seat on that list, Special Topics doesn't make the cut.  I think that which book you prefer might also depend on which book you read first.  I read Special Topics before Secret History, and liked Special Topics better, while my sister read them in the opposite order, with the opposite opinion.

The plots of The Secret History and Special Topics are very similar.  An outsider comes to a new school, and notices a group of closely knit students, including both men and women.  The outsider admires the group from afar, and then meets one member of the group who introduces him or her to the others.  The outsider does not instantly fit in, and realizes, uncomfortably, that the group has a secret that they don't want to share.  The outsider eventually determines that the secret is sinister, but never grasps how sinister, until it is too late to avoid becoming complicit in their activities.

Last year, the New York Times reviewed a book called The Hidden by Tobias Hill.  From the review it sounded to me that The Hidden might be another book using this same formula, and I was intrigued.  In The Hidden, the outsider, Ben, is older than the outsiders in Secret History and Special Topics but that barely complicates the story.  Ben is going through a divorce and needs to take a break, so he decides to go to Greece, under the pretense that he will be doing work to advance his studies of ancient Greece, but actually with no plans.  An acquaintance from his school runs into Ben, and tells him about an archaeological dig in the area which was once Sparta.  Ben instantly sees an opportunity to do something that is really interesting while on his hiatus from his life.

After making the requisite arrangements, Ben joins the dig, and is befriended by locals working there who warn him not to associate with the other foreigners, including Ben's acquaintance.  In Secret History and Special Topics there are teachers who are close to the clique, and have varying degrees of knowledge about the clique's secret.  In The Hidden, that role is played by Missy, who is in charge of the dig, who knows that there is a secret, and who believes that it's "bad voodoo", but doesn't know what it is.

What is it about this plot formula that keeps me reading?  It works.  And it works in The Hidden too.  The reader plays the role of the outsider, and slowly tries to piece the secret together.  Once the secret is known, the reader joins the outsider in analyzing all of the alternatives available, and deciding that the situation is hopeless.  In all three of these books, it is not clear why the clique eventually accepts the outsider and lets him or her in on the secrets, but it's really the only way that the story could be told.

Of these three, my favorite is still Special Topics, in part because the outsider never really figures the whole thing out, and some members of the clique are left guessing too.  There's a lot to talk about after finishing that book, and while the unanswered questions leave you wanting to know more, it's a good feeling.  My second favorite is The Secret History, which is really well written, but which spells the secret out completely.  The only thing that you are left wondering is why, why, why did the clique do the thing which they have to keep secret.  The Hidden reveals most but not quite all of the secrets, and it may have been better if more was left unanswered.  The clique is digging in ancient Sparta, and there is the opportunity to have a true "Spartan" ending, which would have left Ben facing a moral dilemma, and which would have been more haunting for the reader.  Another difficulty with The Hidden is that Hill rarely tells you who is speaking, which makes the underlying meaning of what is being said hard to follow, and stalls the character development of the individual clique members.

All said and done, the next time a book with this plot formula comes out, I'll read that one too.

Next Up:  You Better Not Cry:  Stories for Christmas by Augusten Burroughs.  My friend, Kim, lent me this book, and I am thinking it will be something light and fluffy to get me into the holiday spirit before I dig into A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.

Still Listening to:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

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