So you don’t have to!
No, this trashy novel by M.L. Rio, set at an exclusive arts conservatory where the Shakespeare-obsessed fourth-year students probably kill a dude, could be cheaply summarized as, “The Secret History, but dumb.” That’s not even necessarily a criticism–lots of smart books are painfully dumb, and some dumb books are unexpectedly smart. I found myself enjoying this book and finding unexpected pleasures in it. It’s frustrating and I think for most readers its flaws will–understandably–overwhelm its virtues. But those flaws are pretty typical of contemporary pop literature, whereas the virtues are weird. So let me tell you a little about both.
The biggest obstacles for me were the prose, alternately cliched (“a waifish thing, with corn silk hair and round china doll eyes”) and overegged (“”It was the ponderous crouching demon Guilt”); and the misogyny. The bad prose is especially painful since this is a book about being enthralled and intoxicated by language. The four men in the class all get vastly more nuance and character development than the three women, who are basically Frail One, Sexpot, and Mystery Who Never Pays Off. The treatment of sexpot Meredith is especially gross, since the novel tells us that she’s unhappy about how literally everyone defines her by her sexiness, and yet the novel itself never gives her any other character traits. People criticize her by telling her she’s slutty and reassure her by telling her she’s beautiful, and I start to think that it’s because the author herself doesn’t know anything else about this character.
Add to this the creepy racially-charged phrases scattered throughout the book: A teacher assesses the (white, obviously, obviously) narrator’s weight “with the cold scrutiny of a slave trader at auction”; a character dresses like “some sort of gypsy”; music is “like some savage tribal drumbeat”; all of this in a novel where every character is milky white except the *~*exotic*~*, sinister, racially-ambiguous homosexual… yeah. These are things an editor should have noticed–along with the misuse of “disinterested.”
Side note: I’m increasingly convinced that at least 85% of criticism directed at narrative artworks for racism or sexism is essentially aesthetic criticism. They’re telling you your work isn’t good enough. This book, for example, comes off as sexist because the women’s characters lack the depth and reality of the men’s. There’s no insight expressed in them the way there is with the men. The weird racial language is weirdly racial, but also, it’s cliched. When I was working on Amends, I got a bunch of criticism along these exact lines (“We don’t really get inside Medea’s, Emebet’s, or Sharptooth’s head… wait, that’s all the women. That’s weird”; “This joke crosses a line into actual racism”; “I know you mean it to be funny, but this line comes across as trivializing Ethiopian Orthodox religion in a way none of us would really do”). The changes I made in response to these criticisms were in every case an improvement on the purely aesthetic level. I added a lot of scenes inside the women’s heads and replaced the jokes with jokes which turned out to be funnier and more cutting. (Racism is inaccurate, you know? So it’ll never be as cutting, and therefore never as funny, as non-racist humor.) My suspicion is that unexamined attitudes surface in unexamined prose.
Anyway, those are the flaws. Now the virtues. I know many readers have found these characters utterly insufferable, with the way they converse in lines from Shakespeare just about constantly. But I really related to that. My best friend and I did quote Shakespeare at each other when we were drunkenly scheming or gossiping; there’s a time in your life when the huge emotions of great drama seem the only things big enough to match what you feel, and if college isn’t that time then when is? We, too, expressed jealousy and betrayal (I have drunk, and seen the spider); rapture (O then I see Queen Mab has been with you!); dread (There’s knocking at the gate); a sort of nostalgia-in-advance (We did sleep day out of countenance, and made the night light with drinking; Let’s have one other gaudy night) in terms stolen from the Swan of Avon.
The Secret History comparison serves this book really poorly, because in Donna Tartt’s novel the characters encounter not their own big adolescent emotions, but something actually divine. In comparison to the shock of God, even Shakespeare seems small and melodramatic. Villains exposes the shallowness of Bardolatry: You can’t understand your life through the lens of one book, even if the book is the Riverside Shakespeare. But I’m pretty sympathetic to the sensation of getting drunk off Shakespearean drama, and trying to live your life in the ecstasy it provokes.
I also loved the fantasy descriptions of Shakespearean productions. Macbeth in a lake! King Lear in a theater walled with mirrors! Romeo and Juliet performed at an actual masquerade ball! It’s total unrealistic wish-fulfillment and I adored it. There’s insight here, too: The traditions of this bizarre conservatory are part of how it removes its students from their ordinary expectations, experiences, and beliefs. The lake and the mirrors are images of anchorless, harborless chaos, a world without order or peace: the twentysomething soul, among other things.
These characters, and especially the narrator, all have what I can only call an anime emotionality: You can see the beads of sweat on their foreheads, the perfect rainbow-faceted crystalline tears. They’re always just throbbing with emotions that wrack their bodies. At first I found this ridiculous but I came to accept it, especially since Rio in general describes bodies and physical sensations well. (I mean, it’s still ridiculous though.)
The main character is almost a type I shamefully love. He’s another instance of wish-fulfillment: The guy who’s constantly telling you how untalented he is, how average, even as the other characters tell us that his humility is what makes him such a great actor. The self-sacrificing lover who never has to learn how to be beloved. He also has an intense same-sex friendship, one of those school-days raptures which seem like they can define a life, and I liked that he was oblivious to its intensity, willing to acknowledge frankly that it had a sexual edge, and accepting of it as part of the complexity of human sexual and romantic longing.
I just wish, so badly, that he was capable of seeing women as human beings. He/the narrative treats Meredith horribly, as I mentioned, and his sister’s eating disorder is also treated 100% as if it’s an obnoxious burden on him. Gross, man. And then Rio makes Meredith, of all people, tell him how good he is! He’s been awful to her! Let her be one person who doesn’t see him as a saint! Seriously, this line happens: “Between the six of us, we’d called Meredith some version of ‘slut’ a thousand times, but this was horrifically different.” No it wasn’t! And my vote is for unreliable author, not unreliable narrator.
On a dark unnoticed level, this is a book about a violent abuser (not the narrator), whose abuse can’t be seen clearly because his friends grant him the respect they never give Meredith.
You can see the novel’s failure of imagination in the way the men’s casting in various plays serve as moments of high drama–the cast lists are always meaningful–whereas the women are always stuck playing predictable and fairly minor parts. Shakespeare’s world is more masculine than I realized back when I was under the spell of Harold Bloom, who always told us Shakespeare’s women were superior to his men. But no woman in this novel has the depth of Mistress Quickly, let alone Cleopatra, Juliet, Lady Macbeth, or Beatrice.