On Borne, The Secret History, and Spinning Central Tropes

I’ve written here before about works that make active use of their medium’s unique affordances and limitations, telling a story in the form of a novel or podcast or television show that couldn’t work in any other medium. Over the last few weeks I’ve happened on a few books that do this at a generic level, embracing well-worn central tropes and, without necessarily subverting or frustrating them, spin them like tops.

I’m thinking in this case particularly of Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, which at its heart is an apocalyptic novel spun around the “take-in-a-monster” trope of countless children’s stories. (As a kid I myself was most partial to Steven Kellogg’s The Mysterious Tadpole.) Immediately following it, I happened to finally read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which spins itself around the traditions of all drawing-room mysteries and especially campus novels—thrusting a stranger into the world of compelling manic-privileged intellectuals.

Both books make the reader feel comfortable, confident in where the familiar tropes will take her—whether happily so (I love a good take-in-a-monster story) or unhappily (I, by and large, tend to hate even a well-executed novel of academia). Both Borne and The Secret History use that shared cultural consciousness to create an undertone of tension or even menace as, one by one, generic signposts are added, bypassed, or moved. Borne’s opening chapters hit all the beats of worldbuilding, giving us a narrator we trust, and setting her stamp of approval—already a surrogate for ours—on the plucky little creature she finds while out salvaging. We trust and root for Borne, and for Rachel to keep him, because we know how this goes. E.T., Pete’s Dragon, The Iron Giant. We’ve seen this one. It’s a good one.

The Secret History similarly awakens memories—of countless novels of academia and privilege, lives of the mind, the glories and tragedies of overeducated youth. Tartt plays it straight and with real respect and affection for the canonical campus novel as a form.  This is not parody. But as the reader progresses she begins to hit, like bursts of hacker’s static interrupting a benign broadcast, quick, cold, offhand references to looming homicide. The disruption to an academic novel, where conflicts are usually social or cerebral and betrayals run from plagiarism to cocktail-party embarrassment to nebbish infidelity, is extreme. But Tartt has her cake and eats it too, and we end up wracked with suspense precisely because we’re hitting all the cozy, arguably annoying, pipe-and-cardigan beats of a campus novel—even while absolutely certain that our hosts are murderers.

Borne, of course, takes a similar turn—forcing the reader to reckon with the more than plausible downsides of taking in a monster, risks inherent in the plotline that I was genuinely chilled to realize I’d never considered. It broadened my reading experience beyond the individual novel, tugged my emotional responses deeper—through a cunning sleight-of-hand, VanderMeer made the trope itself feel like a something I’d welcomed for years without suspecting its sinister potential, played with happily without realizing the danger I was in.

This isn’t just a tool for novels, of course—this week I also caught the PBS-filmed broadcast of Falsettos, which we saw on stage in January. Revisiting the show, I was able to formally appreciate the way Whizzer’s AIDS diagnoses hits Act II like a grenade, leaving not a dry eye in the house—mimicking, of course, the way illness hits us outside of fiction. The contrast couldn’t come more dramatically than it does, interrupting a steady flow of trippingly hilarious operetta. And I’ve gotten deeply wrapped up in the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which mocks (and clearly adores) telenovelas while hitting the tropes that define them. But maybe because we spend more cumulative hours with a book than we do with a film or play, I think novels have a special potential to spin trope and genre into something that leaves the reader feeling pleasantly off-balance, taking a sudden turn off a familiar path to somewhere new and thrilling. (I’ll certainly never see The Mysterious Tadpole quite the same way.)