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a slow thriller for the gourmand
am 19. August 1999
John Lanchaster's debut, A Debt to Pleasure, is one of a number of food-related novels to appear on national bestseller lists recently. While professional reviews were overwhelmingly laudatory, public reaction to the difficult book was more of a love/hate affair. Maybe the esoteric vocabulary and arrogant nature of Lanchaster's irrepressible narrator, Tarquin Winot, targets the reviewers insecurity by appealing to the genius-envy we all live with. Or perhaps those in the industry who were confused by certain features of the novel (like frequent and seemingly endless parentheticals which purposefully lead the reader careening down other avenues of thought, until stupefied, they realize guiltily that they are lost in the words) felt too baffled to issue forth a criticism. Whatever the case, a dictionary and a reading environment free from distraction are recommended. Throughout the book, the narrator's sanctimonious musings leap aggressively between the classic subjects of history, art and (of course) cuisine. Themes are tied together as our anti-hero prepares, contemplates, and consumes carefully considered gourmet meals while on a car tour of the French countryside. Aspects of each meal inevitably provide Winot with yet another piece of evidence to reaffirm his superiority over the rest of humanity. Every step of the way, we consider his thought provoking, if not psychotic, perspectives on subjects as far-ranging as the importance of a balanced breakfast and the inevitability of murder. The biting, comic, tone of Winot's commentary on the world around him brings to mind a similarly misguided protagonist: Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole's masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces. To be sure, both books share a tragi-comic impending sense of doom, perhaps meant to leave the reader feeling uneasy -- wondering what sort of person he or she has become to be smiling in the midst of such truly unpleasant commentary. A murderous past and deplorable intentions surface as the novel progresses, and one eerily feels an implicit warning of the real and present danger lurking menacingly in the mind of every true elitist. By the end of the book, Tarquin Winot's treacherous sophistication reminds us of another high-culture psychopath -- the great Hannibal Lecter. The avid reader is sure to be impressed by Lanchaster's debut effort, and his skill as a writer cannot be overstated. The most educated culinarian will marvel at his profound appreciation for the culinary arts (he was once the restaurant critic for the London Observer) and the brilliant way in which he uses food as a medium to unravel Winot's sinister psychosis. With its meandering pace, though, and psychological detours, A Debt to Pleasure is not for everyone. It's not a page-turner to take you skipping away from everyday life, but rather (like a good meal), something to reflect on over time.