Tuesday, July 3, 2012
John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure sports a subtle cover, a picture of peaches and grapes on a while tablecloth, with a very small script “A Novel” located at the base of a peach. In other words, if you don’t pay attention, you might miss the fact that it’s fiction.
While you would no doubt realize that it’s fiction before reading too far, the beginning is deceptive enough that you might feel that you are reading a food commentary akin to the writings of Brillat-Savarin, potentially because the author compares his book to that gourmand reporter. There is a lot about food and food history, and even some recipes, but all of the food related material is rather incidental and misleading except as it reveals a good deal about the narrator, and is used to introduce some of the characters.
You have to watch for clues in the text to discover what you are really reading, which is something of a murder mystery. I don’t think I have ever read a sneakier book in terms of not announcing its genre. There are some other unusual twists, which I dare not describe for fear of being a “spoiler.”
Aside from a devious plot and a lot of foodie stuff, this book contains a good deal of wit, sarcasm, hauteur, snideness and humor. Most remarkable is the author’s construction of sentences and paragraphs. The latter can run to two or more pages, the former – well, these are some of the longest and most compound-complex constructions I have seen since I was married to a man who couldn’t be bothered with punctuation. However, Lanchester produces sentences that a true masterpieces: they amble along through myriad subjects, related but often not in obvious ways, full of allusions, similes, and metaphors, with often something wrenchingly funny in their midst. Quoting one would be appropriate here, but frankly my patience and fingers are just not up to it.
I admit that I found the author exhibiting a high degree of intelligence, no small amount of gustatorial expertise, a wry and sometimes almost cruel sense of humor, and confident in his deceptiveness. As you read, you think you know what the subject is, but find that you have been tricked. You believe that you have built an accurate picture of characters and motivations, only to have that image fracture into shards. Your own expectations about the characters will lead to disappointment. Any attempt to guess at the ending is doomed to failure. Any expectation of a typical resolution or climax will be disappointed. You may feel guilty if you experience delight or pleasure in this book by the time you reach the end.
Or you may just wind up wondering if you loved it, or hated it.