The Debt to Pleasure

265 pages,
ISBN: 0771045859

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Sympathy for Food Devil
by Ted Whittaker

The hooraw attending publication of this first novel in England a few months back-author tour, foreign rights gobbled up all over the table, big-ticket, favourable reviews (here included in M & S's press kit)-woke me from my dogmatic slumber about contemporary fiction in English with a stronger kick than that administered by any other debut since John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.
That's fast company, but John Lanchester has hit the literary track in overdrive. The Debt to Pleasure is a dangerously funny novel, the autobiography of Tarquin Winot, an almost entirely evil gastronomic fop. The food lore this narrator tosses off so elegantly is without fault (if you accept it that he is a great porker and really would enjoy the overloaded menu combinations he sometimes proposes); Winot's culinary observations owe much, doubtlessly, to his creator's having done a tour at the trenchers. Lanchester was formerly the restaurant critic for the London Observer.
After I read this book the first time, I thought it was so immoral it should not have been written. What bothered me greatly was that there is apparently a near-total absence of justice in The Debt to Pleasure. The central convention of the mystery novel has been inverted, or left out-almost entirely. Tarquin Winot is a very naughty man who does not get his just deserts." Who truly deserves their desert?" he baldly queries. He gets instead just his desserts, plenty of them; the prior courses of many other meals, and several more, highly perverse satisfactions. I thought initially that John Lanchester had offered his readers a sick work of no worth other than its genuine funniness (black stuff, this) and its imaginative portrait of a narcissistic psychopath.
But, as the archtoff Winot himself pontificates, "less is more, a maximilization of omission." His opinions are everywhere similarly expressed. He is a law governing a universe unto himself. Most other people exist to be brought into agreement with his notions of his own grandeur. If they are unaware of this imperative and transgress its categories, well, Tarquin always has recourse to the maximilization of omission.
Let us peel the onion. The name of the chief nasty is not really Tarquin. Baptized Rodney, he takes the antichristian name of a legendary rapist because he swaggeringly fancies himself an attractively villainous creature beyond boring convention and-though he would prefer someone else to confide it about him-a Don Juan. Let us now praise a small, subtle felicity of The Debt to Pleasure, one we can ascribe directly to its author. The surname Winot is Lanchester's quiet little foodie joke. The pudgy, genial, fin-de-siècle French man of letters and gastronome Maurice-Edmond Sailland-whom we can imagine our narrator just physically resembling-gave himself early in life the basically Latinate pen-name, Curnonsky, which translates as Whynotsky.
Winot tells, in The Debt to Pleasure, "not a conventional cookbook", the story of his upper-bourgeois English rearing, and interpolates seasonal menus into the narrative. Essays are presented to explain and justify the preparation and consumption of certain dishes in the several weathers England affords: winter (goat's cheese salad, fish stew, lemon tart); spring (omelette, roast lamb with beans, peaches in red wine; egg curry, prawn curry, mango sorbet-a bit heavy, this, but never mind). Summer and fall are taken care of less prescriptively (other matters press upon Tarquin as his story progresses): pronouncements about salads, aioli, barbecues, and mushroom gathering advance from and retreat into the autobiographical flow.
Tarquin/Rodney was not a conventional child. He was the younger brother of the late Bartholomew Winot, who grew to become a famous and very successful painter and sculptor. Raised for a while mostly by an Irish nanny, whom at first he adores, Rodney subsequently finesses his way out of any recognizably formal education. Thanks to a generous inheritance, he eventually owns three residences-a flat in London and country houses in Norfolk and Provence-among which he shuttles, feeding and musing (obsessing about his muse) and committing nothing more than one other species of calamitous act.
This odd little life, however, Tarquin considers extremely significant. He too sees himself as an artist, not because he creates anything, but precisely because he does not. He spins out his loopy aesthetic before his muse Laura Campion, a younger woman and an art historian, whom he chooses to see as his "collaborator" in the work of art that is his life.
"There is an erotics of dislike," Tarquin informs us, early on. Indeed; that is what his entire tale is about. But before tuning himself to a righteous tension for his climactic encounter, Tarquin sets himself up to experience what he thinks is the opposite of that exquisite hatred (or at least he tells us that this is how he feels). When he defines his nihilism to Laura, she merely giggles; all she can say is "My word!", an exclamation he takes as her Jamesian assent to wait with him for the beast in the jungle to leap. It leaps, all right; but it may be that neither of them (certainly not Laura) assesses accurately its trajectory.
John Lanchester has a good time with his monster, makes him as much a figure of fun as possible. The erotics of our dislike extends vigorously toward anyone who wishes to compel sympathy for his opinions concerning bouillabaise and who maintains, "Some dishes seem to be charged with a psychic energy, a mana, which makes them attract attention, generate interest, stimulate discussion, inspire controversy and debates about authenticity. The same is true of certain artists. Again I am not thinking exclusively of myself."
(No?) And this is the point of The Debt to Pleasure. Winot almost never thinks of anything or anyone but his own pink self. He provokes debates about authenticity in every reader's skull. It is no accident that he tells his own story. He could not tell anyone else's. No-one else, even by means of a megaphone, could get more than a phrase into the logorrheic torrent. This is one of the symptoms of his craziness. For all his attraction to fine feeding, he never refers to more than a few instances of his dining with others. Sane people could not stand to share a table with him more than once, no matter how good a cook he is and no matter how comically erudite (and he is that, I'll grant). His opinions are composed entirely of rehashed Nietzsche with all the generosity of spirit maximilizationally omitted.
At the very beginning of his story, Winot claims to be writing the preface before and not after the rest of the tale, at a honeymoon hotel (whose honeymoon, we wonder briefly)-name changed; no reason offered. He's "decided to take a short holiday and travel southward through France." Shortly afterward, he refers to a previous meeting with the one to whom he reveals his notion of "the work which exists only in the minds of the artist and his collaborator the witness."
As we are brought to see, soon enough, something has changed. Winot is on no ordinary summer vac. Laura Campion is still, he assures us, his collaborator. And after the detailed description of the drive to Provence, complete with unconsciously hilarious accounts of the road-testing of the latest in surveillance hardware (Monsieur Hulot and Tarquin Winot are pile et face), he welcomes her and her new husband to his "humble abode in the Vaucluse hinterland village of St-Eustache [again, not its real name], hardly more than a shack really, with its five bedrooms," and treats them to a short, weird, mildly pleasant, and devastatingly ironic visit.
Winot's duplicitous nuttiness, as well as his true repulsiveness, lifts up one's breath from the thorax. He's a splendidly awful creation, not a case study fresh from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of psychiatrically defined mental disorders. The sociopaths I know have no great sympathy with material things (food included), let alone people. Money makes their world go around. I may be on shakier ground when I talk about psychopaths, but I'll risk a guess about them. Those who do in others at a distance-the dictators, the big-time manipulators-appear not to be particularly enjoyable company. They are too oddly obsessive all the time to ever come off it, too busy running the long con to really stretch their legs and sniff the roses convincingly. (Winot-we can give him a pinch of sympathy-is a total whacko only some of the time; he's friendly toward a couple of alarmingly myopic peasant brothers with shotguns, his neighbours, who are fins becs mad for game. He doesn't lie about food; if he did, I think someone should check out John Lanchester's cellar for the remains of missing chefs.) The small-time psychopath in real life is even more dull-that tedious, covert existence in the railroad flat, all those body parts in the fridge. John Lanchester has paid a bit of the debt to pleasure in allowing Tarquin Winot the ability to enjoy a good scoff. True, it's also important that the phenomena be saved, that the wolverinish old creep protest against such fashion crimes as "loathsomely predictable murders", but it may just be too that his minimal recognition of the Other-through his preoccupation with the best things to eat, through the sight of someone real enough retreating from him, driving away in fearful haste-leaves him in credible certainty, as he claims, with a lingering feeling of loss, and of being soiled. But then he's lied to us before.

Ted Whittaker has been reviewing restaurants for ten years and (to change the subject) probably knows more about murder than you do.


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