The Debt to Pleasure
Last year at a conference I was reading aloud what I hope will one day be the opening of my next published novel when a well spoken young academic suggested I read John Lancaster's The Debt to Pleasure. Maybe it was the hint of ego in my narrator, or a suggestion of his unreliability. There is certainly nothing culinary or sinister about my own manuscript. I took up the suggestion, none the less -- listening to others is a trick of the trade I've learnt rather later than most.
Let us start with the novel's epigraph by Bertrand Russell: ‘My German engineer was very argumentative and tiresome. He wouldn’t admit that it was certain that there was not a rhinoceros in the room.’ Now turn the page to the ‘Preface, Acknowledgement and a Note on Structure’ where author/narrator Tarquin Winot writes (in tiresome fashion): ‘This is not a conventional cookbook. Though I should straight away attach a disclaimer to my disclaimer and say that I have nothing but the highest regard for the traditional collection of recipes, arranged by ingredient under broad, usually geographical categories’ (1).
A disclaimer to a disclaimer. Tarquin Winot is, one soon sees, the most delicated of windbags. His name borrows from and hints at Shakespeare’s ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, in that the plot includes, at its heart, the jealousy destruction of a couple’s happiness. For one who is so wordy and eloquent, this jealousy is about a lack; here for the simpler and subtler utterances that make up human interactions and intercourse. Tarquin stalks like an algorithm. Winot surreptitiously records the couple in a hotel room somewhere in France, their talk and their lovemaking the grist to this Hearing Tom’s mill.
Nor do Winot’s jealousies begin and end there. As the story unfolds, we understand more of his tricky childhood, and his longstanding grievances with his brother, a famed sculptor whose gifts do not extend to Winot’s craftiness and Iago-like manipulation of others. Artists and the arts in general are within his sights: his own “art” is that of a gourmand with a relish for description of recipes. The art of life is based on his ability to stir and change the course of the unfolding recipe, almost always for the worse.
Here is one clue to Winot’s view of the world. He is describing his brother’s critical reception, blind to what Winot sees as ‘a lack of sensitivity to nuance, a course-grained practical achievingness … in the very fact of that work’s existence’ (102). Forever retelling, and explaining, Winot continues:
As I have said before, there is something stupidly literal, something blindly, heedlessly forgetting, something of the bland, imperturbable pleasure in crudeness of a policeman taking a visitor on a tour of famous murder sites, about any finished work of art. To put it another way, although Shakespeare’s Prospero – wise, tired, unsceptical, full of power – is taken as being his creator’s spokeman, perhaps his most accurate self-portrait is to be found in the bitter, maimed, deformed, unstoppable poet Caliban (102).
Tarquin Winot’s self-portrait is revealed here: not Prospero (despite his verbal and culinary wizardry) but Caliban-like: bitter, maimed, deformed, unstoppable.
There are many moments when the fascination with villainy gives way to hunger (in the recipes) and astonishment at the narrator’s cleverness and way with words. Whether it be his description of how to make aioli, or the appearance on the plate of ‘a personal selection of boiled meats’ (to give one example) – ‘and an intelligent array of accompaniments ranged around like an edible honour guard (boiled eggs, asparagus spears, broccoli florets, peeled fava beans ...) (179). Has the phrase 'an edible honour guard' ever before appeared in the history of literature? The novel is full of inventiveness at the sentence level.
John Lancaster’s style and his heady villainy has been compared to Nabokov, though I also thought of John Fowles’ The Collector, and William Golding’s The Paper Men. The lesson might be in the powerful use of first person narration. If you are going to write a story, think of Macbeth's pragmatic self-appraisal. Once you introduce a flawed character, an unreliable, or devious one, do not stop at something insipid, however lifelike. As Macbeth explains:
‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ There is some good writing advice here. Write nothing half-baked; and when preparing a verbal feast, best to go the whole hog. That's how to play to your audience, and pay back the debt to pleasure you have incurred in borrowing the reader's good time.