Off his feed

Thomas Harris' undigestible mixture of black comedy and sublime horror causes one fan to lose his appetite


David Bowman
June 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Alarmists have warned the reading public that Thomas Harris' much-anticipated sequel to "Silence of the Lambs" is over the top. Come on. Could the continuing saga of an American cannibal be anything but extreme? The problem with "Hannibal" is that it doesn't go far enough over the top.

By now, most pop culture fans have heard about the big dinner scene in Harris' new bestseller, a scene in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter introduces a novice cannibal to the delight of eating one's enemy's brain. Forget what Sicilians say about revenge being a dish best served cold; the brains in question are not only served hot, but the victim himself is fully conscious as his thoughts are literally dished out as an appetizer. Now of course this scene is: Horrifying! Absurd! Food for thought! Potentially it is also a scenario worthy of our best writers. It could be used as a metaphor for the triumph of 21st century consumer culture over the human spirit. The victim could spout Robert Stone-ish biblical proclamations: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness." But Harris doesn't aim higher in his big brain-eating scene than second-rate Grand Guignol. Lecter's victim says the same petty things he did when his skull was intact, then starts singing "Would You Like to Swing on a Star" -- which is just Harris borrowing from Stanley Kubrick's "2001," in which (my namesake) David Bowman pulls Hal's brain apart while the computer sings "A Bicycle Built for Two." Kubrick's scene has pathos and is art. Harris' scene is pure sadism if you're a vegetarian and perhaps, if you're a meat eater, merely practical: Lecter suggests that a little sorbet is perfect follow-up to a bowl of brains.

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If most of the horror scenes in "Hannibal" are as deep as the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," too much of plot is burdened with the job problems of Lecter's co-star, Clarice Starling. She, as we all know, is the tough cookie FBI agent we first met in "Silence of the Lambs." The woman is now 32; she "always looked her age and she always made that age look good, even in fatigues." Our G-woman functions as the female equivalent of Martin Cruz Smith's no-nonsense and resourceful Russian detective Arkady Renko. Which would be fine, if our spunky heroine's biggest challenge was avoiding being screwed over professionally by a sexist FBI agent who resents her early rise up the crime-stopper ladder. Now, women of America, surely you will agree with what I'm about to say: This conflict could fuel a simple police procedural, but in a novel purporting to address the morality of eating human flesh, it's hard to get too riled up over everyday sexism.

I don't want to wreck the pleasure of reading Stephen King's forthcoming New York Times Book Review rave over "Hannibal" by revealing too much about it, except to say that King compares a humorous chapter, in which Dr. Lecter is stuck on a flight full of farting tourists, with a scene in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" where the vampire stands on a wharf wearing a "foppish" hat to protect himself from the sun. This is an astute comparison that makes me appreciate King's review of "Hannibal" more than I do "Hannibal" itself. This novel wrestles with itself over whether it wants to be sublime horror along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" or a very black comedy like "Sweeney Todd." A comic novel about an American cannibal would be interesting, but "Hannibal" isn't funny enough to be that. The airline scene begins as mild comedy, suggesting that Lecter the fartless is justified in preying on a repulsively flatulent human race. But then the chapter fizzles out as Lecter reflects on his childhood.

That's right: Our cannibal had a difficult childhood. The good doctor's taste for flesh is a result of little Hannibal seeing his sister taken away to be eaten by starving Slavic refugees at the end of World War II. And while in some scenes Harris tries to imply that Lecter is the incarnation of mighty Satan, he diminishes Lecter as a character -- or at least as a villain -- by reducing his motives to mere psychology.

Harris then tries to further glorify this maladjusted cannibal by portraying him as the only saintly psychopath on earth. This is the narrative strategy that made "Silence of the Lambs" a perverse masterpiece of demented empathy: We loved Dr. Lecter because he was a cultured cannibal who ate only the guilty. (In comparison, the pathetic Buffalo Bill skinned the innocent and wore their flesh like designer clothes.) Dr. Lecter's foil in "Hannibal" is Mason Verger, a millionaire whose face was eaten off some years back by a pack of dogs urged on by Lecter. Verger now lies in bed, faceless and paralyzed, communing with his pet eel while waiting for his gang of international thugs to capture Lecter so he can feed the doctor to a herd of carnivorous pigs. (Verger also enjoys torturing disadvantaged African-American youths.)

But what really makes Verger bottom-line evil is that he doesn't purchase upscale designer goods like Lecter does. Verger doesn't drive a Jaguar like the good doctor. Verger doesn't drink Chateau d'Yquem. Verger's tin ear couldn't tell Mozart from Merle Haggard. In one chapter devoted entirely to a cannibalistic shopping spree, Dr. Lecter buys a picnic hamper at Hammacher Schlemmer, strolls to Tiffany's to buy Gien French china, and then goes on to a medical supply company to purchase "a nearly brand-new Stryker autopsy saw, which strapped down neatly in his picnic hamper where the thermos used to go." Welcome to Lifestyles of the Rich and Sociopathic.

This is another chapter from "Hannibal" that almost works as comedy. In fact, I'm tempted to say that Harris should have pulled out all the stops and written a farce if it weren't for an absolutely splendid 100-page lyrical novelette, near the beginning of the book. This section concerning Lecter's doings as he lies low in Florence, Italy, delivering insightful lectures on Dante to the most "renowned medieval and Renaissance scholars in the world at the Palazzo Vecchio." He calls himself Dr. Fell (a perfect moniker reminiscent of John Dickson Carr's locked-room detective, Dr. Gideon Fell). This is where Harris emphasizes Lecter as a possible manifestation of Satan -- even brute animals recognize his dark unholiness -- instead of focusing on the good doctor's superior buying habits. Lecter tours a city filled with Renaissance statues of victims suffering rape and murder as well as frescos featuring scenes of Biblical bloodthirstiness. We realize that one of the pinnacle eras of Western culture was drenched in pure violence. Dr. Lecter becomes a glorious, Miltonic Lucifer -- obsessed with an exhibit in the "Atrocious Torture Instruments show at Forte di Belvedere," where he gazes enraptured at a skeleton trapped in a "starvation cage." What a beautifully twisted thing for a cannibal to obsess on.

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And, alas, what a beautiful book "Hannibal" would have been had Harris just stayed in Florence. In 1997, The Daily Telegraph of London reported that Harris had holed up in Milan several years back, "to follow the trail of Pietro Pacciani -- 'the Monster of Florence' -- a farmer accused of being a serial killer." Apparently this research led to a Florentine back story in "Hannibal" concerning a psychopath who kills couples on lovers' lanes, then arranges floral displays over the bodies, exposing one of the women's breasts. But it seems there's only room for one ultracivilized psychopath in this book. Once our cannibal leaves Italy, the apparently unsolved crimes are never mentioned again.

The Florence section in "Hannibal" will insure that long after this summer is over, Harris' book will probably endure, much as the quirky pulp writings of H.P. Lovecraft have. But the summer isn't over, and someone must state the obvious: The last summer of the 20th century has begun with presentations of two of the three most anticipated narrative events in years. "The Phantom Menace" is more stupid than could be imagined. "Hannibal" is something of a stinker as well. If Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" also disappoints, we will all know that an artist can have all the money and time and talent in the world and still fail to present a great story. Imagine Anthony Hopkins whispering, "Chew on that."

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David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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