"The Epicure's Lament" is the result of an ambition so quixotic that you may get quite a few pages into Kate Christensen's new novel before you decide to sign on for the duration. The literary mode Christensen aspires to isn't new -- its current practitioners include everyone from Martin Amis to David Gates, and its venerable roots lie in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is the granddaddy of a legion of unreliable first-person narrators, characters with voices so strong and attitudes so egregious that reading about them becomes a long, tricky balancing act between the reflexive sympathy we feel for whoever tells us a story and our suspicion that we're dealing with a rather bad man.
These characters are almost always men, and almost always articulate and witty to the point of prodigiousness; that extra measure of charm adds to the scanty load on the positive side of the scale. Their authors are almost always men, too, and keeping the two separate is a delicate operation, perhaps even unwarranted. How much of Martin Amis is in nasty John Self of "Money," and just how much did Nabokov like prepubescent girls? For some readers, it doesn't matter particularly. To them, the equation is simple: hate the narrator, hate the author.
Hugo Whittier, the misanthropic, chain-smoking, viper-tongued, conniving narrator of "The Epicure's Lament," is a man, but his creator is a woman. And while the gender of an author ought not to determine overmuch the response to his or her books, in this case, it makes Christensen's third novel come off -- initially at least -- as something of a stunt. The attraction of this breed of objectionable yet engaging character is that he dares to tell us the truth: all the harsh, unpalatable things that everybody supposedly thinks and feels and most of us are too timid or politic to express. The excitement in reading this (for those who find it exciting) is partly the whooshing release of the repressed and partly the thrill of transgression. It feels both wicked and daringly honest.
But since Christensen isn't a man, the ample view we get of the seamy side of Hugo Whittier (and that's almost the only side he's got) can't pretend to offer a candid window into the masculine mind. (Not, at least, the way the new "dicklit" novel "Love Monkey," by Kyle Smith, to name one example, professes to.) Maybe Christensen gets Hugo just right -- with women, in particular, he's chronically lecherous, manipulative and condescending -- but only a man could testify to the accuracy of that. With female readers, Hugo must get by on personality alone, and by some minor miracle, Christensen pulls it off.
The premise of "The Epicure's Lament" is simple enough. It starts with Hugo quietly moldering away in his family's equally moldering ancestral manse beside the Hudson River. He is alone, but not for long. One relative after another descends on Waverly, the big house built by his über-WASP family 200 years ago: first his older brother, whose marriage is coming apart, then Hugo's estranged wife, Sonia, and Bellatrix, the 10-year-old girl he refers to as "our fearsome spawn" when not insisting that the child isn't his. Then "my fag uncle Tommy," carting steamer trunks "filled, no doubt, with crimson cravats, vintage maracas and marabou mules," and a parade of hangers-on, including nieces, sisters-in-law, best friends and even, at one point, a surly hit man. The ensuing farcical proceedings serve to torture Hugo, who wants only "to detach myself from all of human interaction" -- that is, beyond plotting the occasional seduction of an au pair girl or underage convenience-store cashier.
Though only 40, Hugo suffers from a rare, painful and potentially fatal disease that can be controlled if he stops smoking, but he won't. The collection of journals he keeps over the course of four months amounts to a protracted "suicide note." Though his powers are meant to be fading, the secret of the appeal Hugo exerts lies, as with most such characters, in his energy and ingenuity. How can someone intent on departing this world describe it with so much brio, however caustic and effete? Hugo's insults are particularly spirited, whether he's calling Sonia "you rank piece of cheesecloth," or with more finesse, describing his sanctimonious brother sipping coffee "with an expression of innocent absorption, as if he were the protagonist of a novel about an intelligent, sensitive, handsome man beleaguered by the combined forces of fate, change, time, and the inferiority of everyone around him."
Even characters who are just passing through get the full treatment. A Birkenstock-clad Waldorf school teacher has "a didactically eager smile that hinted at black, simmering, repressed puritanical anger somewhere not too far below the surface" and a boardinghouse proprietor "looks like a former stripper who invested her minor-league savings in an SRO and is living out her days renting single rooms to the kind of men who used to shove dollar bills into her sweaty cleavage." This is life talking, not a death wish. However much Hugo hates humanity, he can't stop speculating about it, so when the expected (slight, very slight) softening in his antipathy occurs late in the novel, it's not so implausible. "The Epicure's Lament" becomes funnier the more Hugo begins to engage with the people he purports to loathe, and the more it becomes clear he's not quite ready to leave yet. Why an author would set herself the formidable task of creating such a creature -- and then convincing us to like him -- is a bit puzzling, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?