The Debt to Pleasure. John Lanchester.

Lanchester, John. The Debt to Pleasure. Picador, London. 1996. F;8/18.

I was impressed enough by Lanchester’s article in the July 23, 2018 New Yorker that I read two of his books (this one and I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay). I liked them both. In this one Lanchester puts on the frufru fictional wardrobe and style of his character Tarquin to beguile us into liking or at least being impressed by someone very nasty. John Banville in a review compares Tarquin to Humbert Humbert. Okay, maybe that’s a wee bit of a stretch.

The only hint of Lanchester’s interest in economics is figurative in the title. But he’s also interested in food and France, two of my favourite things, and this book is written partly as a mock cookbook with Tarquin diverting into recipes and history of cuisine at the drop of a hat as he travels from his home in England to another house he owns in Provence.

Tarquin, you see (no plot spoiler as you figure it out pretty quickly) is a serial killer. He’s public-school smart-boy coy in describing blowing up his parents, dropping a housekeeper with pockets full of stones into a river, sending an annoying uninvited visitor across the property of visually-impaired neighbours who are avid hunters, etc. There’s always an inquisition at which he artfully avoids suspicion.

Along the way as he pursues a young couple (she a former girlfriend of his whose new husband he poisons) I found a lot to like, at times in a striking peculiar way. How the French pay “respectful attention towards the solitary diner.” That we fear ghosts not because they are horrifying but because they are impossible, “so what would it mean if we saw one?”

Lanchester is dazzlingly detailed in simple description:

The patronne removed the filter from the espresso machine, whacked it on the rim of the waste bin to void the exhausted grounds, twice clipped the ratchet at the bottom of the coffee grinder, and then tamped a new supply of coffee down into the filter with a twist of the wrist and the broad back of a dessert spoon – the first time she had used her left hand in the process – before slotting the ensemble back into the parent device and jabbing the button that compelled the heated and pressurized water to force through the mulch into the cup which she now, nick-of-timeishly, cracked on to the drilled metal filter-cum-ledge below the mottled metal spigot of the espresso machine.

He breaks the fourth wall self-referentially as Tarquin describes an imaginary work of fiction:

…the appalled readers, unable to understand what was happening either to them or to the story, and also unable to stop reading, would watch the wholesale metastasization of the characters into one another, the collapse of the very idea of plot, of structure, of movement, of self, so that when they finally put the book down they were aware only of having been protagonists in a deep and violent dream whose sole purpose is their incurable unease.

I’m not sure why I couldn’t shake a sensation of awkwardness between Tarquin’s fine characteristics and his very bad one. Maybe the whole thing was too plummy for me. But I was taken enough to carry on to Lanchester’s fascinating nonfiction about the 2008 world financial crisis. 7.9/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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