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by Kate McDonnell

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The Debt to Pleasure is the first novel by John Lanchester, a literary type with foodie credentials, and it begins "This is not a conventional cookbook." This begins a clever exercise in keeping the reader off-balance, never quite sure what sort of text this is--memoir or confession, cookbook or mystery story.

Tarquin Winot, the verbose and digressively informative narrator, starts out with a chummy mixture of memoir and recipes. We're nearly in the world of Peter Mayle or M.F.K. Fisher, with food chat and remarks about cuisines and place and culture. At first it's only in glimpses that another character is revealed--a hint of malice, an aside with creepy implications--and the picture of a truly monstrous ego lurking inside the would-be cultured carapace comes, more and more quickly, into focus.

Any reader who likes baroquely self-revealing characters will revel in the artfulness of Tarquin's unappealing moments of revelation. Tarquin is like a richer, more worldly Ignatius Reilly, born to a classier couple but just as self-absorbed. Lanchester has a nice, tight control of his narrator's torrents of verbosity, and a good sense of comic pacing. This style isn't everyone's cup of tea, admittedly, but if you don't throw the book across the room in annoyance after the first three pages, if you allow yourself to be tickled by the excesses of the style, the story is assured and effective. Only in a few scattered places does the smoothness of the characterization lurch a little and, instead of murmuring a hint about the real nature of the narrator, gives you a bop on the head.

Tarquin, halfway through the book, speaking in parenthesis:

Perhaps all description is self-description, and every word we utter is merely a fragment toward an autobiography of our bodies, our consciousnesses, its full pattern discernible, like the desert lines at Nazca, only by an observer whose position and motive strain our imagination to envisage--UFO landing-pad guide marks? Colossal astronomical calendars? Keats: "A man's life of any worth is a continual allegory." Discuss.

Even though he achieves it by oblique means, Lanchester also manages to make this a foodie book, and at the same time deliver a good spoof of the plummy, aristocratic tones of the classic foodie writer with fetishes about France and a penchant for quoting Brillat-Savarin. Lanchester's art is in using this maneuver to, so to speak, cook us like lobsters who don't quite realize the water is gradually heating up to boiling point. Before we know it we've left the Gourmet Magazine zone and are slipping inexorably into something closer to an Edward Gorey story, and then, dropping all pretense at amusing morbidity, into something considerably nastier.

Not to launch spoilers. This isn't an arty book, but it's a novel of considerable artfulness. The absent sculptor Bartholomew is one of the best obliquely-described characters I've encountered, and I finally found out what an aioli is. You can't ask much more of a book which, at the end, proves to be something close to a thriller.

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