I read "The Debt to Pleasure" for the April selection of the online book club conducted by Cornflower on her book blog (link on sidebar). I was very frustrated at the beginning of the book. Reading it felt like climbing a difficult mountain peak. Instead of stopping for rest though, I had to keep stopping to look up new words and obscure phrases and to catch my breath after slogging through untranslated passages in French and paragraphs- or pages-long philosophical treatises (and I consider myself to have quite a large vocabulary and am quite literate).
However, I kept on trudging along, one foot in front of the other, because I knew my fellow book club members were climbing away too, and I wasn't going to let them reach the top without me.
Then, my feelings turned toward frustration at having to read about a dreadful little man whose book on culinary reflections is supposedly comparable to "Brillat-Savarin's masterpiece "The Physiology of Taste". For one who supposedly loves food, narrator Tarquin Winot provides some truly distasteful descriptions of foods, including cheese as "the corpse of milk", matelote with its "disturbingly phallic and alive seeming eel," and a dish of cottage pie "steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning."
In setting out to share his "gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophical lucubrations", British-born, France-residing Winot reveals himself to be an insufferable, elitist, effete snob. He's an egomaniac, a narcissist. He's mean, nasty, supercilious, delusional and jealous. I found him so loathsome that I nearly quit reading the book. But then I began to get a clue that Winot was more, way more, than an intolerably smug foodie. Whereas earlier in the book I had marked lyrical passages on diverse subjects, I was instead marking passages illustrating Winot's ever increasing, ever more disturbing, apparently aberrant behavior.
I admit, sometimes I am slow on the uptake. It may have taken me a bit longer than other readers to figure out that this was a parody, and even longer to discover that the author, John Lanchester, was pulling my leg.
SPOILER ALERT: DON'T READ BEYOND HERE IF YOU DON'T WANT THE PLOT REVEALED.
For, as anyone who makes it to the top of the mountain (which became easier and more fun to climb the closer I got to the summit) learns, Winot is a sociopathic murderer who has dispensed of his many victims by such various means as gas explosions, pushing them in front of trains and (fittingly for him) poisoned mushrooms. He spares neither friend, family member or foe.
Near the end of the book, Mr. Winot takes pains to point out that he has never once used the word "delicious" to describe any of the foods in his book. But I will certainly use the words delicious, delectable and savory for Lanchester's dark, clever send up.
To read what other book club readers had to say about "A Debt to Pleasure", read Cornflower's Book Blog on Saturday, April 24.