“Political language,” George Orwell said, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” He might have added that literary language is often used for the same purpose. The verbally prodigious English writer John Lanchester is a case in point. His characters, Lanchester has said, are people “who can’t quite bring themselves to tell the truth about their own lives.” This is putting it mildly. Tarquin Winot, the gastronome-sociopath narrator of Lanchester’s very funny debut, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), will stop at nothing to prove that he and not his older brother, a world-famous conceptual artist, is the true genius in the family. The novel, whose principal debt is to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, is written in the form of a food memoir, but the cracks in Winot’s psyche soon become visible beneath the surface of his opulent culinary sentences:
Bear in mind that the practice of “deveining” prawns—breaking open their backs with a surgical forefinger or a knife, and stripping out the dark thread of the alimentary canal—is necessary only in the tropical climates where food “goes off” quickly (like people, or like a linen suit on a muggy afternoon), though there it is very necessary indeed, unless it is your specific intention to poison somebody.
Winot follows Thomas De Quincey in considering murder as one of the fine arts—in fact, he goes beyond mere consideration—and you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Reality-denial, and the mental and verbal habits to which it gives rise, are also prominent in Lanchester’s second novel, Mr. Phillips (2000), the story of a day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who’s just been fired but has yet to tell his family. The Monday morning after the Friday he gets canned, Mr. Phillips (as Lanchester refers to him, with a kind of fond estrangement, throughout) sets off from his South London home dressed in his work clothes and carrying his briefcase. He has nowhere to go but much to evade (not just his redundancy but a dormant marriage, a pair of baffling, distant sons, and a deep archive of stalled ambitions), and so the novel, like Ulysses, whose influence it unanxiously welcomes, becomes a map of its protagonist’s mental landscape as well as of the actual cityscape he traverses.
A compulsive doer of sums who as a trainee accountant fell in love with the double-entry bookkeeping system (“It seemed suddenly a whole new language in which to describe the world; or rather it suddenly seemed as if the world was describable in a new and better way”), Mr. Phillips fends off his disappointments by calculating the assets and liabilities of everything from a metropolitan park to his favorite football team. Lanchester wrings plenty of comedy and pathos from this preoccupation, but he never makes it seem small-minded or materialistic. He…
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