Slapping the Clammy Flab

John Lanchester

  • Hannibal by Thomas Harris
    Heinemann, 496 pp, £16.99, June 1999, ISBN 0 434 00940 7

The first time we – that’s we the reading public – met Dr Hannibal Lecter, he was lying on his cot in his cell at the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane with a copy of Alexandre Dumas’s Grand dictionnaire de cuisine open on his chest. Lecter was incarcerated for having murdered nine people ‘that we know about’, and having crippled two others, one of whom (of whom more later) was permanently attached to a respirator in Baltimore. Dr Lecter was being visited by Will Graham, a Special Investigator attached to the FBI, in pursuit of a man who had murdered two families. When Graham arrives at Lecter’s cell, the good doctor wakes up: ‘Dr Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light redly in tiny points.’ Brrrrr. Is it chilly in here, or is it me?

All this happens in Red Dragon, Thomas Harris’s second novel, his first being the, in retrospect, remarkably undistinguished all-Palestinians-are-terrorists thriller Black Sunday. Red Dragon’s back story, as these things are called in Hollywood, is that Graham is the man who caught Dr Lecter, thanks to his special ability to enter the imaginative world of serial killers. (One period touch is that in those days – Red Dragon was published in 1981 – murderers of this type were still known as ‘psychopaths’.) Graham had gone to see Lecter because the doctor had attended to one of the subsequent victims when he was working in ER: the man in question had fallen out of a tree while bow-hunting and stuck an arrow through his leg. Graham wanted to ask if Lecter remembered anything about this old wound. While talking to him, Graham became convinced that Lecter was the killer for whom they were looking; Lecter realised; and almost succeeded in eviscerating the FBI man with a linoleum knife before being arrested. The thing which made Graham rumble Lecter was a book on his shelves containing a Wound Man diagram – an illustration in old medical textbooks showing a man suffering from all the wounds likely to be inflicted during hand-to-hand combat. Lecter’s victim – the deer hunter with the old arrow wound – had been laid out in a similar posture.

In Red Dragon, things naturally go wrong for Will Graham. He does catch the bad guy, one Francis Dolarhyde, who turns out to be the employee of a film-processing company: Graham twigs that he had developed film of both the families he had attacked. (Dolarhyde suffered from a cleft palate as a child; Harris is heroically un-PC about giving his baddies physical deformities.) Lecter manages to convey Graham’s address to Dolarhyde, who then sets out to kill Graham’s family, but is himself killed while trying to do so – though not before getting a knife to Graham, so that when The Silence of the Lambs arrived in 1989, we were told that ‘Will’s face looks like goddam Picasso drew it.’

By The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s place of incarceration has become the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. His visitor this time is 25-year-old Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee with a double major in psychology and criminology from the University of Virginia. (This, incidentally, is one of Harris’s rare factual mistakes: the University of Virginia doesn’t offer a criminology major.) She has been sent ostensibly to solicit Lecter’s contribution to a psychology questionnaire; in fact, and unbeknownst to her, to provoke Lecter into giving information about a serial killer, currently on the loose, who has skinned his five female victims, and acquired the unlovely nickname of Buffalo Bill. (The name is from the eponymous poem by e.e. cummings: ‘how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death’. ) On the walls of the cell are Lecter’s drawings; one over the sink shows the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, seen from the Belvedere. Lecter is lying on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. ‘Dr Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in tiny points of red.’

Those maroon eyes might seem like a deliberately anti-realistic detail – and in one sense they are. The first two Lecter novels are a carefully balanced mixture of realism and fantasy, in which Harris takes pains to get all the details right, the better to show off the florid Grand Guignol of his great invention, Hannibal the Cannibal. An analogy might be with Hergé’s cartoons, in which the elaborate accuracy of the backgrounds are in a strange harmony with the heavy stylisation of the principal figures. When Harris says that the formula C33H36N4O6 stands for the chemical bilirubin, and that it is the principal colouring agent in human excrement, we know it’s true. When he says that Dr Lecter’s thoughts ‘were no more bound by fear or kindness than Milton’s were by physics’, we know that’s true, too. (What a sentence: ‘His thoughts were no more bound by fear or kindness than Milton’s were by physics.’) These fictions are not realistic but they are plausible. That is a shorthand way of saying that they satisfy the expectations they generate, and don’t violate their own internal logic – a phenomenon which is as hard to describe as demonstrate but simple to perceive.

The books are also satisfyingly multiple in their layering. It is a well known truth that it is impossible to write popular fiction ironically: that’s to say, without believing it, and without resisting the temptation to grimace at one’s peers over the shoulders of naive readers. Harris doesn’t try to do that but he does give his novels a density of allusion and a subtle interlacing which means they can be read in more than one way. An excellent website at the comp lit department of Rutgers draws attention to some of the clevernesses in The Silence of the Lambs, none of which you’d notice unless you were looking very hard. Thus: Lecter’s ninth victim, whom he discusses with Starling, was a flautist called Benjamin Raspail. This is a pun on ‘derasping’, the process by which grapes are skinned, in order to make the Italian red wine Amarone. (A ‘big Amarone’ is the wine Lecter tells Clarice he drank when he ate the liver of a census-taker who tried to ‘quantify’ him. In the movie this wine was dumbed down to being ‘a nice Chianti’, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have anything like the necessary density of flavour.) Raspail himself is derasped, before being eaten by the board of the Baltimore Symphony; Buffalo Bill’s victims are also derasped – flayed. Raspail’s name is therefore one of a whole network of images of flaying which is, in the old sense, witty. Another example: when Starling finds the killer, he is living in Belvedere, Ohio. Remember the drawing in Lecter’s cell?

Back to those anti-realistic maroon eyes. They might seem whimsical – might indeed be whimsical – but their intellectual pedigree can’t be faulted, since they come from the work on criminal physiognomies of Alphonse Bertillon, founder of the dismal science of criminology. Bertillon also supplies the epigraph for Red Dragon: ‘One only sees that which one observes, and one observes only things which are in the mind.’ This is a heavy nudge about Lecter, the fictional monster who, we are to surmise, speaks to the monster in all of us, and whose name and nature owe more than a little to the introductory poem from Les Fleurs du Mal, ‘Au Lecteur’:

Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,
Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,

Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;

C’est l’Ennui! – l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!

Lecter is a projection of our desire to see monsters who echo the monstrousness within us. At one early point in Hannibal, Lecter, ‘connoisseur of facial cheeses’, is watching a crowd in Florence go around an exhibition called Atrocious Torture Instruments. ‘Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us. What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?’ One answer to that clunky question – which in itself reveals a degree of strain – is: Hannibal Lecter. He is attractive because we are repulsive; the more people like Lecter, the worse the news about human nature. The novels are designed to appeal to a mass audience whom they also despise. They draw their energy from a set of ambiguities which revolve around this. Harris is in the potentially uncomfortable position of a snob and misanthrope who has written a book of enormous mass appeal. It’s not that the books are about these difficulties, it’s that they are them; the surprising thing is not that Harris took 11 years to write Hannibal, but that he managed to do it at all.

Given all this, there is something oneiric, or uncanny, about the extent of Hannibal’s popular success. In the UK, the publishers having printed 175,000 hardbacks, a further 71,000 copies were sold on the day of publication in anticipation of the next printing. One Edinburgh bookshop had ordered 16 copies – not a negligible quantity for a hardback novel, under normal circumstances. On the morning of publication day they rang and ordered 100 more. On the afternoon of publication day they rang and ordered another 500. Hannibal went straight in at number one on the bestseller list, to no one’s surprise; what did attract comment was the fact that it outsold numbers two to fifty-one combined. A third layer of irony or weirdness has been added by the fact that Hannibal has already been supplanted at number one by the, it turns out, even more eagerly awaited new book about Harry Potter. Actually, Potter is eating Lecter alive and, at the time of writing, his adventures are at numbers one, two and three in the Amazon.co.uk bestseller list.

The first two books have, broadly speaking, the same plot, except that in Red Dragon Lecter only succeeded in making mischief from his cell, whereas in The Silence of the Lambs he manages to escape from it. Hannibal is of necessity a more open book, in both atmosphere and structure. It opens, seven years after the events described in The Silence of the Lambs, with Lecter still free, whereabouts unknown, and Clarice still in the FBI. Her career, however, has stalled, thanks to a combination of jealous colleagues and her own anti-talent for office politics. This is the first big change in the world of the new book: the FBI of the first two novels was, more or less, the usual idealised crime-busting machine of popular fiction. The FBI of Hannibal is the FBI of the Ruby Ridge massacre: a poisoned, dysfunctional institution, part of a Washington world of backbiting, infighting and incompetence. First sentence: ‘Clarice Starling’s Mustang boomed up the entrance ramp at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on Massachusetts Avenue, a headquarters rented from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in the interest of economy.’

The novel’s superb opening scene has Clarice taking part in a raid on a drug factory which goes horribly wrong. Someone leaks news about the raid to a television news station, which in turn tells the principal target of the raid, one Evelda Drumgo, presumably in order to secure better footage from their news helicopter. A shoot-out takes place in which Clarice’s friend John Brigham (who has, by the way, coached her to three successive interservice combat pistol championships) is killed, as is one of the two BATF agents who are anti-realistically called Burke and Hare. Clarice kills five baddies, including Evelda Drumgo herself, who happens to be carrying her baby in a sling. Footage of her shooting the baby-toting drug-dealer is all over the airwaves; she is ‘crucified’ by the tabloids, and suspended from duty. In her disgrace, she gets a letter of consolation from her old pal Dr Hannibal Lecter. It looks as if Clarice’s FBI career is over: but strings are pulled, and she finds herself assigned to Behavioral Sciences, the section of the Bureau that deals with serial killers, with the brief of trying to track down the doctor.

The person who pulls the wires to get Clarice her new job is Hannibal’s real bad guy. Mason Verger, whom we first heard of on a ventilator in Baltimore, is the last of Lecter’s surviving victims. He is the heir to the Verger slaughterhouse fortune (‘today the Vergers slaughter 86,000 cattle a day, and approximately 36,000 pigs, a number that varies slightly with the season’) and as such is immensely rich, immensely powerful and immensely cross. Verger is still on a ventilator, these days at Muskrat Farm, the family palace in Maryland. He lives in a darkened room whose only other occupant is a huge eel in a tank; he has no lips, no nose and only one eye (but no eyelids). He ‘was all teeth, like a creature of the deep, deep ocean’. All this thanks to Lecter, who gave him a cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs and encouraged him to feed his own face to his pet dogs. Verger has long black hair which usually sits curled up on top of his ventilator. His pleasures include tormenting children and drinking martinis flavoured with their tears. His plans for Lecter involve having him kidnapped and eaten alive by specially bred pigs.

This is the biggest change from the earlier books. There, Lecter was the worst creature in the world. Here, he isn’t. As we meet him in his new life, passing himself off as Dr Fell – with, of all things, a job, as curator of the Capponi archive in Florence, the earlier incumbent having mysteriously disappeared – we begin to see a Lecter who, while not exactly well-adjusted, is content with his medieval manuscripts, classical music concerts, and high-ceilinged rooms in the Palazzo Capponi, the latter so welcome ‘after his years of confinement’. Harris repeatedly calls Lecter a ‘monster’, but he doesn’t really seem all that much of one, not least because Harris goes to the trouble of giving him a childhood which explains his fixations. It turns out that Lecter ‘stamm’ aus Litauen’, his father a count, his mother a Visconti. (In a bizarre aside, we are told later that he is a cousin of the painter Balthus.) The parents were killed by retreating German soldiers; his sister, Mischa, was killed and eaten by Nazi troops who had previously done the same to a young deer – hence Dr Lecter’s anti-deer-hunter thing; hence also his cannibalism.

All this humanises Lecter. We find out about the primal scene in his psychological formation (the one in which Mischa is killed and eaten, and he then finds her teeth in the Germans’ ‘reeking stool-pit’) in the course of one of the book’s best set-pieces. Lecter is flying back to North America, having narrowly escaped capture in Florence at the hands of Verger’s henchmen. He is flying in tourist class, disguised as a member of Old World Fantasy, a Canadian tour party which has just visited 11 European countries in 17 days. ‘Shoulder room is 20 inches. Hip room between arm rests is 20 inches. This is two inches more space than a slave had on the Middle Passage.’ He can put up with the small children on either side of him, one of whom is playing a beeping computer game; he can put up with ‘rebreathing the farts and exhalations of others in economically reprocessed air’; but he cannot put up with airline food. Dr Lecter has equipped himself with pâté de foie gras and Anatolian figs, and a half-bottle of ‘a St Estèphe he favours’, in a box from Fauchon in Paris. He waits until most of the passengers are asleep, and then opens his treat: ‘the silk bow yields with a whisper.’ But the small boy beside him wakes up and demands a share of the pâté (unluckily for Lecter, his favourite food is liverwurst); the child’s mother prods the Fauchon bread with the finger she has been using to investigate her baby’s diaper; the stewardess comes and confiscates the wine. Then Lecter drifts into reverie, and wakes in terror from his memories of Mischa’s death. ‘In the world of the airplane comes a short scream from his sweating face, thin and high, piercing.’

This is a different Lecter from that of the previous novels, the monster who knew no more of fear and kindness etc. It’s as if this book belongs to a different genre; Stephen King, in a rave review for the New York Times, argued that the novel was pure and simply a work of Horror. That might be true, but the trouble is that the novel’s greatest horror, which comes at its ending, is also its chief implausibility. Clarice and Lecter rescue each other from Mason Verger and his killer pigs. Lecter kidnaps Paul Krendler, Clarice’s chief enemy at the FBI, saws the top of his head off, and feeds his brains to an eager Clarice as part of an elaborate dinner. (Amuse-gueule of Belon oyster and sausage; first course, sautéed brains with beurre-noisette and truffle; main course, quails stuffed with foie gras; dessert, soufflé and Château d’Yquem.) I hope it goes without saying that Krendler is still alive while his brains are cooked and eaten.

Lecter has used drugs and hypnosis on Clarice, and the extent to which she is aware of herself, and what’s she’s doing, is made deliberately vague. Even so, the moral algebra of Hannibal, which has hitherto been careful, is suddenly and spectacularly abandoned, and the novel ends with the happy couple – that’s Clarice and Lecter – living together in South America three years later. There is a sense of discontinuity not only with the earlier books but also within the novel itself. In case you’re wondering: ‘Their relationship has a great deal to do with the penetration of Clarice Starling, which she avidly welcomes and encourages. It has much to do with the envelopment of Hannibal Lecter, far beyond the bounds of his experience … Sex is a splendid structure they add to every day.’ If this is an attempt to slap the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention, it works, but at too high an aesthetic price. It is harder than that to outwit the monster Ennui.