The Epicure's Lament
by Kate Christensen
Published by Doubleday
368 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Edward Champion
"I can't stomach it when I sense that an artist knows how a work will end from the outset," says a character near the end of The Epicure's Lament, "whether it be a novel, a movie, a piece of music, or a painting. I require a sense of mystery, discovery, and surprise; by which I mean to say, the artist himself -- or herself, of course --"
Kate Christensen does not outline her novels. She prefers allowing an outside character, a self-destructive one, to determine the narrative flow. In the case of Hugo Whittier, the protagonist of her third novel, part of the mystery is trying to figure out his motivations. It's enough to keep this threadbare tale flying.
Hugo's a man who, quite literally, insists he's an island. He's holed up, jobless, without plans, and living off the family fortune, in a mansion (called Waverley) overlooking the Hudson River, with Montaigne and MFK Fisher for company. The mansion, much like Hugo himself, is crumbling and badly in need of repair, crammed with gramophones, books and assorted bric-a-brac. Early on, his older brother, fleeing a fractious marriage, knocks on the door and moves in, one of many unexpected characters to drift up the river from Hugo's past.
Hugo is also dying of Buerger's disease, the same affliction which ate away Fisher's husband as she wrote Consider the Oyster. Like Mr. Fisher, Hugo refuses to quit smoking, the one thing that will stop the disease. But unlike Fisher, save in his solipsistic determination to kill himself, Hugo is a consummate jerk. He's brutal and casual about his pernicious philandering ("I suppose I broke some hearts"). He's completely selfish when other people need to spill their stories ("I do not care," he says repeatedly). He could care less about the outside world ("I prefer to have breakfast unmolested by the news of unstoppable catastrophe"). He hits on an au pair half his age, draping her panties across his head and thinks nothing about terrorizing her personal space. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he's very afraid. He's intimidated by sleeping with a woman who might be smarter than him, let alone fessing fatherhood to his daughter.
The novel encompasses four of Hugo's notebooks, all written with a curious antediluvian quality. The prose is filled, indeed oddly enriched, with dilettantish adverbs. Almost in spite of Strunk and White, bizarre modifiers like "seedily empty," "beatifically closed" and "gothically deformed" permeate the text. There are fey phrasings of personal pronouns, both on paper and in conversation ("brother mine," "I as provocateur"). Much like his French namesake, Hugo seems determined to chart down everything, whether it's ridiculous speculations about the clerk he buys his cigarettes from or his pathetic solitary activities in a motel room. But despite his hypergraphia, Hugo's hardly the emotional epicure he thinks he is. He reveals his feelings in vivid abstracts ("I wanted to leap in the air with something like joy"). It's no surprise when Hugo is revealed as a failed writer.
Christensen sustains Hugo on page through fascinating duplicities. He's a high school dropout, yet he spends his spare time translating Montaigne essays (to what degree of success, we cannot say). Hugo is a gastronome, but that doesn't stop him from gorging on diner waffles. One minute, he's complaining about certain entries in The Dictionary of Difficult Words. Pages later, he's using them. And there remains the dubious idea that a relentless chain smoker would be able to taste his food properly.
One wonders why so many people put up with Hugo, and it is with this implied perspective that Christensen succeeds. We are led to believe that Hugo is unpardonable, but his wife recalls him as a man who once brought fresh strawberries to their bed. Hugo has an early history as a gigolo. His relationship with his mother, in which he was forced to hand wash her underwear, was hardly salubrious. When a supporting character is revealed as a potential pederast, Christensen takes the opportunity to expose Hugo's paranoia and false assumptions about others, but also a solicitude hinting at the man that Hugo was. In fact, despite his selfishness, Hugo may still be this man -- at least, in part. Considering that Hugo is determined to kill himself, it's very likely he's not telling us the whole story. As he confesses, "How irritating memory is."
If Hugo's character sustains the promised surprise, the plotting, particularly late in the novel, disappoints. A hit man shows up late in the story, but his bluster and motivations are so onion-papered that he may as well be a Sopranos reject. There are clumsy efforts to tie the tale into post-September 11 consciousness, but this is, to put it kindly, not where the story resides. A Christmas dinner denouement, assembling dramatis personae around Waverley, is as anticlimactic as the fifth act of Cymbeline.
But The Epicure's Lament is still something of a juicy triumph, laced with laughs and behavioral tics which supersede its loose structural trappings. Christensen may be writing on impulse, but impulse isn't always as consistently witty as this. | May 2004
Edward Champion is a writer in San Francisco. His satirical riffs on books can be experienced at his blog, Return of the Reluctant. He is currently prepping his play, "Wrestling an Alligator," for the San Francisco Fringe Festival.