In retrospect, Thomas Harris fans probably had it coming. Harris’ imaginatively grotesque and palpably plausible serial-thriller scenarios may be overwritten in spots but are seldom expedient. But that name—Hannibal—always seemed too easy. After all, here’s an unusual, practically obsolete name, attached to a modern man who is also a cannibal—the dactyllic perfection of the title suggests that when Harris’ back is against the wall, he’ll lunge for the too-clever solution that’s closest to hand without a second thought. Hannibal the book finds Hannibal the complex and fascinating character being thrown to the wolves—here, vicious man-eating pigs, actually—of expediency.
The Louisiana-based author gave himself 11 leisurely years between publishing The Silence of the Lambs and being lured back into continuing the Hannibal Lecter franchise—a product not of the original novel but of the 1990 Academy Award-winning film—with a sequel. Harris didn’t spend those 11 years writing Hannibal; the assignment was an offer from Hollywood he couldn’t refuse—to release story ideas for a Silence sequel in the form of a novel, basically. The hardcover package is guaranteed to excite the book-buying public, and the deal for Harris not incidentally comes with a slight probability, around 100 percent, that his participation is a major portion of a movie tie-in extravaganza, executed with a class those crass profiteers at Lucasfilm never dreamed of.
What Harris has been doing this last decade or so, it seems, is making lists of the most elaborately gruesome scenarios imaginable, with a corollary omnibus of lurid, picturesque refinements to be sprinkled over torture and death scenes like capers on cervelles au beurre noisette. Harris’ serial killers have a tendency toward the fancy. Red Dragon’s Francis Dolarhyde, the harelipped photo-lab attendant with a William Blake mania and a nasty way with mirror shards, was a gaudily tormented concoction even for 1981, but Harris’ evocations of Dolarhyde’s pathetic mental state rang stunningly true—coming down the stairs one morning near the story’s climax, Dolarhyde is described as carrying his consciousness like a brimful cup—a neat description of the precious, poisoned contents of this artistic character’s mind. And though a shallow-rooted one, the legend of Hannibal Lecter is the epitome of a tired stereotype—the depraved boulevardier, an impeccably dressed bon vivant with a taste for the finest art, music, antiques, wines, and surroundings, who speaks most languages fluently and relaxes of an evening by pounding out a little Bach on a harpsichord—an extremely rare and valuable harpsichord, of course. It is no accident that a character this baroque would appreciate that period’s composers.
Now that the killer has freed himself from the institutions for the criminally insane to which the law relegated him, Lecter can be found, as promised at the end of Silence (the film), in Italy, indulging oh-so-judiciously in life’s finer things. Harris’ conception of Lecter as a virtual superman doesn’t leave much room for the drama of pursuit that pumped blood into his previous novels—the extraordinarily talented FBI profiler Will Graham and the green but resourceful country girl Clarice Starling were well matched with their adversaries, bringing all of their gifts and sheer will to bear on catching the maniacs. But with Lecter strolling freely through the streets of Florence, not hardly killing anyone, the pursuit has become more complex and much less interesting.
Outside of Washington, D.C., one of Lecter’s would-be victims plots to punish the monster personally. Although badly mutilated, Mason Verger, the scion of a Maryland meat empire, is putting all of his financial and collegial resources toward catching Lecter and bringing him to the spacious family farm to undergo a vengeful funhouse-mirror version of his own crimes against others. Meanwhile, in Washington, Starling’s colleagues are doing their best to destroy her career when Verger asks for her help in tracking down Lecter. But Verger is as monstrously insane as Lecter, if necessarily less refined in his tactics; he is using Starling’s obsessional interest in Lecter as well as the febrile ambitions of Florentine police investigator Rinaldo Pazzi to remove Lecter from official hands.
In this fictional context, Harris acknowledges that readers may be “calloused,” although he’s careful to distance himself from the question of calloused to what by limiting the perpetrators to “the lewd and the vulgar.” He builds an eject switch into his bile-producing narrative by way of avoiding direct culpability on that score: “It is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us.” If Harris believes this, what he is engaging in is a social experiment as damaging and cold-blooded as anything Hannibal Lecter could dream up; in fact, Verger uses similar soulless methods to manipulate inner-city Baltimore kids into weeping copious tears, the better to flavor his martinis with, my dear.
The salty cocktails are hardly even a footnote, with so much rococo grotesquerie on tap everywhere else: a huge, man-eating eel; huge, man eating-pigs; man-eating dogs; a smelly man chewing a gristly stag’s tooth; a psychotic, baby-hungry lesbian bodybuilder; an elaborate murder staged to mimic the elaborate murder of the victim’s famous forebear; rape kits; restraining masks; duct tape; incest; funeral suits; exhumation; child molestation; heads in collection plates; rednecks field-dressed like deer. No, not just field-dressed like deer, but with the lungs pulled out through slits in the back and flattened to form the traditional ancient Norse “Bloody Eagle” pattern.
The most repulsive aspect of this endless, fetishistically imaginative parade of ick is in the telling; Harris’ mincing, precious style is an unhappy extrapolation of the measured lyricism of his two previous books. By Page 3, he’s prancing cutely, naming two cops Burke and Hare (after the notorious Victorian grave-robbing duo); later, he calls an FBI good guy Noonan, in a tip of the skull to the actor who played Dolarhyde in Manhunter, the Michael Mann film of Red Dragon.
This prose style makes the blood-stained curlicues especially awful; Harris can’t resist nailing each refinement into a gilded frame and placing it on the wall just so, where the light can hit it. Sometimes this means a clean, minimalist treatment, as when Verger tops his tale of torture and near-death at Lecter’s hands with “They got my nose back when they pumped the dogs’ stomachs at the animal shelter, but the graft didn’t take.” (Harris doesn’t bother writing Verger’s dialogue as it would sound, limited by the respirator’s rhythm and his lack of lips—too much trouble.) At other times, the best way to treat a juicy tidbit is to nap it in a rich sauce: “You ate it yourself,” Lecter taunts Verger in re the nose question, “for refreshment. From the crunchy sound when you chewed it up, I would say it had a consistency similar to that of a chicken gizzard….I was reminded of the sound in a bistro when a French person tucks into a gesier salad.”
If Harris has become Hannibal Lecter and the unlikely Mason Verger in one—a heartless scientist tinkering with the limits of human squeamishness—then his willing subject is the reader, personified by the vulnerable yet feisty Special Agent Clarice Starling. It is no longer news that Starling is in for an astonishing transformation at Hannibal’s close—the book has been out for three weeks now—but the nature of this transformation is unsettlingly transparent. Naturally, the audience roots for the innocent, in fact noble, Starling as her male colleagues trump up scandals in her name, but Harris won’t let up until she becomes mindlessly complicit in her own debasement. Clarice’s humiliation—and worse, her abandonment of the principle that makes her who she is—can be viewed as a fictional metaphor for the literal willingness of audiences to identify not with the good guy but with the villain, to accept whatever atrocities they’re fed, and to consume voraciously the most contemptuous version of themselves by way of being in on the joke.
Harris seems to have given up on his traditional tactic—pitting good and evil against one another in order to explore the textures of gray in between. He’s proposed a godless, goodless universe so that his characters can act in ways that are otherwise psychologically unconvincing. But it’s a serious matter that the very accomplished author of taut, literate thrillers is so restless with questions of morality, even absent any god. If this strange, overcooked, uncompelling exercise in dread and gore is any explanation, then Harris won’t rest until they all—the author, his characters, his audience, and all their pigs, dogs and eels—admit that they are creatures of immanent evil. That may be true enough to be arguable, but it doesn’t make for great storytelling. CP