The World Is His Ashtray
The mistake one makes is to speak to people.
—Samuel Beckett, First Love
Literature is full of unreliable narrators—characters who render the world not as it actually is but merely as they see it. Rather than being mere mouthpieces for their authors, such strange, stubborn, often deluded narrators add a sense of humor and play to novels like Nabokov’s Pale Fire and William Kotzwinkle’s Fan Man. Or, as with Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, they can turn such obsessive self-delusion into pure tragedy.
Hugo Whittier, the “I” in Kate Christensen’s third novel, The Epicure’s Lament, is perhaps one of the least reliable narrators in recent memory. Living alone on his family estate on the Hudson River—called Waverly—and supported by a large trust fund, Hugo passes his days reading Montaigne in the original French, smoking incessantly, cooking highly elaborate meals, smoking even more, and drinking lots of whiskey. But what he really enjoys is a good cigarette: “The intricacies of smoking confer upon my inutile life a gravity and passion it would otherwise lack.” His is a happy existence: lonely, isolated, self-destructive, it protects Hugo’s delusion that he is somehow superior to all the people he refuses his company.
Hugo also suffers from Buerger’s Disease, a condition brought on and inflamed by his chain-smoking. The affliction “results when fatty deposits caused by bad health habits narrow the major arteries carrying blood to the legs and feet” and causes “numbness, tingling, and, recently, often severe pain. Tra-la!” Presenting himself as a true and stolid hero, Hugo defiantly refuses to sacrifice cigarettes or even take pain relievers. This is less out of stubbornness, he claims, than out of an acceptance—even an anticipation-of death.
His idyll at Waverly and gradual suicide are ruined by the arrival of his older brother, Dennis, a sculptor whose marriage is disintegrating. The first of many to invade Hugo’s life, Dennis is followed a gay uncle, a young au pair, Hugo’s estranged wife and her daughter, and a Jewish hitman, as well as a motley assortment of hangers-on and in-laws. Hugo responds by retreating into his own journals, which record his day-to-day interactions and form the novel itself. In other words, Hugo not only narrates The Epicure’s Lament, he essentially writes it.
In his journals Hugo paints a particularly ugly view of his family. He views any talk about Dennis’ impending divorce as evidence of his brother’s consuming narcissism, and he refers to his estranged wife as a “cold whore” and denies paternity of the daughter she claims is his. Making no secret of his homophobia, he constantly refers to his father’s brother as “Fag Uncle Tommy.”
While Hugo makes himself out to be incorrigibly misanthropic, he eventually confesses that he was not born a loner: “I am forced now to admit, if only to myself, that I became a solitary do-nothing by attrition—not by philosophical choice, as Montaigne did, but because I had reached the end of my tenure in work and life and had become old at the arguably young age of 35.” In other words, he has retreated into this existence and protects against lasting human connections by deploying a steady stream of vitriol to any person unlucky enough to be within earshot. To Christensen’s credit, she never dilutes his obnoxiousness to make him or the novel more palatable.
However, Hugo is not always the most insightful, original, humorous, or technically capable diarist. While he states that he intends to show these journals to no one (but he does hint that he leaves them out so that others will find them), his ideas are surprisingly half-developed and insupportable, and his prose is pretentious but rarely as clever as he intends. For example: “There’s nothing I dread and resent more first thing in the morning than the double-headed monstrous hydra of obligatory pleasantries,” he comments, landing a triple redundancy in one sentence.
Worse, The Epicure’s Lament is full of mind-numbing longueurs when Hugo holds forth unchecked on topics that are uninteresting, unrelated, or both. Typically he rants about some particular social custom, such as large dinner parties or exchanging Christmas presents, that holds no attraction to him, or he declaims at length about arcane culinary trivia (Roman cuisine is a particular favorite) or the legend of St. George and the dragon. Too often these lengthy asides tax the reader’s attention and patience rather than add to the character or story.
But an important question arises: Who is actually to blame for such flaws, the author or her unreliable narrator? Is Christensen aware of them as blemishes and did she intend them to reveal the hollowness of Hugo’s pretensions? Certainly the stumbling prose and hack ideas do undercut Hugo’s delusions of superiority and reinforce his fears of inadequacy. But his tedious ranting, while perhaps true to his blustery, self-aggrandizing nature, are nevertheless frustrating. If Christensen did indeed intend them to demonstrate her narrator’s unreliability, then the practical effect—tedium, frustration—outweighs whatever characterization derives from it.
On the other hand, Christensen earns the benefit of whatever doubts readers may have with a surprisingly sober and affecting finale that develops Hugo’s character without diminishing his ugly anger or correcting his unique view of the world. Instead, she presents him as profoundly compromised: divided between his attachment to his former epicurean self-destructiveness and his new connections to his family. By writing about their intrusions into his life, he attains a smidgen of self-awareness and redemption and unwittingly reveals the power of art to examine and shape our lives.