March 2004

Jessa Crispin

fiction

The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen

In her new book The Epicure's Lament, Kate Christensen has created quite the anti-hero. Not only will he not go out of his way for anyone else, he can't even be bothered to save his own life. Hugo Whittier is dying from Buerger's Disease, an autoimmune reaction to cigarette smoking that slowly and painfully cuts off the blood supply to the body's extremities. Buerger's results in gangrene and progressive amputation, eventually causing the patient's death. Quitting smoking is the only treatment, and it is an effective one. But Hugo refuses to quit. "A life without cigarettes is no life at all," he declares.

After all, he doesn't have much to live for. He is living off of his parents' estate with no job and no ties to other humans. His wife and daughter (whom he has reason to believe is not his daughter at all) live in New York City with no contact at all. He loathes his brother, almost the only family he has left, and his only companionship has been "women lured here every now and again for sexual purposes." He has grand plans to die alone, in his parents' house that he once ran away from, smoking and eating and fucking. And writing. His slow decline has forced him to examine his life, and he is compelled to write.

He tells no one of his condition, but fate brings his family back to this old house. His brother Dennis and his wife split, and as Dennis inherited one quarter of the house, he moves back in. His wife Sonia decides his alleged daughter Bellatrix should know her father, and they return. Even a long lost uncle, who owns the other half of the house, would like to return.

Christensen is evidently a risk taker. She adds two aspects to the book, either of which could destroy the entire novel. The first, the absence of likeable characters, she handles very well. Hugo, whose mind we travel in for the entire book, is a dick. He preys on younger women, including his brother's nanny. He refers to his uncle as Gay Uncle Tommy and assumes that since he's sick, he must be dying of AIDS. He imagines killing his brother for not lining up the knives correctly in the drawer. And yet Hugo is a fine creation and always fun to read. The other characters are not much better, either. Dennis prank calls his wife several times a day and has no consideration for the brother whose house he took over. Bellatrix is not very smart, dumpy, and dull. Bun, a family friend, is a pedophile. Dennis's wife immediately starts sleeping with other men after her husband's departure. Perhaps Christensen goes too far in her depiction of Sonia, however. While at least Hugo is witty, Sonia has no redeemable qualities. She cheated on her husband, lied (a word really not strong enough to describe how she betrayed Hugo) to him when they first met, says nothing that is not annoying or stupid, snoops through the house, descends on Hugo even after he told her to stay away. And to top it all off, the sex scenes between Hugo and Sonia are written in such a way that the reader is supposed to dislike Sonia because she likes rough sex. A little more subtlety would have been nice, as she is one of the main characters.

Christensen also stumbles a bit on her second risk, as she uses a well worn cliché to bring the story to its climax. It's the adorable child that melts (albeit just a tiny bit) Hugo's icy heart. As soon as Bellatrix and Hugo begin talking to one another, it's obvious what is going to happen with the rest of the book. It's a cliché used in every book and every movie with a curmudgeon as the main character. Underneath that heart of ice is a heart of gold! They only needed a child to show them what purity and love is. While this is not handled as obviously as it usually is, it is still there, and it still gives away the ending. Because how could a man who now has a family and a daughter who made him feel for the first time die alone?

Too many authors assume the reader will have to like the character to want to spend time with the book. But when you have a character who spouts off lines like, "Sonia has evidently made a pact with Satan concerning some rudimentary soul she may have once possessed and given up in exchange for eternal youth long before I ever met her. Or maybe she's just preserved in her own brine, like a sardine," will always be fun to spend time with. Who needs a heart of gold when you have such delightful bile?

The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen
Doubleday
ISBN: 0767910303
368 Pages