Thursday, January 28, 2010

Debt to Pleasure, by John Lanchester

This book was suggested to me by a friend, and something that she said when she described it has stuck in my mind: she said it's a great book to recommend.  Everybody she gives it to likes it.  It's very smart, very fun, very easy to read - people who read Debt to Pleasure will think, "Ah, my friend is good at recommending books."

The critics do not stint with their praise: they call it dazzling, a tour de force, seductive, diverting, gorgeous, elegant, fun, flawless.  If you read between the lines of all this praise, the book's central problem becomes apparent: for all its many, many virtues it's not transformative.  It won't change literature, and it won't change your outlook on life.  And the thing is, Debt to Pleasure is such a good book that it's really a shame it isn't a great book.  Or maybe I should say: it's great, but it's not Great.

The blurb from The New Yorker on the back cover of the book reads: "Lanchester has written a novel masquerading as an essay masquerading as a cookbook, and it somehow manages to combine the virtues of all three."  The best thing about this summary is that it hints at how marvelous Debt to Pleasure is without giving away any spoilers.  Debt to Pleasure has a doozy of a twist at the end - the kind of twist that, once you've read it, makes it kind of hard to talk about the plot without giving something away.

It really is ridiculously clever.  I know when I first picked it up, I double checked two or three times to make sure I was reading a novel, not a memoir, and when I gave it to my mom (she loved it, of course) she asked me, about halfway through, if she was reading an autobiography.  The narrator's voice is that convincing.

I would happily buy a few dozen copies of Debt to Pleasure and hand them out to all my friends, but it's not a book that means something to me.  I heartily recommend it.  You will love it.  You will probably find yourself recommending it to others.  In that sense, Debt to Pleasure is kind of like a communicable disease.

But I wonder what I'll think about it five years from now, or if I'll think of it at all.  And I say that honestly: I wonder.  Apparently when Tristram Shandy was first published a lot of people thought it was too silly to stand the test of time.  It's true that Tristram Shandy is silly, but it's still being read, what, 250 years after its initial date of publication?  And for good reason.  So who knows.


Lily said...

I liked it too!

Jennifer said...

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