I walked Kat to work this morning at 5:30, as I did yesterday, because I don't suffer enough anymore (no sarcasm here! I'm bored with sleeping in because of my new job). It's also a nice way to make sure I 1) go for a walk and 2) have enough time in the day for all that gripping stuff I'm sure I do and just don't remember to tell anyone (or myself) about.

On my way home, I noticed a hilariously puffed-up tom turkey trying to get the attention of a group of less-than-impressed neighboring females who seemed intent only on not looking in his direction. Turkeys have a strange, brush-like thing on their chest that usually hangs limply down but, when they display, sticks out. I could look up the name to provide and pretend I knew it all along, but for now I'll just leave that embedded image where it is to help out with my less-than-scientific knowledge of turkey anatomy. I'll also point out that the first thing to occur to me about said brush-like protrusion of hair was "if Thomas Harris were writing this scene, he would have just described it as being like a penis dangling off the bird's chest".

Who is Thomas Harris and why would I make that sort of internal comment? Why am I asking rhetorical questions? I'm glad you asked! See, I needed a good lead-in to why I'm about to tear apart the author of one of the most iconic villains of recent years, Hannibal Lecter. (What do you mean, the 90s aren't recent anymore?)

Let's get this party started, and remember all opinions are my own and I wouldn't be bothering with writing this in the first place if it weren't for my strange, feverish love of the Lecter character.

Thomas Harris is the author of Silence of the Lambs and was the screenwriter for most of the movies based on his books, though naturally SotL is really the one that people recognise. For the record, Red Dragon was first and just barely features Hannibal, much like Silence. The, due to popular demand, came Hannibal, then Hannibal Rising (which I actually pity Harris for being practically blackmailed into writing by the man who owned the cinematic rights to Lecter's character, but the book is honestly so terrible I'm not even going to gloss much over it right now so I can instead focus on the main offender of this conversation).

Right, penises on birds' chests and how we got here. Well see, since I'm re-researching everything to do with Hannibal Lecter in order to apply as him to an RP (as a version as close to "canon" as possible), I finally got to the point where Wikipedia wasn't jogging my memory as much as just reading the freaking books would, so I decided I'd try to finish up Hannibal. I've now read three out of the four books to contain Lecter in any way, and while I'm no expert I would say I've gotten a good grasp of the way Harris writes, and believe me when I say that this man's penis fixation would make Sigmund Freud blush.

His writing is filled with Freudian psychology actually, and while the research done in the books to be able to get across Lecter's cultural background and intelligence is obvious (and credited at the end of each of the books) it feels somehow heavy-handed. Should I really be so painfully aware that the author had to research Italian language to write this scene, or that he probably had his nose in a French cuisine book while writing about Hannibal cooking? The only impressive uses of extensive, unexplained-jargon is in the police forces, where Harris is adept at giving out just enough information that you understand what he's talking about, while still making it intriguing and something exciting to follow along with. Clearly, the crime novels that Harris started out with are really where his heart is (though as the book waxes on further towards the infamous breast-sucking scene between Hannibal and Clarice, it's becoming more and more clear where other parts of Harris' anatomy probably are).

A lack of GLBT characters in a crime novel is not exactly something I would lament, especially from a straight male author. I understand that people write about what they know, and having a serial killer be queer is probably not the best "press" one could ask for, anyway.

In that same vein, I tried to overlook the character from Silence of the Lambs of the incredibly over-the-top "transexual" Buffalo Bill, especially since Harris has Lecter specifically state he is not a "real" trans person but a false one, simply wanting to shed his identity for something he can hate less. Okay. Less than tasteful but not willfully malicious, and I'm hardly one to call the Politically Correct Police on a book about two fucking serial killers (because really, guys?). But in Hannibal, we have a false lesbian, a huge butch woman who is the way she is because she was (did I mention this is going to have triggery material? Because it really is) raped by her brother when they were children. She is calculated and cold and uncultured, not completely unlike every other killer in the books that isn't Hannibal (who is the definition of "cultured"). Every character who finds out treats her as though she is diseased, and her romance with her "longterm partner" is treated like the punchline her body is. Oh right, did I mention that Harris seems to hate fat women? Because he does. If a character is large you can bet he's going to stress that their clothes are too small, that stairs creak when they walk on them, that the term "broad" is used at least twice in each scene they're in.

One might call it physiognomy (Charles Dickens is guilty of this on a huge scale in his novels, but clever readers might notice a very slight difference in the style and skill-level of the two authors), I call it Harris' own strange ideas about the world awkwardly befitted with an "artistic license" face so that less people might shrink back from it.

Something which seems weird to complain about is the emphasis Harris places on sexual deviancy in general. Mason Verger, the main villain in Hannibal (because it's not Lecter now, who has ascended to perhaps antihero) is a pedophile and pervert, and there's a jarring scene where he is recalling a book he loved in middle school science class because it was tall enough for him to masturbate behind. (I didn't realise boys usually did this above the level of their desks!) Artwork of Leda and the Swan are given as signifiers of a landlord's interest in beastiality, and Lecter keeps one of the pictures because there's, and I'm quoting this directly from the elegant Lecter's narration, "real heat in the fucking". Clarice is literally stated as having been attracted to Crawford in SotL because he reminds her of her father, and their relationship was doomed to never begin because she's moral enough to have an "incest taboo" despite only wanting men who are like her deceased father. In fact, every male she ever interacted with is assigned some trait of her father's to explain why she either enjoyed them or was repelled by them. Breasts are mentioned in scenes in which they have no dialogue and quite frankly probably weren't central to being heard about at all. In another book in the series, a man having a small penis is LITERALLY the reason he is a murderer. Yes, the great Penis Envy Disease, otherwise known as New To The Field Of Psychology And The Only Name I Thought To Look Up Was Freud.

Now please, do not come away from this thinking that I mean to say that I expected this book on a pedophile enacting revenge against the serial killing-psychiatrist that disfigured him to be tasteful in the sense that I wouldn't blush to read it to my grandmother. But... Well here's an example.

Quentin Tarantino is a pretty controversial guy, what with his use of the N-word being in the literal hundreds in most of his movies, the gratuitous violence, and occasionally the gratuitous foot-focused scenes for Tarantino's personal enjoyment. I also really enjoy Tarantino. There's a degree of skill and ingenuity in his movies that makes his reference-laden parodies of exploitation films watchable and even enthralling. He constantly makes nods to other styles of movies, even specific other films, and yet takes all those elements and makes them his own in a way that I love watching. It feels like he's trying to share his honest love of film by creating his own artwork that, while derivative, is certainly unique.

When Thomas Harris quotes Dante's Inferno in the eve to the epilogue, or forces French and Italian phrases into narration or complex and great cuisine secrets on the reader, it feels more like he's smearing feces on the walls of the art museum he's writing in. He clearly has access to information and then procedes to dump it unceremoniously into the text in large spurts, before then falling prey to Art Major Physics again in the next chapter. At that point, the least of his worries is an inconsistency in style.

Oh right, style. I was ranting to Kat about this on the way to work earlier, and I got so wrapped up in how my complaining ended that I practically forgot where it began.

There's probably a way to put this nicely, but I'm not going to bother: Thomas Harris is often a terrible writer. His sentences are short and choppy and repetitive, to the point of me getting a chapter or two into Silence of the Lambs - the first book I read after being inspired by the movie which everyone ceaselessly lauds and which won a great amount of awards - before wondering, "How the fuck did this man get someone coming to him asking to turn this into a movie? I wouldn't be bothering to read this if I hadn't already heard of it!"

Characters either "say" something, or the quotes are left to hang on their own (which is fine). Perhaps he's trying to go for a sort of poetry in the repeating of the same words, of having "said" used five times in an exchange between characters, but it just comes off as him not bothering to look up new words. No one "shouts" or "purrs" or even "whispers", they just say things, regardless of the tension level. I suppose this is slightly given variety when Harris uses five question marks after one of Mason's sentences, presumably to get across that he was very, very, very, very, very surprised. Hey, Harris, there's actually another way to get that message to the reader, and it's by pulling out a fucking thesaurus and looking under "gasped".

The novel also has two endings. Oh no, I don't mean that it literally has an ending, then a page with, "That's how it could have happened. But how about this?" and then an alternate conclusion. I mean that at first, Harris writes something very...him-like. Barney, a minor character who used to be a caretaker for Lecter back when he was in prison in Silence, is attending an opera with a girlfriend and spots a glorious woman in an expensive car who looks just like Clarice. Soon realising it is Clarice, Barney is the only one of us (out of him and the readers) who is surprised that her escort is most-likely-but-it's-obviously-him Hannibal Lecter. Barney rushes out when Lecter seems to notice him, it's very obscure but clear enough what happened. End of chapter.

Brilliant! So they're together, however willingly or un-drugged on Clarice's end, and attending shows and dressing to out-fancy Oscar Wilde. That's great, and how you would assume, given his stlye, that it would end.

Then there's another chapter, this one abruptly telling-not-showing, as chapters throughout Hannibal seem prone to doing without warning. It's cute how Harris frames the chapter (as though the reader is literally being snuck into Starling's and Lecter's house elegant mansion), in the sense that it was 1am as I read it and I'd already gotten used to just laughing when he went overboard with an idea. We are then explicitly told exactly how Lecter and Starling are getting along with each other, and I enjoyed the revelation that Clarice now has her own Memory Palace and that she knows Lecter better than he had realised, that "she could scare [Hannibal]" and he seems drawn to this facet of her. But why the preceding chapter? Or why the following chapter? It comes across as though Harris wrote the original one, then realised he hadn't really gotten to exercise his idea of how Clarice and Hannibal lived afterwards, remembered that he hadn't quite gotten the mileage he wanted out of the Memory Palace idea. And then he just slapped the two chapters together, ignoring that now one of them was unnecessarily vague (or one too detailed), sent it off, and wasn't questioned about it again.

When all of this is said and done, I actually stayed up until after 1am last night reading the freaking book, and while it wasn't the best use of my time I'll confess to still wanting to get through it (obviously, or perhaps I would have gone to sleep instead). The pull of the potential of Hannibal Lecter, Serial-Killing Cook and Psychiatrist still reels me in despite my disgust for a lot of the author's quirks, and I even do really enjoy some of his narration. He has a bit of a knack for creating suspense or great little snippets of phrase when he's not trying to force imported silk dresses and cabochons down my throat (oh sorry, it just got a little Freud in that sentence). There was an awkward little moment when I was skimming through the Acknowledgements in the back of the book and discovered that one of two phrases to really stick in my mind from the novel was actually "borrowed" directly from another piece, but hey - can't win 'em all. Some of the Starlings of the world really can't help but be well-scrubbed hustling rubes (:19), and Thomas Harris may have fallen into his own trap here.

Whoo! Two hours later and I feel much better, and actually less frustrated about a certain author's style. Watching The Cinema Snob has really helped develop my lack of appreciation for "professional critics", and this is my first time ever putting down a creator of anything with such vigor (well, on the internet - in real life I can rant or rave for hours about books I read). As with all things in life though, experience is the best teacher, and hopefully that was as cathartic for me to write as it might be interesting for someone to look through (this is unlikely). In summary: Thomas Harris is a strange, fetish-fueled man who nonetheless inspired me with his description of a serial killer's Memory Palace (when he wasn't making me squirm with his description of taxed buttons on a large police woman's uniform, mind).
( Read comments )
Post a comment in response:
Anonymous( )Anonymous This account has disabled anonymous posting.
OpenID( )OpenID You can comment on this post while signed in with an account from many other sites, once you have confirmed your email address. Sign in using OpenID.
Account name:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
HTML doesn't work in the subject.


Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.