Harris' 'Hannibal': cerebral, surreal

June 27, 1999|By LAURA DEMANSKI | LAURA DEMANSKI,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Hannibal," by Thomas Harris. Delacorte. 486 pages. $27.95.

''Hannibal" was still tightly under wraps when readers began to applaud it on Amazon.com last month. Thomas Harris' ardent fans didn't need to read a word to know that his "Silence of the Lambs" sequel was going to be brilliant.

Great expectations, alas, can breed major disappointment. The reviews appearing since the book's release have fallen pretty evenly into rants ("I feel like I've been mugged") and raves ("a unique work of art").

Love it or loathe it, there's nobody "Hannibal" hasn't surprised. Like its predecessors "Red Dragon" and "Silence," this novel dwells among the murderously psychotic and the people who make careers out of tracking them down. But "Hannibal" abandons the straight crime-and-detection plot of the previous books and lurches in a new direction. Harris improvises a new genre, mingling detection and action with the gothic, cerebral and surreal. If the payoff is mixed, the trip is more fascinating than ever.

The time is seven years after the prison escape of Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, storied epicure and killer of 15. FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling is being scapegoated in a drug bust gone wrong. In the ever topsy-turvy ethical world of "Hannibal," it is precisely valor and honesty (and being a woman) that mark Starling out for professional dislike and suspicion.

As her supposed disgrace in the bloody raid gets front-page play in the tabloids, Lecter surfaces again, just barely, to contact her. It's enough to put her and the FBI back on his trail.

But the FBI is not the only party that picks up the scent. One of Lecter's earliest victims is still alive and bent on revenge, though immobile and grotesquely deformed: "Mason Verger, noseless and lipless, with no soft tissue on his face, was all teeth, like a creature of the deep, deep sea." It is Harris' particular genius to capture at one stroke the gruesome and the sublime in Verger's appearance -- and most everything else he lays eyes on.

"Hannibal" traces three narrative threads to their explosive and finally surreal convergence. There is the story of Clarice Starling's struggle to regain control of her career; her renewed hunt for Hannibal is part of that battle but also an intensely personal quest. Meanwhile, one by one, the pieces fall into place in Verger's harrowing (and credibility-stretching) scheme.

Finally, we follow Hannibal himself, comfortably ensconced in Florence as the distinguished art historian Dr. Fell, who is quick to sniff out and snuff out unwarranted interest in his personal life.

Harris takes care to render Verger's moral monstrosity more repellent than Lecter's, with the untoward effect of making Hannibal the sympathetic character: hero, indeed, of the novel named for him. Should anyone be surprised? This is where "The Silence of the Lambs" was headed when it built an erotic empathy between Lecter and Starling during their prison interviews. The phenomenal popularity of that book (and film) turned on the shocking appeal of the affinity between an intrepid beauty and a beast more vile than fairy tales ever imagined.

The taboos that "Silence" tiptoed around seductively, "Hannibal" steps forward to embrace. It's hard not to admire that bravado, and Harris' writing is as learned, suggestive and rewarding as ever. The controversy over "Hannibal" is only going to intensify as more and more readers find themselves spellbound by its abominations.

Laura Demanski, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago, studies 19th-century British literature and culture. She previously worked at Simon and Schuster and the University of Chicago Press. Demanski is writing a doctoral dissertation about portrayals of the urban underclass in the novels of Henry James, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison.

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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