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review by rob gonsalves

Thomas Harris

June 1999
486 pages

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The Monolith of horror fiction has arrived -- the dark flower in the garden, the fiendish yin to George Lucas' childish yang. You may want to read Hannibal twice: the first time devouring it eagerly like a bottomless bag of potato chips, the second time pausing to savor Thomas Harris' blend of workmanlike, journalistic narrative ("Mason Verger, noseless and lipless, with no soft tissue on his face, was all teeth...") and flights of eloquence ("Color was interesting to see against the massive furniture and high darkness; it was an ancient, compelling contrast, like a butterfly lit on an armored fist"). Harris' work is deeply split. It speaks of great beauty and great ugliness; great courage and heroism, and great savagery and madness. He is perhaps the closest thing to Dostoyevsky to surface in the American popular novel; he achieves, triumphantly, everything Bret Easton Ellis fumbled in American Psycho. At its best, which is on just about every page, Hannibal represents the intersection of bloody pulp and serious literature. The result is both horrifying and intoxicating.

Impatient readers need not apply. The novel's eponymous figure, Dr. Hannibal Lecter of Baltimore, does not "appear" as such until well past page 100, though he makes his presence felt with a teasing note of condolence to his lighter half, FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling. After a botched drug bust -- bungled through no fault of her own -- Starling's career is at stake, and we learn that she's been on shaky footing ever since she closed the Buffalo Bill case. (Business as usual: insecure male "superiors" are jealous of her brains and strength.) Starling would just as soon put the horror of Dr. Lecter behind her, but one factor dredges it all up again: the aforementioned noseless wonder Mason Verger, hideously disfigured survivor of a particularly twisted encounter with Hannibal. Verger, a meat tycoon with infinite financial resources, is revealed to have been a monster even before his clash with Lecter; he has a complicated relationship with his bodybuilding younger sister Margot that's best left unexplained here. From his prone position in his sickbed, Verger orchestrates an elaborate plan to bring Lecter to him alive. What he has in mind for his old nemesis is a cut above Lecter's own former torment for Verger, which only involved hungry dogs.

In a lengthy center section, Harris takes us to Florence, where a disgraced Italian detective -- Starling's doppelganger, in a sense, one of many doubles in Harris' "Lecter" trilogy -- begins to sense that the monster is alive and well and living in the Palazzo Capponi. The outcome of this section would seem to render it unnecessary, but it gives Harris a chance to luxuriate in Italian art and literature, as well as an opportunity to restage the defenestration of Francesco de'Pazzi. Italian art and history are rich with grand sanguinary moments like that, and Harris relishes bringing it all back home to the gray parking lots and pigsties of America. Hannibal demands to be taken on its own heady, sensationalistic terms: The plot, for instance, redefines "far-fetched." The "Lecter" books throw grim forensic realism and psychotic fantasias into the same witches' brew; newcomers will find the result unpalatable, while fans of the previous two books will no doubt slurp it down like a dish of ice cream on a hot August day.

And the good doctor himself? By now, Harris has turned Hannibal's virtuosity into a kind of witty joke. Everything he does is done with "infinite care." Everything he owns or wears is of the finest quality, hand-crafted, expensive, obscure to all but the most discerning connoisseurs. He has limitless intellect, cobra-quick reflexes, the strength of ten men, and absolute indifference to physical pain. In short, he's inhuman: a cross between Superman and Dracula, a wildly implausible character, a mythological demon thrown into the American shopping-mall culture -- and that's the source of his fascination. The conflict in these books is in the reaction of mere mortals to this example of malevolent perfection. The one serious complaint I have is the backstory concerning Lecter's long-lost, beloved sister. The doctor himself would consider this -- and its apparent influence on Hannibal's appetites -- a banal bit of psychobabble. It literalizes Lecter too much; we're not looking to "understand" Lecter, who represents bottomless madness, the X factor, the thing we cannot impose meaning on, no matter how we struggle to put a name to it. The void of the universe laughs at our attempts to understand it, and Harris should have let Hannibal continue to laugh as well.

I should say, however, that the way Lecter's complex intersects with Starling's own (familiar from The Silence of the Lambs) provides this 486-page journey with a genuinely shocking wrap-up. Many readers will be extremely unhappy with what becomes of Starling, experiencing it as a betrayal. My only carp is that it comes slightly abruptly, and perhaps needed an extra 20 pages or so to lay a more plausible groundwork. But then, as I said, plausibility is not what these books are about, and the book as a whole -- including the denouement -- feels emotionally right to me. Like its titular anti-hero, Hannibal is larger than life. It lands with a heavy thud on the bestseller list, casting its shadow across the comforting pap it shares shelf space with. It also comes as a giant middle finger raised to those who whine about all the violence in today's entertainment. It will be quite difficult to adapt this particular Lecter tale to the big screen; there are at least three passages that would get an automatic NC-17.

I think of all the trite things Thomas Harris could have done with this book -- doing a rerun of Robert Bloch's Psycho II novel, in which Hannibal gets revenge on those making a movie about his exploits (Bloch's novel wasn't trite, but it would've been trite to rehash it), or having Hannibal run into a psychotic copycat killer -- and I'm grateful he did what he did. He stretches his legs in Florence and insists on giving us a tour; he cooks up a finale that may piss off a lot of Silence fans; and, almost incidentally, he serves up some of the most grotesquely shocking moments I've read since ... well, since Harris' last book. (For the curious -- and the strong of stomach -- there is a dinner scene late in the book that is as hilariously macabre as anything in the works of Bloch or Poe.) Hannibal is ambitious and unstable and absolutely riveting, a tale so dark it makes midnight look like pastel, yet shedding light on deeply unsavory pockets of our psyche. That's the impact of great art, delivered here with the force and vigor of great pulp. Hannibal is a one-two punch to the brains and the viscera; fortunately, there's a lot of both here to go around.

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