Friday, April 4

The Debt to Pleasure

(Spoiler alert! The Debt to Pleasure is a wonderfully evil little cookbook. Don't read this essay if you plan on reading the book, because I give away everything here!)

Going back to our class handout on Brillat-Savarin, there is an aphorism reading, “The order of food is from the most solid to the most light” (145). This is a theme I see Tarquin developing in the progression of his narrative in The Debt to Pleasure, both with the foods he talks about and his revelations about himself. He begins by discussing the heavier, heartier foods of winter and finishes by talking about the lighter fare of summer and fall. The discussion of food works as a kind of cloaking device for what is actually going on in the narrative, with Tarquin uncloaking more and more of his true nature as the story moves along and as the recipes get lighter and more loosely defined.

In the beginning the reader doesn’t know what Tarquin Winot is up to, merely that he has undertaken to write this “unconventional cookbook” and that he is ordering it by seasons. He begins by saying that “winter presents the cook with a...combination of threat and chance,” which is a good metaphor for the book as a whole; Tarquin is a threat to society and there is a chance that you might figure out what he’s up to (3). If you’d prefer, you could say that if you are reading this story, there is probably a good chance that Tarquin is going to kill you, thus the “crisis” that he’s implied in the first line. You won’t know, however, until he’s sent you on your way, that you have been murdered, as he reveals in the novel’s last line.

The recipe for Irish Stew especially brings to mind not only hearty eating but also the addle-brained sluggishness one sometimes feels after a heavy meal. The opacity and solidity of this stew is representative of the fact that Tarqin reveals very little of his present situation in this first chapter. Irish stew also works as a metaphor for The Debt to Pleasure as a whole. It’s a densely layered story, with some of the ingredients being more substantial, (plot, characterisation, backstory), and others which dissolve, (recipes, philosophical musings), but which work as “binding agents” to hold the narrative together (18).

The spring recipes are not only lighter, but consist of items such as “peaches in red wine” which give us a better glimpse into Tarquin’s persona. With the peach recipe not only do we get a discourse on the poisonous possibilities of peach pits, we get our first revelation that Tarquin tried to poison Bartholomew. Tarquin also reveals his nature as someone who is perhaps untrustworthy. Tarquin tells us that he “prefers” Sauternes which is, according to Wikipedia, an expensive white—not red—dessert wine that’s tricky to produce because part of the fermentation process relies on chance: the grapes become infected with something called “noble rot” (which could be used to describe Tarquin and much of what he talks about, if one were so inclined). I also find it somewhat grotesque that peaches are Bartholomew’s favorite fruit and dipping blanched, skinned peach slices into red wine resembles dipping flesh into blood. Tarquin follows this up with a menu for “Luncheon on a theme of curry” in which the term “theme” becomes almost literal, with Tarquin pontificating about the role of curry and spices in life and the cuisine of Europe, but neglecting the recipes. He tells the reader to look up all the recipes herself, opting instead to describe breaking in to the honeymooner’s hotel room to install a listening device. He is revealing more of himself and his plans as he goes along.

For summer Tarqin tells us “[t]his section will not consist of rigidly articulated menus as such,” but rather “suggestions for recipes;” he also starts unwrapping his devious deeds more for the reader (130). “An Apéritif” is something Tarquin describes as a libation drunk to “exchange[...] personae,” from the self’s more controlled daytime incarnation to its less-restrained nighttime form (132). This is the turning point wherein Tarquin begins to get comfortable, loosen his tongue, and tell the reader what he is really up to. It is in this chapter that we hear about the untimely death of Mrs. Willoughby, who so unfortunately “misunderstood” Tarquin’s directions on how to avoid getting shot by Pierre and Jean-Luc. We already know that Tarquin has been spying on the honeymoon couple, but it hasn’t been clear to what extent. At the end of the Apéritif chapter he goes to the trouble of exchanging rental cars in order to follow them; the intricacy of his plan is becoming more apparent. In the following chapter he compares the childhood simplicity of hiding his mother’s earrings under Mary-Teresa’s bed to the more complex adult act of testing his GPS tracking device out on his milkman. At the end of the section he is almost spotted by the honeymooners—it seems the change he effected on himself in the apéritif chapter has made him almost careless, but only almost.

The key chapter in the Autumn section of the novel is the first chapter, titled “An Aïoli.” Here Tarquin states that one of his most-beloved rituals involves eating aïoli because, “one of the pleasures of the dish is its inversion of the relationship between bit part (sauce) and star player” (190). This is Tarquin letting the reader know that from here on that recipes are no longer the “star player” in this book, and that the “sauce” or condiments (the actual story of Tarquin’s interaction with the honeymoon couple plus the details he’s been giving us about his murderous nature) is now taking center stage. Tarquin reveals his parents’ untimely demise in a freak explosion, in the chapter which he cheekily refers to as “A Barbecue,” and goes through a list of dangers to avoid for Laura and Hywl to avoid around his property, including the fatal directions he gave Mrs. Willoughby. By the final chapter, Tarquin is so comfortable that he is gloating; he taunts both the reader and Laura and Hwyl to guess that he is poisoning the honeymooners by relating the story of Bartholomew’s death by poisonous mushrooms and his personal views on the art of absence and destruction whilst he feeds them mushrooms. Just in case you haven’t figured it out, he makes all clear in the novel’s last line.


Shakespeare said...

Friend, you do amazing literary analysis; As in, way better than 98% of the population. You should trust yourself in literary endeavors. Seriously. You are smart enough to actually succeed with a Literature Masters. And I do not say that lightly. I have experience in these matters. Do it. Make it happen. No matter what.

Caroline said...

Huzzah on writing an eloquent synopsis on a truly twisted but highly enjoyable novel!


Jenny said...


Caroline said...

I think a novel you might enjoy reading is "Tsil Cafe" by Thomas Fox Averill. Intelligently written, screamingly funny, extremely delicious!

Jenny said...

I'll check it out, thanks!