In common with many people, I fell on Thomas Harris’ long-awaited Hannibal–grabbed it the first day it hit the stores, devoured it before the next day’s sunup, and went to bed engorged and sick. It’s not just that it’s a terrible book (although it is, in a different league altogether from its predecessors, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs–plodding, obvious, alternately dashed-off and overworked). It’s that Hannibal is the most psychotic manifestation yet of vigilante porn, a genre in which good, moral murderers are cheered in their efforts to kill (and taunt and torture) bad, immoral murderers. The more garish the vengeance, the more justice has been served. “Yeah, take that!” we roar, re-reading the juicy bits over and over. “That’ll teach you to get off on people’s suffering!”
Harris has never been pure-minded: He is the foremost practitioner of serial-killer fetishism, in which tracking a methodical slayer is almost as much fun as being one. The conceit is that to catch the psychopath, you have to get inside his head and relive the commission of his crimes. The protagonist of Red Dragon (filmed by Michael Mann in 1984 as Manhunter, and featuring a scarily subdued turn by Brian Cox as Lecter) flies to scenes of fresh slaughter, lingers over blood-soaked chalk outlines of victims, and fingers splotches of arterial spray. Then it’s over to the autopsy room, a pleasure palace of scalpels, microscopes, and quivering organs. Lecter, meanwhile, was Harris’ masterstroke: the psycho-mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one, imparting a Force that leaves the hero both empowered and poisoned. The message–that good can only defeat evil if it flirts with the possibility of becoming evil–is as subversive as pulp fiction gets.
In Hannibal, Harris disturbs the delicate balance he maintained in the last two novels. Now Lecter is the good guy–the cannibal as Renaissance man and Nietszchean superhero. Having presumably eaten his psychiatrist at the close of The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter has been at large for nearly a decade, but the murders have more or less stopped. Relocated to Florence, Lecter only wants to pursue his scholarship, becoming curator for the Palazzo Capponi, reading Dante in the original, eating fresh white truffles, and playing the Goldberg variations on harpsichord. All would be idyllic were it not for his richest living victim, a remorseless child-molester whose face was eaten away by dogs under Lecter’s ministrations, and who has hired some of the world’s most vicious killers to capture the doctor alive. The intent is to tie Lecter up and allow a mob of specially bred pigs to eat him–nice and slow.
It’s not the Grand Guignol set-pieces that are the grossest elements of Hannibal. It’s that the doctor has been made into a righteous avenger, a somewhat Dirtier Harry. Revisionist history is brought to bear: According to his former guard (whom he educated, we learn, in the fine points of Roman philosophy and Vermeer), Lecter preferred to eat only people who were “rude–free-range rude.” His malignity no longer motiveless, it is also no longer rootless. The doctor has been given a hideous World War II back-story in which his beloved older sister was pulled from him and eaten by starving refugees from the Eastern front. And Lecter doesn’t only avenge the insults to him: He has become a champion for Clarice Starling, the sterling FBI agent from The Silence of the Lambs, whose own career has been unjustly sabotaged by sexist and ruthlessly corrupt bureaucrats: more carnivorous pigs.
Eat or be eaten is the message. And, naturally, we root for the gourmet–the man of class, education, taste. The system has putrefied: There’s no way to work within it and achieve justice. Our best hope is a father who really knows best. Clarice’s own daddy was killed early in her life–she was a lamb thrown to an orphanage’s wolves. Her surrogate FBI father, Jack Crawford, becomes increasingly impotent, standing by helplessly as she’s railroaded; he literally curls up and dies. But not Hannibal Lecter. His disembowelments are now triumphal, and his climactic dish–a sauté of cervelles de chauviniste au beurre noisette–is the novel’s pièce de résistance. The unfilmmable finale could be a “screw you” to Dino De Laurentiis, who owns the movie rights, or it could be what Harris really thinks should happen to people he deems undeserving of life.
We will endlessly debate the question of whether we learn morals from our culture, or our culture merely reflects our own morals back. Either way, Hannibal is frightening. What it shares with the perpetrators of Columbine and other massacres is the smug assurance that vigilantism is both noble and courageous, the province of the elite, and that the power to decide who lives or dies should be firmly rooted in the righteous individual. The problem, of course, is that all of us have, at one time or another, fancied ourselves righteous when we were anything but. Almost everyone who ever pulls a trigger does.