Sunday, November 18, 2007


Halfway through Hannibal Rising, the new novel by Thomas Harris, the one featuring the origins of popular culture's favorite cannibal, I found myself actually rooting for the protagonist, hoping that he'd kill more, even eat more, and by the end of the book, I finally understood why Hannibal had worn a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey at the end of the previous installment, and the genius of this entire series of suspense books is that Hannibal's evil has been built, piece by piece, with such seemingly innocuous components, all of which wind their way back, ultimately, to the darkest parts of our innermost selves.

Critics have not been kind to this book, but I've never been kind to critics, either, and I think they're missing the point, completely, much as the filmmakers behind Hannibal, the movie adaptation of the self-same book, also completely missed the boat by altering the novel's crucial, essential, mind-blowing ending.

The central problem is that Harris is not doing what popular fiction normally does, nor what his publishers are saying he's doing. He is not interested in doing the song-and-dance slasher suspense novel, even though his stories are, ostensibly, exactly that. Instead, novel by novel, he's slowly, slyly, shoving our love for Hannibal right in our face, and, hopefully, making us wonder what, exactly, we're loving, and why, and what that may say about the nature of our souls.

Much of the scorn heaped upon Harris this time around has to do with the fact that he is, essentially, explaining Hannibal Lecter: How he became evil, why he eats people, why he's cultured yet cannibalistic -- the whole deal. (Much the same way that George Lucas 'explained' Darth Vader in the most recent Star Wars prequels, another series that I think the critics are completely missing the boat on.)

According to his (many) detractors, Harris is essentially giving away the game, like a magician revealing his long-cherished secrets, robbing this twisted icon of his own particular mystery, taking a gothic, mythic, even iconic figure of modern horror, a symbol of our collective nightmares, and performing Freudian surgery on his literary carcass. To explain the mystery is to dissolve the mystery, they say.

Well, perhaps.

All of that would be true, were Hannibal Lecter meant to be nothing more than a symbol of ghoulish evil, a more civilized version of Jason, or Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers.

But that would be assuming that Harris is setting out to do what it is that his critics are saying he's setting out to do.

Harris, however, is out for something larger. He's trying to explain ourselves, and why it is that Hannibal himself has become such an attraction for all of us.

The reason why his previous book, Hannibal, was so absolutely genius was because Harris flipped over like a pancake everything we loved and respected and admired about Clarice Starling in Silence Of The Lambs, this modern-day heroine whose resilience helped earn Jodie Foster a well-deserved Oscar. This symbol of feminine strength, this sympathetic character who triumphed over the premature deaths of her parents, this brilliant FBI agent who battled wits so ably and aptly with Hannibal himself, ends up falling in love with Hannibal. Running away with Hannibal. Together. The two of them. Off into the sunset. Cue the music.

This kind of stuff just doesn't happen in popular fiction. Subverting all the goodwill we've generated for Clarice? Absolutely annihilating everything we (thought we) knew about her? I couldn't believe it when I read it, and I wasn't surprised when Jodie Foster declined to return for the sequel, or when director Ridley Scott ultimately didn't end up including it in the conclusion to the inevitable cinematic adaptation.

It was as if Harris was saying: You think Hannibal is so charismatic? You think he's such a suave, attractive, sophisticated-yet-creepy figure? Fine. I'm going to allow the law-abiding woman who resisted all his ghoulish enticements to give in to her own worst impulses and run off with the dude. What do you think of him now? What do you think of her? What do you think of yourself? Are you horrified? Repelled? Tell me. Tell yourself.

Clarice Starling represented us, the readers, the watchers: watching Hannibal from a distance, but able to resist his charms. So much of modern cinema and fiction allows us to play a coy little dance with destructiin and depravity, murder and blood. We can watch it and be comforted by the fact that the monster is just that -- a monster -- and the heroes, though tempted, are able to resist, and defeat, the monster's charms.

Uh-uh, Harris responded. You ain't getting off that easy.

Similarly, in the recently released Hannibal Rising, Harris is forcing us to reexamine how far we are willing to go in our appreciation, understanding and, yes, attraction to Hannibal Lecter. We see him as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult. We see him attempting to track and torment the Nazis who tortured him as a youth and destroyed his sister. We end up rooting for Hannibal, because we can see, quite vividly, where he came from, the evil that was perpetrated upon him, and the black gap inside of him that refuses to remember the ultimate, vilest horror, and the one that explains, somewhat, to the degree that it can be explained, why he eats the flesh of others.

(I won't reveal why he eats others, because I think it's an absolutely genius psychological explanation, but I can say this: It has more to do with self-punishment than any other reason, and it can be almost understood as a form of perpetual flagellation. Which only adds layers to Hannibal's depravity; it only enhances, not reduces, the darkness of his depths.)

Those who dislike the book are free to diss it on aesthetic grounds: it's a little skimpy, and the plot meanders from here to there, and, as a pure suspense book, I've read better.

But there's something lurking beneath the surface of the words, of the story, layered beneath that precise, elegant prose that Harris so subtly weaves.

Let us look at this character, this Hannibal that you love so well, he is saying. Let us see where he's coming from. Let us peer into his darkness and see what there is -- or isn't -- left to see.

For it's no coincidence, I think, that the genesis of Hannibal the Cannibal coincides with the basest depravities perpetrated during World War II. It's not without logic, I believe, that Harris is tracking the mutation of one innocent child as he similary tracks the degeneration of an entire civilization through the aftermath of the Second World War.

By allowing Hannibal to become the hero, by generating even more empathy for his abhorrent behavior, Harris is implicating us, too. Why are we attracted to this darkness? he seems to be asking. Why do we love so longingly a vile character such as this? Can we recognize ourselves, perhaps? By peering in to Hannibal's heart, he is trying to illuminate our own darkness.

And yet, despite all of these biographical details, despite the logical genesis behind such abhorrent acts, Harris acknowledges that there still remains a part of Hannibal Lecter that can never be fathomed. By him. By us. An allowance for atrocities, whatever their justifications, can perhaps lead us into rooms that cannot be exited.

But back to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I always wondered why, at the end of the previous installment in the series, Hannibal, Harris had portrayed his lead character wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey as he made his exit from the authorities on an overseas flight. Sure, the notorious killer was trying to appear casual, nondescript, a regular civilian type of person, I get that, but where would somebody as sophisticated as Hannibal Lecter have even found the knowledge of Canada's preeminent hockey power? It didn't gibe. Didn't seem authentic.

Hannibal Rising explains why. Not directly, but there's an interlude in Canada, a brief but important one, and though nothing is ever overtly linked back to that jersey worn so briefly in the previous book, it's all a part of the sly little puzzle Harris is piecing together, chapter by chapter, book by book.

Don't destroy the bogeyman, his critics are saying. Don't explain the monster.

Ah, but don't you see? I feel like telling the critics. Harris is not creating a monster for your literary halloween costume parties. He is trying to explain the unexplainable. He is foraging through the corners of our own psyches, so ably imagined as Hannibal's Memory Palace, the rooms in his mind that he enters at will, and the doors locked so tight that even he cannot open them.

He is shining a weak but persistent light into the darkness, and that darkness emerges not from the heart of Hannibal Lecter, but from ourselves.