Shape-Shifting Young Novelist Impersonates a Wildean Oddball

The Epicure’s Lament , by Kate Christensen. Doubleday, 351 pages, $23.95.

Kate Christensen is a serious writer: Don’t be fooled by the relentless hipness or what seems the full-throttle frivolity of her subject matter – the joke, if you don’t get it, is on you. Her first novel, In the Drink (1999), earned her wide recognition as New York’s answer to Bridget Jones, but Ms. Christensen is too talented to remain another snarky chronicler of single-girl dystopia. In her second novel, Jeremy Thrane (2001), Ms. Christensen traded In the Drink ‘s undersexed-in-the-city female-writer protagonist for a more ambitious vessel, a gay man whose life implodes when his longtime celebrity lover dumps him. And now, in The Epicure’s Lament , Ms. Christensen’s first-person narrator undergoes an even more radical transformation to become Hudson Valley aristocrat Hugo Whittier, lover of Calvados, women, cigarettes and solitude.

The effete last issue of an old Yankee dynasty, Hugo-prep-school dropout, onetime boy toy and jet-setting idler-has spent the last decade self-immured in Waverly, his family’s splendid ancestral home on the banks of the Hudson, preparing lavish meals for one and picking through his forebears’ collection of leather-bound classics. A “decaying forty-year-old man in his decaying childhood home at the ruined finale of a wasted life,” Hugo is dying, or so he hopes, from Buerger’s disease, a rare and romantic condition that afflicts only heavy smokers. Giving up cigarettes could cure him, but-as he glibly informs his doctor-Hugo would rather smoke than survive.

His generation’s token “reclusive eccentric,” Hugo is contentedly keeping company with Montaigne and M.F.K. Fisher, limiting his human contact to a flirtation with the “gormless, lumpen girl” who works at the convenience store where he buys cigarettes, when, in an unforeseeable stroke of ill-fortune, his grating, “‘Dudley Doright'” big brother Dennis shows up after the sudden collapse of his marriage. Energetically unsympathetic, Hugo despises his “chipper and clean-shaven” sibling and recoils from the burden of daily-life interchange: “There’s nothing I dread and resent more first thing in the morning than the double-headed monstrous hydra of obligatory pleasantries.” To preserve his sanity, Hugo, years after discarding his youthful fantasies of authorship, decides to keep a diary, one that will soon evolve into a “long, extended suicide note” and last confessional; voilà- The Epicure’s Lament .

But Dennis, it seems, is only the first trespasser in Hugo’s citadel of classic literature and aged cheese. Soon a whole cast of crazies will trickle back into his life: first Hugo’s “diabolical and poisonous jolie-laide sans merci” wife-in-name-only, Sonia, accompanied by their daughter Bellatrix, an alien creature whose paternity Hugo vigorously disclaims; then “Fag Uncle Tommy,” the withered Greenwich Village socialite. Also making an unwelcome cameo is Schlomo, the Jewish hit-man cousin of Tovah, Hugo’s obese lover and keeper many years back.

Pushed from his sanctuary, Hugo must extend his social circle. He first courts his brother’s charming “chubstein” nanny-“a mouse cornered by a whisker-twitching alley tom sniffing at the entrance of her hidey-hole”-then the married woman his married brother has long coveted. “Lately,” Hugo notices midway through his notebooks, “I’m finding myself increasingly embedded in other peoples’ lives, which nauseates me and fills me with fear.” Fear and nausea fast accumulate, forcing Hugo to confront his impending death-and his “wasted life.” This requisite epiphany, when it comes, bears little resemblance to the more common quivering-seaside variety: Hugo remains wry and arch to the end, his honesty always undercut by obnoxiousness.

Nothing much happens in The Epicure’s Lament ; that’s not the point. With his armchair approach to existence, Hugo is less interested in action than commentary-the more provocative, the better. Take the events of Sept. 11, presented time and again as casual parlor chat, or fodder for Hugo’s world-weariness: “Well, that’s one thing you can say for those Ay-rab terrorists-at least, it’s the one thing I myself will say here-they’ve distracted a sovereign nation’s collective mind from the goings-on of other people’s genitalia.” This brand of offensiveness, forthright and thorough, recalls novelists of a less tremulous age, Percy Wyndham Lewis or the young Evelyn Waugh, men too pissed off to maintain any pretense of sanctimony.

Also like Wyndham Lewis, Ms. Christensen piles up the adjectives, using three when one would suffice. She isn’t simply getting carried away with her own cleverness, though, for her lengthy aerobic descriptions reflect the narrator’s personality perfectly. Hugo Whittier is nothing if not a man of excess-excessive in misanthropy, excessive in sex, excessive in smoking and dining and worthlessness-so it seems only fitting that his language also go overboard on occasion. Consider Hugo’s “thick, pungent, unspeakably reeking private thoughts,” or the “thin, watery Buchenwald soup” his mother force-fed him as a boy, or the “didactically eager smile that hinted at black, simmering, repressed puritanical anger” that Bellatrix’s sixth-grade teacher flashes him. In a conversation with his brother, Hugo places Dennis’ estranged wife in “the thesaurus next to ‘virago,’ ‘shrew,’ ‘harridan,’ ‘fishwife,’ ‘alewife.'” Readers bored by minimalism will find Hugo’s exuberant, exhausting, hilarious, maddening voice delightful and compelling.

One remaining question, then: Does it work? It’s a mark of Ms. Christensen’s distinction and confidence that she doesn’t worry for a minute about whether a female writer can successfully impersonate a male voice. In three novels, she has experimented with three different identities: a straight girl, a gay man and a straight man, alike only in the misfortunes they bring on themselves. In The Epicure’s Lament , Ms. Christensen has sidestepped the problem of verisimilitude by creating a foppish Wildean oddball, deliberately anachronistic in tastes and vocabulary, a recluse whose interest in sex is more metaphorical than sensuous. Hugo’s diary, in any event, is by no means a work of rigorous realism, but one of brilliant swooping sentences, acidic observations on contemporary life, hilarious bitchy asides, and-every once in a while-arresting reflections on regret and aging and plain unironic despair.

Laura C. Moser is the author of a biography of Bette Davis and a young-adult novel, both of which will be published this year. Shape-Shifting Young Novelist Impersonates a Wildean Oddball