A thrilling addition to the menu

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester; Picador, pounds 15.99; John Walsh lifts the lid on a startling first novel of epicurean snobbery and murderous brilliance

Tarquin Winot, gourmet, dandy and intellectual snob, leads us into the meagre plot of The Debt to Pleasure like this: "In the late middle of summer, I decided to take a short holiday and travel southwards through France... I resolved that I would jot down my thoughts on the subject of food as I went, taking my cue from the places and events around me as well as from my own memories, dreams, reflections..."

If anything about this proposed journey - the modesty of its planning, the likelihood that some unpleasant truth about the narrator will gradually leak out - reminds you of a well-known novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, do not panic. Do not ring the Plagiarism Police. For Winot's journey is not just into the heart of foodie bliss, nor into The Truth About Himself, but also into a whole Echoland of literary nudges, hommages, allusions and borrowings from the cream of a literary tradition to which John Lanchester has suddenly become, at 33, a distinguished addition.

Tarquin's gourmet excursion/ discursion divides nicely into the four seasons: he examines the cuisine attending on each and provides seasonal menus, from caviare blinis in winter, round to a nasty mushroom omelette in late autumn. His lectures are breezily learned and endlessly digressive in the best postmodernist manner: you cannot proceed very far down his sentences without meeting a great bloated parenthesis ballooning across your path. He is fond of extrapolating metaphors of the human psyche from menus and changes of weather, drawing slender connections between barbecues and arson, garlic and the massif central, between the British liking for curry and a UFO landing-pad.

Though Winot is a vertiginous snob, with a drawling, Europhiliac languor that makes you long to smack him round the head, he is full of self-conscious charm, and what he somewhere describes as "an attractive air of qualified omniscience". Lanchester gives him a stylistic trademark, which is to announce a mildly interesting thesis - that rivers, for instance, have individual characters - and pursue it from France to Italy to Asia Minor, crossing art-historical and gastronomicultural frontiers with a crazed, don't-try-and-stop-me recklessness. You learn that the leek is celebrated in the name of Leighton Buzzard, that it's not cyanide but the skin of a cyanide victim that smells of bitter almonds, that the John Dory is known in French as "St Pierre" because of the discernible thumbprint, on its head of St Peter the fishing apostle...

Gradually Tarquin's private life emerges. We hear about his dead parents, his sculptor brother (also dead), his Irish nanny (dismissed for theft), the family's Norwegian chef Mitthaug (fell under a Tube train). You learn about his current circumstances: that he is bald but affects a false moustache; that he is stalking a honeymoon couple from Normandy to Provence; that a woman called Laura, his "collaborator", is writing a biography of his talented brother; that his real name is Rodney... It gradually becomes all too clear what the mad Tarquin has in store for the doomed honeymooners, even as he continues to chat about aioli and tell you that Frederic Mistral is the only poet to be named after "a major European wind".

We have grown used, over the last decade or so, to British novels laying out facts to conceal the gross matter once called "a plot" behind an untrustworthy surface. In Waterland it was history lessons about eels, sluices and fens; in Flaubert's Parrot it was the slithery factoids of biography; in The Remains of the Day, it was the formalities of servitude. All of them look back, you could argue, to Tristram Shandy, the first sighting of the Obsessive- Digressive strain of English literature; and all of them work or fail by the extent to which the sparkling shell is shown to belong to the naked flesh beneath. So: are we looking here at 200 pages of languidly dressed- up postmodernist bollocks about food, squirrelled from John Lanchester's researches over three years as the Observer's food critic and interleaved with a thrillerish tale of revelations-on-the run? Or at something more?

Amazingly, Lanchester pulls it off. The Debt to Pleasure gradually wears down your suspicions, to stand as a fully-achieved work of art. It does this partly by the charm of engagement. So relentless is the flow of Winot's omniscience that one grows irritably keen to spot factual inaccuracies, linguistic mistakes, errors of judgement. Thus one falls with delight on his allusion to "jostling hordes of ignorami'' (ignoramus means "we do not know"; it can't be pluralised) or his getting Sherlock Holmes's dictum about "eliminating the impossible" all wrong; or his thinking the Italian word fiasco is more expressive of mismanagement than the French debacle because of its "candidly chaotic" quality, when it's a perfectly sensible word meaning "flask"; and as for his frankly bizarre suggestion that one should think of putting oregano in an Irish Stew... But these quibbles do not amount to a cassoulet of kidney beans; they just mean that one is being sucked into Tarquin's solipsistic world of footling pedantries.

Likewise, one cannot dismiss the flow of Winot's prose as mere gustatory wordspinning. Lanchester writes so stunningly well that one finds oneself laughing out loud at the perfection of his effects. Early on, Tarquin regards the paintings in a school hall, among which is a portrait "which suggested either that the artist was a tragicomically inept doctrinaire Cubist or that Mr RB Fenner-Crossway MA was in reality a dyspeptic pattern of mauve rhomboids". Later he casually throws off the most perfect extended metaphor of theatrical motherhood I've ever read. But just as you're sure his epicurean vapourings amount to nothing but noise, you realise that a sustained argument has been developing all along (calling in Leonardo and Michelangelo as witnesses) about artistic failure, about non-creation and how one's best work is that which is never even started, the perfect apology for an artist manque - all appetite and no talent - who seethes with envy for a vulgarian brother who has a genuine artistic vocation.

It's this seriousness of intent, this rhetorical cunning, that makes Lanchester's book such a triumph. Not that it's entirely original - on the contrary. At different times Lanchester seems to be parodying Nicholson Baker's hyper-precision (there's a description of an espresso machine that's straight out of The Mezzanine), Nabokov's patrician fakery (especially in Pale Fire), Beckett's magisterial craziness (the burnt-toast scene in Dante and the Lobster) and especially Gilbert Adair's Love and Death on Long Island, whose sneery academic narrator, half in love with trash culture, is a direct forerunner of Tarquin-Rodney. But where do you stop? After a while the merest phrase has you wondering: when he suggests a "simple luncheon (omelette, Vichy, peaches)", does he mean to allude to the opening page of Cyril Connolly's masterpiece of non-completion, Enemies of Promise?

Echoes notwithstanding, you have to salute the real thing. The Debt to Pleasure is a major work, the best British novel I've read since Adam Thorpe's Ulverton, a supreme literary construct that's also deliriously entertaining. Even the recipes are gorgeously seductive; several pages of my copy are flecked with stains of ragu and ratatouille to mark the moments when I could stand the temptation no more. It seems entirely appropriate.

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