On Saturday afternoon I finished the task I set for myself on March first, which was to read through the entirety of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series before the end of the month, and now that I’ve finished reading our major commercial novels back-to-back, I have some thoughts—mostly about the final volume, Hannibal Rising, partly because it’s the freshest in my memory but mostly because it’s by far the worst of the series. The only one that isn’t a kind of masterpiece, in fact.
I realize it’s hard to hook somebody into conversation about a book they haven’t read but since you’re already here, and since we’re quarantined and I’ve got nobody else to lay this on, let me just wedge my foot in your doorway here and talk for a minute about how Hannibal Rising (2006), a prequel to the perfectly conclusive Hannibal (1999), does occasionally move swiftly, and color its scenes with the same master’s touch as earlier volumes, but it’s also got way too many characters, tedious sub-plots, and a black-and-white morality that puts a young and principled Hannibal Lecter (who, in case you’re unfamiliar with the series, is a psychopath serial killer) on a revenge mission to kill a bunch of cannibalistic child-killing war criminals.
What the fuck is that?
Lecter is so nuanced in the other three books, savage and repugnant but also strangely endearing on account of his intelligence and charisma, but there’s never any ambiguity, in any of those books, about the fact that he’s a monster. Hateful.
So apart from there being nothing at stake in this novel–since we see Lecter falling into life-threatening situations while knowing, all the while, that he’s gonna survive them and live on into the next installments–it feels like a subversion of all the care that was taken in the crafting of those earlier novels, where the conventions of a detective story felt like they were laced with an author’s personal relationship to that story. The efforts of Harris’s detectives to apprehend their suspects always seems like a metaphor for Harris’s own effort at apprehending his novel, making it work (Harris has produced only six books in fifty years).
Stephen King is friendly with Thomas Harris, who’s private and seldom gives interviews, and he’s said that Harris is one of those writers for whom the pages only come at great personal cost. Like he’s inking his pen with blood. And you can see some of that anguish in these masterful novels about detectives needing to conjure horrors out of their own minds, their own past, in order to make sense of another (fellow) monster.
Hannibal Rising is the most distinct of the series for the fact that it’s the only one that feels like it was willfully conjured. It feels like an assignment. Its pacing is predictable and its climactic dispatching of villain after villain feels like housework, like the author is more bored than the reader. When major characters died in the previous volumes, it felt like their death was encoded in the earliest scenes. There would be something poetic or meaningful about the death.
Here he just shoots people.
I enjoyed re-visiting Hannibal Rising (I bought a copy as a high schooler, when it first came out, but never finished) within the context of the series, and being able to see how an author mishandles his own material, but, as I said, apart from the morbid curiosity there were some very engaging sections where I was turning pages as quickly as I was with Hannibal and Red Dragon.
But the book is a disaster overall and I can’t recommend it.