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The Food Chain.

Geoff Nicholson's new novel begins and skillfully enough ends in this human paradox: though we can elevate cooking and even hunger to the status of art, the act of eating, viewed with a surgical disregard for table manners and other religious or familial or commercial rituals, can be enough to ruin a civilized appetite. And if you don't believe it, watch another British import - Peter Greenaway's visually, menacingly gorgeous political allegory The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Or better yet, just read Geoff Nicholson's book. Though the film and the book share similar concerns, The Food Chain extends to take in American food concerns, from diner to franchise to trendy "meal of the minute." Unlike Greenaway's rather ponderous film, Nicholson's narrative seduces you into seriousness by making you laugh on a per-page basis.

The Food Chain begins with an invitation, sent to a "bad-assed" L.A. restauranteur, Virgil Marcel, asking him to "attend the Everlasting Club, London, England." Members of the club have been enjoying literally unending secret feasting for the 350 years since the revolution, so Virgil, the lazy and bad-tempered young son of Frank Marcel (the brains behind the ubiquitous "Golden Boy" restaurant chain), can drop in on this decadent, overproduced frat party whenever he likes. And being Virgil, with his propensity for free trips and underworlds, he likes. The narrative voice blends knowing British acerbity and an uneducable American overfamiliarity in the telling of this story, and the results are highly amusing. For instance, Virgil takes an instant dislike to Kingsley, the chief carver of the Club, and we are told, "it wasn't only that [Kingsley] was fat and bald, although in some of the circles Virgil moved in that would have been enough." Frank Marcel, the patriarch, is referred to as the "only begetter" of the Golden Boy restaurants. Finally, Virgil finds himself hysterically wondering what is going on, since London - or was it Barcelona? - was supposed to be the "cradle of civilization." Like its characters, the narrative of this book has an enormous appetite and a rapid metabolism: useless bits of a historical, Anglo-American education - the dedication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, the history-book epithet for Mesopotamia - serve, in distinctly regurgitated form, as garnish for the plot (making one wonder what all the literary people mean when they use that variously agricultural or cemeterial-sounding word in the first place).

Interleaved with the exploits of Virgil abroad are "Scenes from a History of the Everlasting Club." These tall-tale interchapters span time and space, looking at various moments in the "authentic history" of club membership. The Fourth Earl of Sandwich is shown inventing, in 1762, his meal, and also "eating it," atop a prostitute who is herself atop a Justice of the Peace. The Marquis de Sade feeds chocolates and, even more ardently and adeptly, pens memoirs. The founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, is seen in the attempt to prolong his doomed life at the breast of a wet nurse. Metaphors crisscross from interchapter to plot, so that a red-flecked (bacterialaden) consecrated host in a pyx, which posed theological questions for the "author" of the history when he was a perplexed altar boy, becomes the white-beaded rosy nipple of a hired companion, becomes an Aztec sacrificial meal, all pointing Virgil to a staggering question . . . how literal are the Club's metaphors for its central activities?

This anatomy of eating will keep you chained to its body, and busy.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Januzzi, Marisa
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:573
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