November 9th, 2014

Were the Lambs Silent?

I finished reading Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs this morning.
I read it years ago when after seeing the movie with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I don’t remember reading the book the first time and my recollection of the movie is vague. I did notice that Dr. Lecter’s comment on serving human liver with fava beans was moved to the end in the movie.

My most insightful impression on this reading was that Dr. Lecter progressed from devouring minds as a psychiatrist to devouring bodies as a serial killer, which appears to be an indictment of psychology in a book that popularized criminal profiling. I don’t intend to criticize, I enjoyed the book immensely, but it did not strike me as particularly well written. Too many sentences that sounded awkward in my ear, too many words that clunked because a better choice was available. The writing reminded me of Stephen King, another writer I like to read but would prefer that he put on a little more polish. Both Harris and King tell stories that are hard to put down with engaging characters, but read a little rough, like an elegant piece of furniture with a finish that needs another rubout and coat of varnish.

The characters central characters in The Silence of the Lambs are all driven by their psychology, which derives from their childhood experiences. In this book, we don’t know about Lecter, but Harris’s other books depict it as grotesque. Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, was dumped by an alcoholic mother, whom he idolizes. Clarice Starling was deprived of her mother’s love and had to save her horse from her uncle and the glue factory. These wretched childhoods are not seen so frequently in books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Even Dickens’ orphans were better treated.

Have brutally wretched childhoods become more common? Or have they become more interesting and more discussed? I have no means of knowing, but the media certainly cater to a taste for childhood misery. A scan of a local television app this morning reveals two stories involving children involved in gruesome crime. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have apps to look at, and I didn’t find a newspaper from 1984, but I think child brutality was not an established genre then. But I’ll bet it was rampant.

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