The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Silence of the Lambs / 0099446782
On the grounds that everyone else on earth has seen the movie, I rented Silence of the Lambs over the weekend and found it surprisingly better than I'd expected: as far as classic films go, the movie held up well, and I was pleased to find how much of the movie explores institutional misogyny in the FBI and how Clarice Starling is forced to navigate a lot of hurdles that her male colleagues don't. Indeed, the movie piqued my interest enough that I bought the kindle book and audible audiobook and read along with the narrator to see if this theme was explored in more depth in the novel.
Twenty-four hours later, I'm still not sure how to rate this book. I found it entertaining to read/listen to. The novel is well-written from a purely technical perspective, though the occasional jumps to present tense when talking about people from Starling's past were sometimes disconcerting for me, since I'm less used to that style of writing. (Example: "Jimmy Price *is* a supervisor in Latent Prints at the Washington lab. Starling *did* time with him as a Forensic Fellow." [emphasis mine]) In some ways, the novel reminds me of the parts I liked in Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, and the way the author could use otherwise "mundane" details to make the story feel vivid and immediate.
Also like Steig Larsson's trilogy, I feel like this book is trying to be an ally to women, and seeks to make some good feminist points...but I'm not sure how well it succeeds. I like protagonist Clarice Starling and I love her roommate Ardelia Mapp, and their conversations are some of the best in the novel. There's a lot of institutionalized misogyny that Clarice is forced to navigate around, just like in the movie, and quite a bit of this is handled reasonably well. There's a good conversation with Hannibal Lector about how society mistakes rage for lust, which I thought was a good dismantling of a lot of false "rape is a compliment" narratives. And I deeply appreciate the point made later in the novel when Clarice notes the incongruity in a case where all the victims are women, and yet NONE of the investigators are. That is a very crucial point that needs to be hammered home, and Harris does a good job of it.
On the other hand, the level of issues in this novel for female bodies that happen to be fat just about took my breath away, and it can't all be laid at the doorstep of the misogynistic serial killer. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when Starling came to the conclusion that the serial killer would have been *forced* to stalk his victims (as opposed to kidnapping them opportunistically) because tall, fat women "aren't common" and that if he'd just staked out a location waiting for one to walk by then he "could sit for days and not see one." Because us tall, fat women are like invisible pink unicorns! And our invisibility is an objective fact and not a matter of people only noticing the people they subjectively prefer to focus on.
Additionally, the author can't seem to decide what level of "sisterhood" he wants to push as part of the narrative. It's a very good point that a case with all-women victims deserves to have women investigators on the team. And Starling may well be correct when she claims that she "can walk in a woman's room and know three times as much about her as a man would know", although I would say that statement is an over-generalization that very much depends on both the woman who owns the room and the hypothetical man looking at it.
At the same time, Starling has moments where she has to push through her own rage and distaste and misplaced pity: anger at women who were born into more money than she; distaste for women with fat bodies who are axiomatically "hard on [their] shoes" which are "strained into ovals"; pity on fat women who are willing to date men who aren't turned off by fat bodies. I think Harris intends these details to make Starling realistically flawed, yet even after she works through her issues, she still feels judgmental of other women, trapped in the Exceptional Woman stereotype that helps her navigate institutionalized sexism but doesn't tear it down. The overall effect muddles the intended feminist message I feel the author is trying to deliver.
I've noted elsewhere that the movie is a mess when it comes to trans* issues, and the book tries to do better. There's much firmer establishment here of the fact that the serial killer is not a trans woman and that most trans* people are not violent -- indeed, that violence is much more common among cis people. But there's still the problematic framing that trans* people are "passive", which is a blanket characterization which others trans* people into a monolith with a word which is almost never used in a positive manner. ("Passive" is rarely a compliment, in my experience.) Additionally, the assessment of why the killer is not really trans* largely boils down to "because he gave the wrong answers on the psychiatric assessments", and some of these passages in the novel end up sounding reductionist, like there's only one "right" way to be a trans* person. As with the women's issues, it feels like the narrative was TRYING to be sensitive, but missed the boat.
I want to be clear, because sometimes my reviews are misunderstood: I enjoyed this novel. I'm giving it 4-stars. I'm pleased that I bought and listened to/read it. I might read it again someday. If you don't mind the above issues and/or can turn off the parts of your brain that are bothered by them for however long it takes to read a classic thriller novel, I recommend this book as enjoyable. But at the same time, this isn't a flawless novel of perfection, and I was a little disappointed to see an author try so hard to be an ally and miss the mark in places. Though I'm glad he tried at all, I hope that future writers who are inspired by this classic will improve on these flaws.
A note on the audiobook for this novel: I purchased the unabridged recording narrated by Frank Muller through Audible. Muller does a good job on the narration, but there's a persistent white noise hum in the background that I managed to tune out *except* when there was complete silence between chapters, at which point I noticed the soft white noise hum all over again when it started up in the next chapter -- each new chapter, I had to re-acclimate to the underlying sound, which took several sentences to get used to.
There's also a weird artifact on the track at the moment: at some points in the narration, there's "ghosting" on the track, as though there were two identical recordings of Muller's voice (a left and a right for stereo, maybe?) and one track suddenly falls a half-second behind the other, so it sounds like he's repeating himself for a moment until the voices re-sync. You can hear this at half a dozen points in the audio, including at Chapter 15 at time 3.08.49. I've reported this content error to Audible and they've been able to reproduce the error on their end, but they haven't yet fixed it as of 6/2/2013.
~ Ana Mardoll