And now for a completely different gothic, courtesy of Sabina Murray, author of the fine story collection The Caprices. A Carnivore’s Inquiry is stylish and propulsive, narrated by a snarky 23-year-old college dropout too disaffected for her own good. Katherine Shea appears out of nowhere—or rather, she’s just returned to the U.S. from Italy, but it’s not clear what naughty things she’s been doing there. She feeds the reader scant hints about her family: mother imprisoned in some hospital, father a menacing presence. Unmotivated to get a job, Katherine hooks up with a moneyed Russian novelist, who unknowingly bankrolls her aimless, drink-fueled road trip across America.
Along the way, Katherine picks up a string of nice guys—like her, restless souls who don’t fit in. Unfortunately, most of them end up dead, possibly by a serial killer. Then again, Katherine herself has a pretty alarming penchant for tales of cannibalism. She relishes stories of Indians and pioneers who devoured their kin, rents The Silence of the Lambs, and adores Goya’s Saturn Consuming His Offspring. Favorite childhood fairy tale? “Hansel and Gretel,” of course—a fable about hunger and greed that takes on new meaning in Katherine’s retelling. (“I’d like to think that the reason I loved the story . . . was because of the triumph of good in the end. But in retrospect I think it was probably the child-eating witch that kept tempting me back to its pages.”) Murray rummages through the most sickly, humid precincts of history and literature, plucking out just about every instance of cannibalism she can find. This motif loses its savor with endless repetition, and the novel gradually mutates into something that is as much farce as thriller. But Katherine is such a juicy character—all her appetites submerged beneath her crisp, deadpan demeanor—that it’s worth the indigestion.