In the excruciatingly arch novel The Debt to Pleasure, the author — former restaurant reviewer for the London Observer John Lanchester — tries to eat his cake and have it, too. On the one hand, he craves the reader’s indulgence to ramble on disjointedly about food, art, death, and the vagaries of national tastes in sauces and pickles. On the other hand, Lanchester would rather not be held accountable for the platitudes he’s dishing out. So he’s put them into the mouth of a comic alter ego, a pedantic gourmand and delirious Francophile named Tarquin Winot (why not?). The gradual revelation of Winot’s sinister side gives the book a wisp of plot. Nothing can give it a soul. A heavy garnish of literary allusions — wilted Wilde and potted Proust — and a timid soupcon of autobiography can’t disguise the main ingredient: stale food journalism. Pass the ketchup, please.