Reviewed by John Glover, Reference Librarian for the Humanities
Francine Prose's Guided Tours of Hell consists of two stories in one slim volume, one ("Guided Tours of Hell") a novella, the other ("Three Pigs in Five Days") more of a short novel. Each story is, in its way, a gray and gloomy tale, revolving around or under the shadows of Kafka, the Holocaust, and the history of Modern Europe. Each story unerringly traces the caprices of ego and vanity, and in the end presents characters who make as good, vain, and greedy choices as people ever make.
"Guided Tours of Hell" follows the lower-echelon playwright Landau, observing his thoughts and actions as he tours a Nazi death camp as part of a Kafka symposium. He engages in a struggle (often purely internal) with a much lauded and fought-over Holocaust survivor who after liberation wrote a series of gripping memoirs and lived a life of unrestrained excess. The characters here calculate, suffer, and fall in and out of alliances with and lust for each other as they try to make their way through the world's most hideous field trip.
"Three Pigs in Five Days" tells the story of Nina, sent to Paris by Leo, her lover and boss, to write a travel story about cozy nooks and corners of the city. The story quickly takes a turn for the surreal when she realizes that the hotel she was assigned was a former house of ill repute, and from there Prose takes us through the extreme series of mental gymnastics Nina must perform in order to determine whether Leo is trying to abandon her or simply play with her head. She encounters a colorful range of characters, from neo-Nazis to gallery curators to tourists bound for the Paris catacombs. Through it all she wonders how what she sees is conditioned by her experiences with and desire for Leo.