Tuesday 24 October 2017

Review: Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre

(Faber & Faber, €17.15)
The last days of the ponce of darkness

By his own definition, DBC Pierre is a citizen of the world, so it's fitting that his third novel concerns itself with something which really did affect the entire planet: the collapse of free-market capitalism, and the broader culture that both enabled it and was created by it, at the end of the last decade.

That, though, is the subtext. On the surface, the story is about one man, twentysomething Briton Gabriel Brockwell, a wannabe libertine, disaffected political radical and recovering substance abuser who doesn't want to recover.

Instead, he decides to kill himself, so setting in chain a globe-trotting narrative as Gabriel seeks out the perfect party before the last of all deeds -- and tries to put down his philosophy of life and how best to live it.

Forty-nine-year-old Pierre, who has lived in Leitrim for several years now, has a life-story almost as interesting as his books. Born Peter Finlay, he experienced a peripatetic youth which took in Australia, Mexico and other places, a young adulthood that involved serious fraud and epic drug abuse, then a Booker Prize win in 2003 with his debut novel Vernon God Little -- he reads like one of his own characters.

Lights Out in Wonderland begins with Gabriel in rehab, at the behest of his father, after getting involved in an anti-capitalism demonstration that turned sour. He feels alienated from former colleagues, detached from his cranky, selfish old man and contemptuous of the rehab counsellors.

More than all this, he is sickened by modern society: materialistic, dumb, infantilised, atomised, in which human beings are ruled with soft but inescapable power by hideous grey men, men of expensive suits and no soul. And he sees that the edifice is coming apart. The lights, as the title suggests, are going out in our fake, plastic wonderland.

He heads to Tokyo and best friend Nelson Smuts, cocksure and handsome, one of those annoying people for whom everything came easily their whole life. Smuts, he decides, is the exact right person for that last binge, the last blowout, the hedonistic night of excess to end all others -- before Gabriel ends it all himself.

Alas, the gods laugh when men make plans: an outlandish incident in Nelson's restaurant, involving poisonous fish ovaries, an octopus tank and the owner's daughter, result in disaster for Smuts. Gabriel is forced to divert course: from his sharply delineated pursuit of death, to his father's former partner in Berlin, and a semi-mythical nightclub that might just save them both.

Since that Booker win, Pierre has produced one other book, Ludmilla's Broken English, which got mixed reviews. But Lights Out in Wonderland finds him back in brilliant form. It's not a novel everyone will warm to -- the main character isn't hugely appealing, for one thing -- but the writing is simply superb, with a plot that compels you to read more, and language that just sings off the page.

Pierre's evocation of place is great: you really feel like you're walking the streets of Berlin alongside the anti-hero.

And every page, almost every paragraph, is heavy with wonderful phrasing: "Smuts rippled under the sun, with all the symmetries that are an unspoken passport into society. Not that he was hacked in the way of hard and angry men, but rather strung and smoothed into a hallmark of nature, one of her boasts, like a hummingbird or a summer's day."

Gabriel is a bit of a self-indulgent prat at times, but you feel inclined to forgive that as the arrogance of youth, that annoying certainty.

And the funny thing is, he's actually right in most of what he says. His bilious denunciations of capitalism, a monster that makes us want more and more but is guaranteed to leave us feeling forever unsatisfied, will strike a chord with, well, everyone.

Just think of Fingers Fingleton or the Anglo debacle, and you might sympathise with this hot-headed but fundamentally idealistic cynic, who sees annihilation as the only sane response to an insane system.

Buy 'Lights out in wonderland' from Eason

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