Out of the Mouth of Babes
By Anna Aslanyan.
Lights Out in Wonderland, DBC Pierre, Faber & Faber 2010
“I am the founder of the latest literary school, the mauvistes, the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, in order to attract attention.” Thus spake Valentin Kataev, the Russian author for whom “the art of writing badly” became an aesthetic escape from the officially approved Soviet literature, good to the extent of being unreadable. Mauvism (from the French mauvais, bad) was a movement that produced some gems of 20th century fiction at the time when those born in the wrong camp did not have much opportunity to express themselves without opposing the regime in one way or another. They were facing the totalitarian machine at its most violent back in those Dark Ages.
In our civilised, generally democratic era we are, of course, free to express ourselves left, right and centre. Take DBC Pierre: with no Ministry of Truth looking over his shoulder, he writes at his pleasure about what he sees around him – that is, all sorts of modern, highly evolved life forms. His debut, Vernon God Little, examined this bewildered creature, Texan teenager, in its habitat, and turned out to be a dazzling satirical feat, winning the Booker prize in 2003. Since then, reality shows have been firmly replaced by reality itself – which, as Pierre said in a recent interview, “has surpassed satire.” Consequently, a new genre is required to produce its true likeness. Without wishing to label it, the new novel by Pierre, Lights Out in Wonderland, does bring to mind mauvism.
The book is also – like the author’s first and, to some degree, second, Ludmila’s Broken English – a study of a number of species, some endangered, some not yet. There are celebrity chefs – the “kitchen KGB with its shadowy myrmidons,” the “culinary al-Qaeda.” There are the rich and the powerful flown to a banquet Caligula would have found a tad over the top, where they demonstrate survival of the fittest, devouring such dishes as “Giant Panda Paw with Borlotti Beans & Baby Root Vegetables.” There are anti-globalists with their pamphlets: “MODERN CAPITALISM – giving arseholes self-esteem since 1850”, which double as greeting cards. The protagonist, Gabriel Brockwell, used to belong to this movement until he realised that “capital isn’t the problem – I’m the problem. We’re the problem”. This revelation is the first step the 25-year-old enfant terrible makes on his own, toddling towards a long-delayed adulthood.
Can DBC Pierre write well? Absolutely – anyone who has read him can confirm that. Is Lights Out in Wonderland well written? It is, perhaps, better to rephrase the question: does the author want, or need, to write well at this stage? If he did, he would have done exactly that – the master of his calibre is certainly capable of producing yet another sample of “good” contemporary prose. Instead, he delivers what could be used as a textbook for an inside-out creative writing course. Is the plot chaotic, whimsy, carelessly thought out? Tick. Are the characters schematic, overly cartoonish, half-drawn (one might say, with a child’s crayon)? Tick. Is the hero’s decision to commit suicide insufficiently justified and involves too much procrastination to be credible? Tick. As a result, instead of a solid post-credit crunch book where “evil, evil bankers” are confronted by their self-righteous opponents, we get one that fizzles with energy and, at the same time, shows how mauvais writing can be raised to exquisite heights. It is not Pierre’s amazing drive alone that makes the novel stand out; what is important is his idea that, in our day and age, one should write in the same fashion as one lives, that is, embrace the absurd, the nonsensical, the grotesque.
The novel has no time for traditional logic, nor for consistently good writing, and the reader, after an initial frown or two, is convinced that this is the only possible way to go. Why is Gabriel criss-crossing the globe if he simply wants to kill himself (granted, he doesn’t have “to do it immediately”, but surely he must get down to business at some point)? Does his unfortunate friend really need a fine-dining venue in Berlin to avoid being jailed in Tokyo? The lameness of these plot twists is not the point – they can be discarded in the same way as phrases like “hundred years of communism jammed into a doleful shine” or “the world is a glossier place through the glass of a limousine”. After these seemingly awkward passages, we are rewarded by observations that are sharp and witty; for instance, the famous chefs never have time to cook since they “probably spend their time at Burger King, plotting overthrows.”
The more you read, the more you get carried away with the novel’s flow. This is what immersing yourself into David Foster Wallace feels like, but where the great American magician bores his reader, characters and himself senseless to tell a truly fascinating story the way only he can, Pierre teases and befuddles, creating the stream of a-consciousness that makes us want to swim with rather than sink in it. The sheer electricity of the author’s word is enough to shock us into believing that we no longer need good prose – even Gabriel’s conclusion, “we need the Master Limbo of modern capitalism”, prepubescent as it is, sounds more appealing. The words spoken by the infant deserve to take place of the truth more than many a high-brow statement made by writers who practise their art in the hope it will be deemed good.
It is not widely known if DBC Pierre has ever managed to set a rehab establishment on fire armed by a single slice of lemon (the trick his protagonist plays at the beginning of the book). However, the meaning of the author’s initials is no secret – his wild years earned him the nickname Dirty But Clean. To carry on in the same style, and to capture the gist of the kind of writing he has now turned to, one could do worse than use the formula Mauvais But Good.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 1st, 2010.