Book review: Lights Out In Wonderland

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LIGHTS OUT IN WONDERLAND DBC Pierre Faber & Faber, £12.99

ALTHOUGH this new novel by the Booker prize-winner "Dirty But Clean" Pierre purports to be an analysis of contemporary decadence, it could be argued that it is actually symptomatic of it.

The story is narrated by one Gabriel Brockwell, "a microwave chef. A writer of pamphlets. A product of our time. A failed student. A faulty man. A bad poet.

An activist in two minds". It is also, supposedly, written by him, though Pierre mismanages this conceit: at points in the book he seems to remember that Gabriel is also writing but it's unclear when, in the orgy of consumption and sophomoric musing, he's actually putting pen to paper.

At the beginning of the novel, Gabriel has been checked into a rehab clinic by his father, where he has an epiphany. Having decided to commit suicide, Gabriel becomes aware of the pointlessness of life, a circumstance he terms "Limbo", and decides to live in this hiatus where nothing matters.

This liberates him for an epic, carnivalesque odyssey where he seeks to plumb the depths of debauchery. Having ripped off his former woolly-Left agitator friends - such odysseys require expedient injections of cash - he travels to Tokyo to meet up with his childhood friend Smuts, who is working as a fugu chef. Smuts has shadowy connections to a mysterious magnate, Didier le Basque. Gabriel becomes embroiled in staging a Bacchanalian feast for the Basque in the subterranean labyrinth of Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, the place that Norman Foster has described as "the mother of all airports" and a testament to Nazi grandiosity.

So far, so early 20th century. There is very little in Lights Out In Wonderland that would be unfamiliar to readers of the more ambitious works of the Surrealists. Novels such as Burroughs' Cities Of The Red Night, Bataille's Story Of The Eye, Cendrars' Moravagine and Breton's Nadja have already dissected the politics of excess and the cultural lassitude of capitalism.

Indeed, the wonderful EM Cioran's A Short History Of Decay had already articulated, in a far more eloquent manner, DBC Pierre's thesis: as Cioran writes "with the exception of the Greek sceptics and the Roman emperors of the Decadence, all minds seem enslaved by a municipal vocation. Only these two are emancipated, the former by doubt, the latter by dementia, from the insipid obsession of being useful".

Pierre winks at the tradition of Petronius's Satyricon and the best parts in this otherwise banal book are the grotesque menus at the end, featuring dishes such as "Confit of Koala Leg with Lemon Saffron Chutney" and "Golden Lion Tamarin Brain and Blue Cheese Ravioli". It is a rare moment when the interest in decadence and excess translates into decadent and excessive prose.

For the most part, Pierre's style is pastel and flaccid, with a striving for portent that becomes inadvertently comic: for example, "My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism, moulded by a corner of aircraft seat".

It's impossible to empathise with Gabriel, and the surrounding cast of characters are mere ciphers distinguished only by their choice of swearing. Perhaps it's middle age creeping up on me, but the desire to shock seems increasingly vapid. Even the "sexual encounter with an octopus" seems recycled: compare it with the similar scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, when such things were actually shocking rather than vainly striving to shock. At the end of the novel, Gabriel has another epiphany, where he realises that he wants to die as an adult rather than as a child. I'd been saying "Oh, grow up" for the previous 272 pages.

It is perhaps an inherent risk in the whole endeavour that a book which attempts to describe the "entropic march towards insensate banality" should incarnate those qualities so perfectly.

This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, 22 August, 2010bb

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