Jo Case talks to Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre about his new novel Lights Out In Wonderland.
You call Lights Out in Wonderland the last of ‘a loose trilogy of fictions’, which began with the Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little, followed by Ludmila’s Broken English. How is the trilogy linked, and what is this novel’s place in it?
This loose trilogy is a human snapshot of life in the first decade of a millennium; the twentieth century saw more change come to humans than any century before it – and yet we remain whimsical and self-absorbed creatures, often still driven by animal instinct. The works were meant to paint a cutting yet ultimately forgiving portrait of our mad ways and times – and this third independent book, Lights Out In Wonderland, supposes that massive change will have to come. It refrlects on those ideas of the twentieth century that failed, such as communism, and proposes that capitalism is in its late and final stage as well – it’s an allegory on market forces and their unravelling, set in the limbo between ideologies gone and those yet to come. From a personal point of view, completing these books now leaves me free to move on from such social questions.
That consumerist call to arms, ‘because you’re worth it’, recurs throughout the book. Your narrator muses that ‘Western culture [is] driven by this idea’. What is its significance? And is this something that really bothers you personally?
Our century is founded on individualism and self-entitlement, and this is the catch-cry which most reflects it – in the UK for instance, not an hour of media can pass without this phrase puncturing the air. I’m used to it, as is everyone – but if you step back from it for a moment, it is a significant thing to say to someone in order to further your own profit. I personally like it, but feel no good will come from the reasoning behind it – and that kind of bothers me.
This is a very decadent, hedonistic book – with the main character, Gabriel, drinking and drugging and bleeding his way through it. The language, too, is lush and hedonistic – the opposite of spare restraint. What is it that draws you to this style – is it your own preferred way of writing, or an apt illustration of your themes, or both?
I’ll stop now and go back to that early twentieth century spareness and naturalism which has become synonymous with modern finesse. But the thing is this – such language actually expresses more, it paints hues as well as colours. Let’s admit that although it takes longer to read, the phrase “the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment,” says more than “I got used to it.’ Anyway, for the purposes of this book it is a nod to the late nineteenth century decadence which spawned so many great works, and a reminder that our own decadence has spawned much less – and also I think a decadent tale grows less vulgar when its language is sweet. Its vulgarity gradually falls away like a garment, ha ha. Listen, don’t wind me up or I’ll do all these answers as poems.
In your book, the East Berliner, Anna, tells Gabriel: ‘the tics which you call a personality are independent from the workings of the mind, and from how a person can be trusted to act ... To follow them as if they represent a person is to disrespect the person, and also to be deceived ... A person consists of what he or she actually does.’ How is this idea reflected in the book and its characters?
Well identified, thanks – it is simply this: the book isn’t a novel but an allegory, its principal metaphor extends across its whole length. And so Gabriel, often charming, human, understandable, forgivable in his personality – spends the book wrecking everything he touches, just like the markets he anguishes over.
The reluctant journey into adulthood, and what adulthood means (a certain measure of restraint, facing issues head on rather than ignoring or escaping them) seems a central concern of the book. Do you think Gabriel’s difficulty growing up is a common one these days? Do you draw on your own experience at all for this theme?
Baby boomers! Kidults. Fifty-five year olds buying their first Harley. Growing up is for our grandparents, not for us. It’s a stastistical fact that the current generation of retirees is the one that will leave the least behind in terms of wealth and stability. They’re in it for themselves. And of course, growing up is something I’ve tried to avoid. Why do it? Unfortunately though, it seeps in through cracks.
Our worship of food, and the use of food as a status symbol, is central to the book – and you’re very creative with this theme, including a crucial moment with Japanese poison fish (fugu), and a feast that includes tiger cubs on the menu and an anaconda as serving dish. Why was food so important to the book? And was it fun to create these outlandish moments?
Food, the new porn. The thing is this, if you come and spend a month up my mountain in Ireland and look back at our culture, you might see something very clearly – we’ve gone back to a farming economy – except that we’re the ones being farmed. All our animal impulses are hooked up to feeding lines to and from corporations. It was fun thinking about edgy food for this book though – and the recipes come from a real chef, a great one, and an Aussie.
You were a visual artist for many years before you became a novelist. Do you think your early focus on the visual feeds into your writing at all?
Must do, I see the scene in my head and try to describe it. Actually it can be harder than just painting it.
Who are some of the writers, and what are some of the books, that you admire? Are there any that have inspired your own writing, or this book?
Plenty, and for this book a host of them, from Ovid to Flaubert. Probably the writer I most admire for expressing himself precisely through language is Thomas Mann – and for making a theatre or a painting of life, Evelyn Waugh, Kerouac, Gore Vidal. I’m a slow reader but those works must have sunk in. My favourite book: Papillon, the most amazing first-person narrative I’ve ever seen.