Lights Out In Wonderland
by DBC Pierre
This isn't going to be a traditional post from me as this is a book I read professionally, for production as an audio book, but which threw up some interesting thoughts as part of the process. DBC Pierre is an author who seems to attract a fair bit of opprobrium mainly for having had the audacity to win the Booker Prize with a novel that wasn't just a debut but a thoroughly disrespectful and un-serious one at that, added to which it seemed that the £50,000 prize money would go on settling debts from his drug-addled past, or at least some of them (he did at one point sell a friend's house and pocket the proceeds). Personally I remember reading it, finding it entertaining enough and was never quite certain why people were so upset when it won (2003 was a pretty odd year if you look at the long and shortlists) That said, the pasting that his second novel, Ludmilla's Broken English, received was so universal that a gifted copy of it still sits on my shelf, and the concept that Lights Out In Wonderland was the final part of a loose trilogy meant I had little interest in reading it on publication, a feeling unaltered after hearing the man himself read from it at a literary event. Authors are seldom the best readers of their own work and though Peter Finlay may have lead a dissolute life that closely mirrors that of Gabriel Brockwell, the anti-hero of this latest novel, that doesn't mean the story is best served by his own wearied and monotonous drawl.
So when the job came through I was a little apprehensive. Narrated by Gabriel Brockwell the book begins as he comes round to find himself in a rehab facility having been dumped there by his father as a last throw of the dice to get his son back on the straight and narrow. Gabriel has squandered every opportunity he's been offered, a perennial under-achiever and after losing his job in the food court of a motorway services has occupied himself of late as part of a group of anti-capitalist demonstrators. Having decided that the only option left to him is suicide he then has a revelation: he doesn't need to do it right away. Suddenly he is in a state of limbo where the normal constraints of life no longer matter. If you know you're going to kill yourself you don't need to worry about consequences. Behaviour can be untrammelled, all bridges can be burned. Escape rehab, find old friend Smuts and muster forces for a final hoorah - A bacchanalian feast of excess not seen since the end of Rome.
With the police and bailiffs on his tail Gabriel reassigns the group's treasury to his personal account and heads off after Smuts, which means a flight to Tokyo where he now works in a high-end fish restaurant. Smuts is a delicious concoction. A genius chef with a passion for the extreme he introduces Gabriel to sashimi that carries the added risk of death and a new breed of wines that invoke almost a new sense of taste. The two of them are like volatile ingredients that are safe when kept apart but lethal when mixed and their first evening together is a potent mix of fine food and wine, class-A drugs, brushes with the Japanese underworld which climaxes quite literally in a giant fish tank. Thereafter Gabriel will travel on to Berlin where the plot becomes ever more outrageous and the menu not just exotic but positively endangered.
If this just sounds like an entertainment fit for the gourmand then that's to miss the pretty hefty satire. I say hefty because Gabriel sees himself as living in the end of days, the decline of Western civilisation, and has plenty of things to sound off about (Free-market economics, consumerism, drug-taking to name but three). Some of these fit more neatly into the plot than others and the use of footnotes to allow him to digress at will may put some readers off. For me as the reader of the audio-book version there's a particular challenge: not just how to read those footnotes so that you don't lose the flow of the book but how to keep the listener engaged during those moments of pontification. Pierre helps by injecting plenty of gusto into his diatribes and the rest is up to me of course. And that's the biggest challenge of course. Reading a whole book in first-person narration is an act of stamina in itself but Gabriel is also a pretty unlikeable character if truth be told so how do you make it a pleasant and engaging experience for the listener. Theatre is full of anti-heroes who appeal to the audience through wit and humour, making them complicit in crimes committed and I can only hope to do something similar: entertain, engage and perhaps find a smidgen of sympathy in Gabriel's fractious relationship with his father.
I haven't read any of the critical reaction to this book in the newspapers but all I can say is that as a project to read and bring to life it's an absolute hoot. A day's recording is six hours of you talking, just you, talking and talking, and can be exhausting quite frankly. But when you've got something to get your teeth into it can be a lot of fun. I guess the only danger is if I come across like those people fond of a line or two of cocaine who love the sound of their own voice, finding themselves terribly interesting, whilst those that are forced to listen scan the room for the nearest exit. It will after all be only the click of a button away.