Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre, book review: Horror...without the suspense


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The Independent Culture

The series of commissioned novellas attempts in literature what hasn't yet quite worked on film: a revival of the cheap, campily elegant, cliché-subverting genre thrills associated with the Hammer brand. Writers of sober literary reputation – Jeanette Winterson, Helen Dunmore – have contributed, alongside scribes of a more hackish bent. DBC Pierre, an author much-lauded, much-slated and never easy to categorise, is an intriguing addition.

Excess has been key to much of his work, as has the forcing to the fore of the unpleasantness that pulses just beneath our efforts at polite interaction – so horror might seem to be a natural fit...

His story concerns a computer scientist, Ariel, who is on his way to speak at a conference and keep an illicit rendezvous with a female student when transport problems necessitate a hiatus at an isolated guesthouse. The other residents are promisingly weird. So, is Ariel about to be punished for his sexual transgressions? Be tempted away from fidelity? Have his scientist's mind bent by a powerful dose of the irrational? Enter his own personal nightmare?

Well, yes, and sort of, and yes, and sort of. But things are rather more murky than precise here; and if murkiness isn't necessarily a drawback in a lengthy literary novel, it interferes rather with the punchiness of a short-form work specifically sold as horror. Pierre isn't really a short, sharp sort of writer; his skill, most potently exercised in his Booker Prize-winning 2003 debut Vernon God Little, is for messy, pungent, rambling anecdotes told in attention-seeking language. The attempt to tailor this shaggy style to fit the bony body of a genre novella has not been entirely successful; Breakfast with the Borgias, though often winningly peculiar, feels at once over-decorated with ideas and unfinished at the edges.

Its most interesting facet is its focus upon communications technology, and what happens to modern people when they fail. Horror has dealt before with the terror of being cut off – it's now a movie in-joke that characters must lose their mobile phone reception before their traumas commence – but here, the risk is greater than isolation; it's loss of value, loss of self. The romance between Ariel and his student Zeva leans heavily on online chat and texting. With technology rendered suddenly and drastically unreliable, he's no longer able to manipulate her; someone else all too easily can; and the precariousness of their bond is rendered grossly apparent.

This theme comes and goes like Ariel's mobile signal, however, while Pierre flings other half-formed notions into the narrative. Restlessness and distractibility are among the strengths of his writing, but they don't help much with building suspense; while much of the writing here is vivid and forceful, the tale drifts. Perhaps it's in part because a conflict between forces of dark and light isn't really a fit for a cynic like Pierre; since he tends to see the dark and grotesque in everything, the lurch into horror doesn't feel like much of a lurch, while his characters don't inspire the sort of warmth that might make you fear for their fate.

Also destructive to any build-up of tension is his tendency to signpost what he's doing. He calls a family the Borders, then painstakingly explains that they lack boundaries; he drops great clanking hints that each trick he plays might be a trick, and allows them to fool his protagonist only by making his protagonist passive and dense. And he doesn't so much foreshadow his twist ending as spoiler the hell out of it. It's hard to feel suspense as a reader when even the protagonist keeps guessing out loud about what's happening to him.