Lights Out in Wonderland, By DBC Pierre

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The Independent Culture

The precipitously drunken, pleasure-seeking narrative of DBC Pierre's third novel follows the half-cut Gabriel Brockwell, a campaigning anti-capitalist who has escaped suicide watch at a rehab clinic and now stands in a bacchanalian "limbo" between life and death. In other words, he is preparing for the party of a lifetime before taking his own life.

In Gabriel, Pierre gives us another shambolic, tragicomic anti-hero, except that as he parties hard Gabriel likes to expound lectern-like theories on all that is wrong with the greed-driven, free-market economy that has brought about his unravelling. Puritanical and hedonistic by turns, Gabriel's disposition leads him to preach against the corrupting capitalist forces yet act like a Dionysus, revelling in the decadence it offers. Even his prospective suicide is described in partying terms: "Everyone regrets leaving a party early, hearing laughter from a salon behind them. Death must feel that way."

Although Gabriel has resolved to commit suicide in the earlier chapters, the reader senses, in his procrastinations, that he will end up embracing life, not only because so many chapters still lie ahead but also because he appears to have too much lust for life. His words, to "decide to die – then live" have a predictable irony. Worse still, the structural trope of a suicide mission that turns out to be life-affirming adventure could stand accused of schmaltz. The suicide narrative thus turns into a romance quest, driven by his journey to experience the ultimate party, and inadvertently, bring about his spiritual salvation.

At moments, Pierre's writing is heady, reaching glorious heights of linguistic invention. He shows that he is just as adept at conjuring a sense of place - this time in Japan and Germany - as he was in his pitch perfect presentation of the Texan vernacular in his Booker-prize winning debut, Vernon God Little.

Pierre imaginatively captures the former East German quarter of Berlin in the better parts of this book's observational comedy, as Gabriel's muses: "This feels more like a city where if you wanted to die, you just put out the recycling, water the herbs, cancel your Süddeutsche Zeitung subscription and die."

Yet these inspired moments appear like occasional flares lighting up the night sky. Even as an anti-hero, Gabriel is not likeable enough for the reader to feel emotionally invested in his life-or-death outcome. Pierre has intimated that the story was in part, modelled on his drug-fuelled breakdown in his late twenties, so if Gabriel appears in an unflattering light, at least he is deliberately, perhaps even self-referentially, drawn so.

Still, his tone, fortified by mile-long lines of cocaine, vacillates between nihilistic nadirs and epiphanous highs (described as "whooshes"), with little variation in between, and his personal drama as an unloved son is under-described. His inner voice is overwhelmed by relentless diatribes against the evils of capitalism, with spiralling asides in footnote form. The fight against capitalism becomes a strained metaphor for life and death and the idea that the abjuration of this ideology will provide redemption is clunky.

The trust of the plot is driven by the fate of his jailed friend, Smuts, who is facing a life sentence after Gabriel cajoles him into a bout of drunken carousing. Gabriel's salvation seems to be wrapped up in his effort to free Smuts, which leads him to do business with an amoral culinary under-world, yet Smuts's release is off-handedly revealed, almost in passing, at the end.

A mitigating factor may be the curse of the Booker prize, if there is such a thing, which appears to have hung over Pierre like a rain cloud, casting its shadow over whatever has followed his charismatic debut. This latest work when compared, unfairly, with that first, feels a little like rain.

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