Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell, book review: A loafer's battle with boredom

 

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The Independent Culture

Reading Adam Thirlwell's third full-length novel was a similar experience to reading his first in 2003. Billed as a distinctive debut, compared with Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers, Thirlwell's deadpan prose made Politics so disappointing that I wondered if he was invoking some mysterious tradition which cherishes flat descriptions of threesomes.

And yet, with his erudite criticism, interviews where he quoted Milan Kundera, and a fine story in Granta magazine, everything else about Thirlwell appeared to arrive fully-formed. It was as though English literature's arbiters had selected him for big things without checking to see if the novel was any good.

Twelve years later, as the 30-something narrator of Lurid & Cute described his ennui, I wondered: Why? Why stack up similes in a style which might work in absurdist poetry or short fiction but, across 358 pages, drains readers of the will to persevere? Occasional loveliness – a moustache like "the flourished squiggle of mustard on a hot dog" – is offset by self-indulgence: "Romy was gone, for ever, the way a marble sculpture might have been lost in the more classical times – just tipped overboard from a trireme in the process of some shipjacking by a bored and overworked Viking."

In an unnamed city, possibly in the Far East, the narrator awakes in a hotel bed with tall, blonde Romy. He stalls the suspicions of his tall, blonde wife, Candy, by saying he's depressed. This makes sense, the couple live with the narrator's parents and, after quitting his job to "pursue my dream of art", he loafs, taking ketamine, pondering how to use his time. He and his friend, Hiro, rob a nail salon using a fake gun which inspires meditations on the possibility that if people think something is real then it might as well be.

This luridness occurs in a world of kitsch: "soft and delicious" is how the narrator describes his childhood in suburbia where "boredom tends to expand like cookie dough."

When the narrator is at a party with both Candy and Romy, the ensuing orgy is narrated with predictable enfant terrible drollery: "A girl was just lying there being licked between the legs while idly toying with a penis that had been offered to her hand, but her head was resting on some popzines and I worried for her neck." This is amusing enough, but what is there to care about? The narrator is attractive to women, as feckless men often are in fiction but rarely are in life. He knows he's a character in a story but sometimes talks like an author in an interview: "The only way of beginning is to begin with an idea that you know will never be expressed, in the hope that something else will be able to be expressed of whose existence or form you are not yet aware."

In the novel's later stages, the narrator is stalked by anonymous phone calls, feels guilty about his mistakes and tries to atone. Unfortunately, the well-executed ending, when his victims seek revenge, wasn't sufficient to revive this reader's interest. Lurid & Cute doesn't lack ideas or jokes and some passages are written with brio. However, while it's tempting to call it "infuriating", that would credit it with eliciting a strong reaction when the overall effect is numbing.

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