The end is nigh

DBC Pierre is a man defined by his past. Any mention of him in the media today inevitably begins with his exotic back story as a conman who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed a cocaine addiction.

By Justin Pritchard

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Published: Fri 13 Aug 2010, 9:02 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:23 PM

Years of scrutiny have inured him to the rehashing, but even Pierre was slightly abashed when his last German publicity tour posters laid out his past rap sheet, in dot points and with Teutonic precision, accompanied by the tagline: ‘Ask him anything you like!’

Stories of Pierre’s shady biography first broke a week before the 2003 Booker Prize, for which Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little — a satire about a 15-year-old Texan boy wrongly accused of a high-school shooting massacre — had been considered a rank outsider. His eventual victory prompted many commentators to speculate that the Booker judges had been instructed by the investment firm sponsoring the prize to manufacture an outcome as a way of revamping the prize’s fusty image.

The furore transformed Vernon God Little into a bestseller, but Pierre’s writing has regularly received less coverage than his made-for-TV life story. It is unfortunate, since the novel contained a rarely seen linguistic verve and mordantly reflected an image of Western society veering off course toward consumerism, reality TV and the cult of celebrity.

One of the great ironies of Pierre’s life has been that, just as the titular character of Vernon has the facts of his story buried by a sensationalistic media, Pierre feels that he too has lost control of his own narrative since his colourful past was revealed.

“The conman past is a bubble, and I suppose just because it’s grubby it will always be a newsworthy introduction. I have to live with it (until I save a drowning baby or solve a famine). But from a personal perspective, because it’s a simplistic and one-dimensional tag, it doesn’t feel like me, so I don’t take it too hard.”

Following Vernon Pierre published Ludmila’s Broken English, a strange tale of romance, people trafficking and globalisation that was less successful than his debut. His new novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, completes a loose trilogy about the “end times” which we have been living through since the turn of the millennium. All three of his novels satirise what he considers to be a decadent modern culture.

“The trilogy of works is a snapshot of this first decade of a millennium. We’ve become very arrogant as creatures, and imagine we’ve reached a peak of civilisation — but actually I think this is the limbo before some major social change. It’s time for it; it will happen; but we don’t know what it is yet. We’re treading water waiting for that wave.”

Lights Out in Wonderland revolves around twenty-something classics dropout Gabriel Brockwell. Formerly a committed anti-globalisation activist, Gabriel has grown so world-weary that he decides to commit suicide, but not before going on a saturnalian bender across Britain, Japan and Germany. The novel teems with vividly imagined scenes of Gabriel’s decadent jaunts – such as a hyper-exclusive banquet in Berlin’s untouched Nazi catacombs where only critically endangered species like white tiger cub and Galapagos tortoise make the menu.

Gabriel’s lavish excursions contrast with the time setting of the novel — the current global financial crisis. This contradiction between the extravagant and the bleak provides fertile ground for Pierre to riff on familiar themes like consumerism, the growing hunger for the sensational in the 24-hour-news-cycle society, and the increasingly judicial role of the media in the West. However, the novel is foremost a trenchant satire on a subject to which he has only peripherally referred in his previous work – free-market capitalism.

Despite witnessing the severe effects of the global financial crisis on his country of residence, Ireland, Pierre says that the inspiration for Lights Out struck long before the recession came about. “I actually began writing a recession novel in 2006. You could feel it coming; there was a departure of reason — the suck of a tide by a looming wave. Economists can be the biggest fantasists of all — the core irony of the economy is that its human element makes it immune to any model of mathematics. Anyway, that novel wasn’t handed in, but I lifted the recession setting into this one.”

Pierre has greater experience than most with the free-market economy. Australian-born but raised in Mexico City, Pierre’s wealthy geneticist father died in 1980 and two years later the nationalisation of Mexico’s banks slashed the author’s inheritance overnight from hundreds of thousands of dollars to almost nothing. Although the nationalisation was state intervention, it was the free-market neoliberal prescriptions of the United States that took Mexico’s economy to the brink of ruin and forced the state’s hand.

Pierre pinpoints the bank nationalisation as the moment that his life began its downward spiral, but he is quick to clarify that the anti-capitalist sentiments of Lights Out were born not of his personal experience but of his objective observations of the “end times” culture that first made him “pissed off” enough to write Vernon. I ask him whether he remains as angry at this culture today.

“An interesting thing happened across the span of writing these three books — that culture has moved beyond inspiring anger. Not enough straight reason is left. Now it can be nothing less than a calm and glorious contemplation of ourselves on the eve of some new social adventure.”

It’s a response with a rosy surface that barely masks a deep sense of the author’s own cynicism. This ambivalence mirrors that felt within Lights Out by Gabriel, who first chooses decadence and suicide over the fight against the leviathan system of modern globalised capitalism, but then agonises over his decision when he befriends a group of East Berliners who long for their old communist society. It is difficult not to think that Gabriel’s internal struggles on whether to choose activism or escapism are also Pierre’s.

“I suppose this work [Lights Out] is itself a mild form of activism, if only in its observations,” he says, sounding unconvinced. He changes tack slightly as he continues: “My worry today is that the culture, with its highly active immune system, has already developed neutralising tactics for any dissent, lumping it into the same category as 9/11 deniers.”

It seems a stark confession from a man who earlier in our conversation told me that modern society was in a flux before the advent of a new social era. But, for Pierre, only a scant few have been able to impact on the pull of the culture’s current and shape the social change that he believes is on the horizon. He mentions American sociologist Robert Putnam, who has written on the decline of social activism in the developed world, as one person who is undermining the culture; but Pierre believes that neither he nor his fellow satirists are having the same success: “It has to finally be said — satire really is now dead, fiction can’t keep up with what passes for reality.”

He professes a desire to depart from writing black comedies about culture and “to write about things inside people”. A recent trip back to Mexico convinced him of his desire to write about the country that he considers his homeland. Pierre hints that his “tequila novel” would explore the troubled history of the nation that is currently being ravaged by a bloody drug war, but may also be an outlet for him to “lay off some biography”.

It looks to be an avenue of personal therapy for the man who continues to be defined by his past. But if the stylistic quality and complexity of ideas in Lights Out are anything to go by, Pierre’s exile from black comedy may be neither a permanent nor a long one.

Justin Pritchard is freelancer based in Canberra and his work has appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Canberra Times and the New Zealand Herald.

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