Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre

by |August 1, 2010

Mexico, with its contrasts, its crushing poverty and sparkling wealth, its institutionalised corruption and cultural wisdom, its love of life and its embracing of death, undoubtedly set me on a path toward the deep end, philosophically and emotionally speaking.

I have to admit I approached DBC Pierre’s latest novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, with a good deal of trepidation.

Despite winning the Man Booker in 2003 for his debut novel Vernon God Little, the Australian-born is known to be an acquired taste. And I had been told by the publisher, that Lights Out in Wonderland, was not only much better than VGL, it was in fact “brilliant”.

On top of that, our DBC comes with somewhat of a reputation as a scoundrel and a liar, a bad boy at best. He was quite the dissolute in a documentary I saw on him about Mexico, the city of much of his upbringing, and the city that left him with an unbridled taste for “the deep end” . And on Andrew Denton’s show Enough Rope a couple of years ago, we raked over a scandal about a swindled house in Spain. No doubt we will hear it all again when he is here later in the month for the Melbourne Writers Festival.

To read or not to read? Curiosity got the better of me, as well that old adage, trust the tale, not the teller, drummed into me during university days. I took a deep breath and entered Wonderland.

Let me say from the start that the premise is not original.  Gabriel Brockwell has decided to kill himself, and that decision in itself frees him from the normal constraints of everyday life. Armed with his exit strategy, he embarks on a global odyssey in pursuit of pleasure. But why has he decided to think terminally? Because he is totally at odds with society, with the death throes of capitalism (or perhaps with the complete ascendancy of consumerism).

My better read colleagues point out that this device has been used before, most notably in Dostoevsky with his stories of nihilists, existentialists, revolutionaries and cynical debauchees. In The Devils, for example, Kirillov determines his own death as an act of defiance, in this case against the fear of annihilation. Meanwhile, he makes excellent fodder for a svengali-like character who has much more devious ends in mind.

Be that as it may, this thoroughly twenty first century take is completely compelling from start to finish. Lights Out in Wonderland is a novel about philosophy, about big picture concepts. DBC Pierre’s talent is to “whoosh” us along (I use the word advisedly – there is a lot of whooshing in the novel) with him, through the turns and about turns in Brockwell’s mind, through all his warped logic and peculiar life views, through adventures, through the jaded peaks and alluring troughs of human existence,  all the while wondering if Brockwell will complete his mission.
This is a huge ride of a novel, one that you won’t want to put down, one that is enormously entertaining despite the topic, and one that you will want to talk about. In some ways it is reminiscent of Christos Tsoilkas’ extraordinary Dead Europe (although I am happy to report it is decidedly less visceral) but it is exceptional in its own right and deserves lots of attention, whatever one thinks of its author.

Lights Out in Wonderland is a September release and can be pre-ordered now.

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  • Carolyn van Langenberg

    September 10, 2010 at 9:28 am

    I am a fan of DBC Pierre. Peter Finlay has the unusual talent of writing about where we are now — not descriptively. He writes the wide framed big picture.
    After I read Vernon God Little, which I read as a satire on justice in the visual age when the principles of the Enlightenment no longer apply, I decided i need write no more.
    Ludmilla’s Broken English amazed me too. It is the easiest of the three to read. I read it as about people transferring with different rates of success from a controlled economy that collapsed to consumerism. Lights Out In Wonderland goes the extra step into that space we occupy when a major revolution may descend upon us. Gabriel occupies limbo, bolstered for most the novel by a lot of dope and alcohol, usually the best. Indulgence is the key to approaching his self-chosen death. The GFC has pointed out the weaknesses in capitalism. Something unknown (technology? weather? both?) is going to alter life-as-we-know-it. It is a novel I indulge in, reading a few pages at a time to savour. It is not a page-turner (thank my lemon tree). In fact the book that swims into mind for comparison is Castiglioni’s The Courtier, the one that inspired Machiaevlli to write The Prince. Brilliant.

  • Toni Whitmont

    September 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

    I think I better add The Courtier to my reading list, after that comment. I am glad “Wonderland” speaks to you too. I think that a lot of people dismiss DBC with a roll of the eyes, but I think he absolutely has the measure of our times.

    • September 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      She’s referring to my rolling eyes, methinks. (I’m not sure The Courtier inspired The Prince)

  • Jon Spear

    January 13, 2011 at 9:55 am

    DBC Pierre’s cynical realistic optimism when in limbo after deciding to commit suicide is inspirational. No story is never going to be original because there are a limited number of plots available, but the way the tale is told is critical. Here the teller reminds me of Shakespeare or Nabokov and this book is a definite recommendation for my noveldram bookclub.

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