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.
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.