Lights Out in Wonderland by the Booker-winning and Australian-born author DBC Pierre is a great allegorical tale that takes the energy of Vernon God Little and focuses it full force on satirising the decadence of our times and the failure of the free market.
The story opens thus:
There isn’t a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea:
I don’t have to do it immediately.
Whoosh – through a little door. It’s a limbo.
There is a lot of ‘whoosh’ and limbo’ in this book. Gabriel Brockwell a twenty-something sybarite and somewhat failed anti-globalisation activist is our narrator and ‘limbonaut’, someone who reads the signs of the ‘Enthusiasms’. As the book opens, we find him caged in a rehab clinic which he escapes from by setting fire to it. He sets off the find his childhood friend, Smuts, a genius chef living in Tokyo for one last bacchanal:
With him as my wingman I’ll turn these last hours into a perfect miniature of the age I leave behind, nothing less than a last wanton plunge to oblivion.
Everything it seems is in thrall to the markets and capitalism. The rehab facility is the first to feel Gabriel’s blow torch — ‘blow’ being the operative word — for our fierce and energetic narrator is fuelled through much of the novel by drugs and alcohol in search of ‘nimbus’ – the halo of serenity that sits above the heads of saints. Says Gabriel of the clinic: “Even here we find profit picking over the bones of the fallen.” (The capitalist-leanings of the left-wing protest group Gabriel has been affiliated to also receives a blast from his torch.)
Indeed, even Gabriel’s name is couched in decadence. His supervisor at the clinic comments: “Gabriel, Gabriel – so Baroque! I don’t know whether to treat you or publish you!” (Thankfully for us, the poet Gabriel is published and we get to read him!)
The plot provides a wild ride as Gabriel spirals out of control in his efforts to seek the ultimate exit. Built on the basic consumption that we all share: that of food and to a lesser extent wine, it is a world in which consumption is out of control and limits have been left well behind.
The writing is so full of energy it feels like the literary equivalent of ‘nimbus’. It powers us along, from London to Tokyo to Berlin. Take this: “Look at it, my friend: all that has ever been called love of life, is a love of things that won’t happen … Our farewell dinner should be as splendid as anything since the fall of Rome. A feast of Trimalchio. A night of the Satyricon. A limbo that blisters all restraint, a cone of nimbus so high that stars are sucked inside it.”
So off sets Gabriel on his final mission, bathed in ‘parfum Jicky’ – “Guerlain’s greatest creation, 1889. Paris, height of decadence.”
Escaping jail in Tokyo, Gabriel sets off with a bag full of Marius – a wine so good it is ‘bottled nimbus.’ However, Smuts is left behind in jail, and this means that Gabriel is forced to confront the need to get his friend out before he does himself in.
There are some sublimely comic moments throughout, including witty footnote asides. I found myself stifling laughter on public transport on several occasions. The restaurant scene in Tokyo after all the guests have gone and Smuts is forced to handle the love interest of his boss’s daughter is hilarious. I couldn’t possibly summarise it, nor would I want to – you’ll have to read it for yourselves and enjoy first hand.
There is a wonderful symmetry about the book’s structure too: the end certainly meets the promise and foundation of the open, and whilst the framework of a narrator seeking death is has been done before, this doesn’t disturb the pleasure of the read at all.
It is interesting that DBC Pierre chose to exclude New York as one of the homes of capitalism, but Berlin is an apt place to end, one of the ultimate battlegrounds of capitalism vs socialism/communism and a home of much prior decadence. Like Gabriel says, Berlin’s seen it all before.
There’s no praying at the altar of Master Chefs here! Instead, DBC Pierre tears into the culture of food as glamour as the elite’s elite sit themselves down to the ultimate bacchanal in the basement of Tempelhof airport, where they sup on such culinary masterpieces as: ‘Kiwi and Hummingbird Broth’, ‘Giant Panda Paw with Borlotti Beans & Baby Root Vegetables’ and ‘Confit of Koala Leg with Lemon Saffron Chutney’ amongst other dishes, and partake in delights of the flesh between courses, with a fountain of Marius to boot.
It is a marvellous book, compelling, engaging, full of razor-sharp barbs and wonderfully dark humour. Enough of me; go get your fix of nimbus and whoosh.
For more, check out Alan Warner’s excellent review in the Guardian. (I tried to insert a link, but wordpress wouldn’t let me: google title + guardian and you’ll find it quick smart.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre
Faber & Faber
Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).