Lights Out in Wonderland
By DBC Pierre. W.W. Norton. 350 pages. $25.95.
You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style," Nabokov's Humbert Humbert said, and, for DBC Pierre's narrator Gabriel in Lights Out in Wonderland, we might adapt the comment to "a suicidal misanthrope" and "comic prose style."
Pierre's debut won the Man Booker prize and this, his third novel, depends entirely upon the amusement of Gabriel's caustic comments upon the world he inhabits — not for much longer, according to him. Gabriel is a young Brit at his wit's end, a thorough-going hedonist who can't find much reason to keep living. His trauma began back in childhood when his dad knocked him through a glass door. Since then, he's been somewhat disconnected.
Gabriel and his mate, known as Smuts, dreamed, once upon a time, of opening a hipper-than-hip eatery, but those hopes have been dashed by Gabriel's rehab visits. We first meet Gabriel as he escapes treatment in London and, on a whim — he will kill himself but hasn't yet decided where or how — chooses to reunite with Smuts, now a chef in a very exclusive establishment in Tokyo. He drops in on his friend to help wreck his life, then jumps over to Berlin pursuing the hope (read: desperate long-shot) of a connection that might get Smuts out of trouble and establish a lucrative business prospect in the same breath.
Gabriel's most notable feature is what he calls "limbo": living with the knowledge that you're going to end your life, soon, establishes a feeling somewhat like a person who has already given notice: Though you stay in the job to serve out your time, nothing that happens has much drama for you. This death-fueled detachment gives Gabriel a readable knack for calling things as he sees them: "We've been groomed as hamsters in a wheel that benefits a laughing few." His is a jaundiced view of the motives and achievements of himself and others — he's cynical, at times delusional, but, as is often the case when someone behaves badly with style, oddly compelling, and often laugh-aloud funny.
His adventures involve some déjà vu elements — poison fugu consumption was a joke in the second season of "The Simpsons," and the idea of decadent epicureans dining on things like panda's paw and baby tiger bellies (recipes are included in the novel's "End Play") was an aspect of the film The Freshman. In fact, Lights Out, if filmed, might provide a plum role for an up-and-coming Matthew Broderick or Tom Cruise type, à la Risky Business — like those films, Lights Out features a youth over his head in the underworld, which Gabriel prefers to call "the overworld."
The plot begins to creak long before it gets to "End Play," but it never completely breaks down. Action-driven and driving for a happy ending (complete with a girl who calls Gabriel on his BS), "End Play" lacks the bile that made Gabriel likeable in the first place. Occasionally, Pierre tries for sexual frolic — like Smuts doing his girlfriend in a fishtank — or for decadent acts, but the prose gets way too purple, and orgies with no gravitas are just froth.
Pierre is at his best with Gabriel's asides on life, a malcontent's skewering of our shoddy times, and what other purpose could fiction in this day and age serve?