Monday, 27 February 2017

Book of the Month: Lights Out in Wonderland (DBC Pierre)

DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre (real name Peter Finley) won several literary awards with his debut novel, Vernon God Little, The Booker Prize being one of them. He also won the Whitbread (as it was called then) First Novel award. The novel had attracted mixed reviews, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember much of the novel, which read once it became available in paperback other than that it took me a while to get into it, but, once I did, I enjoyed it thoroughly; I thought the novel was very funny.

What I also recall about Vernon God Little is was an easy enough novel to read. Which, Pierre’s third novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, isn’t.

The protagonist of Lights Out in Wonderland is twenty-five-year old Gabriel Brockwell, the only child of middle-class, divorced, British parents. His father, before he took to Capitalism ‘like a paedophile’,  had travelled to Germany after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and, in the company of an East German, had run a club called Pego in the former East Berlin. When the novel opens we meet Gabriel in a private rehab, where he is admitted with his father’s money, determined to take his discharge so that he can commit suicide. Why does Gabriel want to kill himself? Gabriel wants to kill himself because he is disillusioned. Gabriel is anti-Capitalist, and is heavily involved in anti-Capitalist activism in the company of others who purport to loathe Capitalism with the same fervour as he. Except that they don’t, really, and are treating this enterprise as a way to earn money; which, to Gabriel’s horror, it does. So Gabriel is going to kill himself; but not just yet. He wants to have one last hurrah, the mother of all bacchanals (a word that gets repeated in the novel several times), before he removes himself from the human pool. He then flies to Japan, having siphoned off money from the account of his anti-capitalist organization—much to the disgust of his colleagues, all of whom, as we have seen, Gabriel regards as fraud, for they have accumulated money for the anti-Capitalist organization, using capitalist methods. Why Japan? Because Japan is where Gabriel’s childhood friend, a South African called Nelson Smuts, who has become a genius chef, a hybrid of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, works as a chef in the kind of restaurant where the likes of me would have to take out a second mortgage for an evening’s meal. Smuts, if it is possible, is even wackier than Gabriel. The hoity-toity Japanese restaurant Smuts works in specialises in barely legal (probably illegal) haute cuisine such as poisonous offal and ovaries of blowfish which, if you miscalculate the proportions (as Smuts does), and serve the wrong organ, can kill the diners instead of imparting delicious tingling to their lips. When the two rabble-rousers meet they waste little time in getting wasted on industrial quantities of cocaine and alcohol. The inevitable happens. Smuts serves the wrong fish or the wrong organ of the fish to one of the customers—a gangster, no less—who dies. This lands Smuts in prison facing charges of first degree murder, and Gabriel on his way to Berlin where he once lived as a child, in search of his father’s former business partner when the two of them ran Pego. Gabriel has been led to believe by his father that he did not cash in his part of the business when he returned to England from Berlin, and, technically, the German partner, Gerd, owes him money. Gabriel believes that through his contact with the partner, he would be able to host another bacchanal for the mysterious Frenchman Didier Le Basque, who specialises in arranging decadent parties for the uber-rich (read bankers and financiers) of such uber-decadence the likes of which are beyond the imaginations of you and me who think eating in Michele Rouex Junior is the height of sophistication. (How would arranging a decadent party at his father’s former club save Smuts? Don’t ask me. We are invited to consider that Le Basque is the provider of the illegal fish to the Japanese restaurant and, since the man has acquired outlandish wealth by arranging outlandish bacchanals with outlandish gastronomic themes for outlandishly rich clients at outlandish venues, he would be loath to part with the services of the outlandishly talented Nelson Smuts.)  

In the Berlin section, the novel becomes less surreal than—though as absurd as—the Tokyo section. Gabriel manages to locate Gerd in the about-to-be-closed Tempelhof airport. It turns out that Gerd owes Gabriel’s father nothing; it was, in fact, Gabriel’s father who fleeced Gerd off money and then legged it to England. Gabriel, despite hiccoughs (such as the disastrous night out with a German aristocrat—Le Basque’s middle man in German—, a couple of whores, and a basinful of illicit drugs), is, nevertheless, able to arrange the greatest bacchanal ‘since the fall of Rome’ with Le Basque’s money and contacts, which includes delicacies (the novel gives recipes, so the interested readers, if they have the means, could try them out) such as ‘caramelised milk-fed tiger cub’, ‘confit of Koala leg with lemon saffron chutney’, or ‘golden lion tamarin brain with blue cheese ravioli’; and the piece de resisatnce, ‘olive ridley turtle necks in parmesan and brioche crumbs’, the turtles, whose necks go into the delicious, mouth-watering recipe, being more than hundred year old protected species from Madagascar, from where Le Basque has smuggled them.

Lights Out in Wonderland, if it is a proof of anything, is the proof of how outrageously imaginative DBC Pierre is. The blurb on the hardback edition I read described the novel as ‘a sly commentary on these End Times and the entropic march towards insensate banality’. That’s about right, I think, even though I do not fully understand what it means. As you read the novel you can’t make up your mind whether the prose reflects the entropic banality (the words ‘nimbus’, ‘limbo’ and bacchanal’ appear on every other page) or is brilliant. I voted, in the end in favour of brilliance. The sentence structures are unusual, the choice of words interesting—all of which go on to give a kind of surreal feel to the narrative, which, I think, was the author’s intention. At times Pierre overdoes it (there is a section of the novel where the word nimbus appears in every second line), but, on the whole, it works. Just about.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Donald

The Donald has had hectic few weeks since he entered the White House. (His Slovenian wife will join him in the White House in summer). The Donald has been busy and he has kept everyone busy.

Let me see. The Donald has quit the Trans-Pacific partnership (Ok, in reality it was mostly a symbolic gesture, as the Republicans were blocking it even before The Donald launched his assault on the White House). He is demanding a radical renegotiation of the North Atlantic Fair Trade Treaty (NAFTA), and, if his demands and authority are not respected, will pull out of that treaty, too, faster than a sailor out of prostitute. He is trying to impose a travel-ban on seven countries (not exactly beacons of democracy, it has to be said), the citizens of which, he is insisting, are waiting to enter America, explosives tied to their genitals, with the sole aim of wreaking havoc. The Donald was not pleased when a ‘so called judge’ had the temerity to put a halt to The Donald’s attempts to make America safe.

What else? Oh the wall. Let’s not forget The Wall. The Donald was not speaking metaphorically when he promised to build the wall between America and Mexico during his election campaign. He was as concrete as the wall he is going to build. Rather the Mexicans are going to build. The Mexicans are certainly going to pay for it. They think they won’t, but The Donald knows better. He will make the Mexicans pay for the wall. (He will probably also need Mexican labourers to build it.)

The Donald may or may not start trade-wars against an indeterminate number of countries (which may or may not include China). He has successfully bullied a handful of organisations from taking jobs out of America. Jolly good.

The Donald slammed the phone down (allegedly) on the Australian Prime-minister (not before shouting at the Aussie, allegedly) during a courtesy call, when the Australian Prime-minister had the temerity to suggest that The Donald honour an agreement about taking into America Muslim refugees (whom no one wants, least of all their home countries, it would appear) agreed by The Donald’s predecessor, Obama Barak. I should hazard a guess that interpersonal sensitivity is not a signature trait of The Donald.

I have a feeling that I am forgetting something. I know: global warming and climate change. The Donald, I can inform you, does not believe in man-made global warming; nor is he worried about climate change. That is not quite correct. The Donald is concerned about climate change only to the extent that it might make the American businesses uncompetitive. What has climate change got to do with the competitiveness of American business? The Donald can explain. Climate change, The Donald twitted back in 2012, is a conspiracy created by and for the Chinese to make American businesses weak and uncompetitive.

As regards global warming, The Donald says, “Relax!” There is no global warming. It is going to start cooling down any time now. In the 1920s (The Donald educated in an interview in 2015) people were talking about global cooling; they were worried that earth was going to cool down. Now some ninnies are beating their breasts about global warming. You can’t take any of this seriously. Life is too short to worry about this. We are all going to perish anyway, when the sun dies. What is a few millennia here and there?

As for the Europeans, if they thought that they could fool The Donald into supporting their free-loading life-style by namby-pamby notions of defending democracy, free world etcetera, just forget it. Europeans must learn to look after themselves. The Donald is going to make them cough up more money for NATO, if they want Americans’ cooperation. They can no longer expect America to bank-roll their security, that’s not gonna happen. There is an internal logic in The Donald’s thinking (he does that sometimes, the thinking). He thinks NATO is obsolete. He does not think that Russia poses great threat either to America or to the world peace. Putin, The Donald has declared, is a smart guy. So why pour money into NATO? You might as well flush it down the toilet. The shitty Baltic countries can look after themselves. If they can’t, well, that is just too bad. There are bigger enemies The Donald wants to dispose off first. Such as the Jihadists. The Donald is convinced that the Islamists pose the greatest threat to America. And he might need help of the Ex-KGB psychopath in getting rid of them. Together The Donald and Putin are going to smash the Allah brigade. The Europeans had better wake up to this reality, and adjust. If they want to carry on with their silly feuds with Putin, well, don’t expect The Donald to side with them just because all the previous American presidents did. Have they not yet got into their brains? The Donald is anti-establishment. Before he smashes up the camel-jockeys he is going to smash the American establishment and its liberal mentality, which brought nothing but strife to the rednecks. (On the plus side it also brought The Donald to the White House).

It has to be accepted that The Donald has brought with him (at least for the time being) a degree of optimism; and not only amongst the hill-billies, but amongst the American businesses as well. This confidence is reflected in the impressive 6% rise in the S & P 500 index since The Donald stormed into the White House. No doubt the hope is that there would be tax reforms (read: cutting of corporate taxes). The companies would bring home profits stolen in the past few years by the Asian economies because Obama et al did not have the balls to tell these thieves where to get off. Once that happens what is to stop a domestic spending boom? The Donald has already promised investment in the infrastructure. The wages which have been stagnant for years will at last increase.

That is the hope. Let’s see how The Donald executes this. The world will know about it on the twitter before probably the Federal Reserve does.

Where does all this leave Great Britain, heading inexorably towards what Theresa is now calling a ‘clean’ Brexit? The British have decided to leave the Single European Market; and they will have to leave the customs union so that they can negotiate individual treaties with individual nations. (With Dr Liam Fox, the trade secretary, in charge what could possibly go wrong?) We shall see. The Brexiters doled out copious (and inherently contradictory) promises (as opposed to the abundant threats issued by the Remain camp), and now it is May’s job to execute the will of the British public. Call it a wide guess, but I don’t think that the majority of those who voted for Brexit for myriad reasons (including but not limited to their hatred for the foreigners) would accept becoming poorer as a result of their stupid decision. And if they do, May will pay for it. (Except she won’t, as we have a useless crumpled suit as the opposition leader, who has made the Labour unelectable till 2030. He told Jon Snow of Channel 4 in an interview that, of course, he wants to be the prime minister, with all the enthusiasm of a man ordered to approach a poisonous rattle-snake.) On the evidence so far, May will find cards overwhelmingly stacked against her when the negotiations begin. Many in Britain, both who voted for Remain and Brexit, alike, appear to labour under the belief that the UK will be in the driving seat while negotiating Brexit, which, I think, is a bit like hoping that goat sent into the Lion’s cage will have negotiating powers. And I am not sure that issuing crude threats to the EU leaders, as she did in her speech in January 2017, when she at last made her vision for Brexit clear (immigration control and controlling the border were more important than staying in the single market), is likely to yield the desired results.

However, May and her colleagues can take heart from the knowledge that The Donald approves wholeheartedly of Brexit. He predicted it, remember? He can’t wait to sign off a trade-deal with Great Britain, which, the great protectionist The Donald is, would be entirely fair, rest assured. There would be no winners, and the trade agreements would be mutually beneficial to both the countries. I listened to BBC Radio 4, the other day, to the nasal twang of an American dude from the farming industry, a big-shot, apparently, somewhere in the South, assuring Sarah Montague (who refused to be assured) that there was absolutely no problem in eating chickens that had basinful of hormones injected into their asses—he grew up eating the hypertrophied thighs and breasts of these animals, and he turned out all right, didn’t he?—or chomping on pig’s scrotum (or some such body part) bathed in chlorinated water. The American was followed by a British farmer, who, true to form, displayed an impressive talent for moaning. He fretted that the Americans would have undue advantage over the British farmer if the British farmers were not also allowed use hormones in doses high enough to give the chickens tumours. Did he have any evidence to support this? Of course not; he was just concerned. In anticipation. As I listened to the moan-fest, I wondered about the possible difficulties the British farmers were going to face if they were expected to compete with the American farmers for the domestic market, being forced to use the same methods as those of the American farmers (not that the British bloke had any qualms about it) and having to export meat to the EU, with its regulations longer than the treaty of Versailles. (This, of course, assuming the Americans are allowed to export the tortured carcasses of farmyard animals to the UK.)

May was the first world leader to visit after The Donald was ensconced in the White House. She crossed the Atlantic, more needy than a smack-head desperate for a fix, for rendezvous with The Donald.  She tried not to retch as The Donald grabbed her hand (he was going to grab something; we are releived that it was only the hand). The UK was never more in need to be reassured of the special relationship than now. The Donald was as reassuring as his nature would permit. Trade deals? No problem. We will wrap it up in no time. Just as he had promised a hotelier in Scotland that he would lift the ban on Haggis (“Consider it done!”) It is not clear how far up The Donald’s list of priorities Britain is, though, considering less than one sixth of America’s import come from Britain. Britain exports far more to the EU than to America at present. So, when we crash out of the EU we had better hope that The Donald’s attention span will be long enough to remind him that the tiny island has a special relationship with America.

Deciphering The Donald is not easy. Like that intellectual giant, the last Republican president, George W Bush, The Donald deals in absolutes. There are good guys and bad guys. And The Donald is with the angels on every issue. And he is here to stay. At least for the next four years, unless he loses interest and jacks it in (no, he will not be impeached; don’t raise your hopes). As Cassius Clay once said, he ain’t half as dumb as he looks.