Lucy and Todd

Petit Mal — D B C Pierre

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 17, 2013 at 12:28 pm

There are entertaining, thought-provoking  threads running through the mostly painfully short pieces in this book, DBC Pierre’s first for three years. The narrator has several contacts with the Virgin Mary, who wants to borrow money for a hotel room, in a story that might have been written by Etgar Keret (‘I could earn Priority Club points off the birth of God.’). There’s an ongoing news broadcast in which are reported, from time to time, deaths that are due directly to shopping.  A number of the characters have to admit that before a serious plot development they’d been drinking. There’s a debate about what fiction is, and what literature means now: ‘the more chaos we find, the more earnestly our brains write dramatic fiction – smooth, rational progressions from A to B, where we’re purposefully in charge, where we’re even heroic … but now our legends have been hijacked.’ But is it a notebook? A dream book, quite transparently? The problem is to figure out what this book is doing.

Towards the beginning it seems we will be, maybe, in a kind of George Saunders over-modern Europe or West, rather attractively reworked by Pierre, where fantasy may well be the answer to our ills. The narrator at a restaurant which specializes in the morning meal: ‘Icy vodka was the way to scare up a taste for breakfast. Bitterly cold vodka, then champagne. The morning’s first oysters with lime. Some tobacco … meals are not only punctuations but statements to the future. And the dark between supper and breakfast is often best left out of them. This was the stitching together of a day’s hems, sowing the night into a sac under the table…’ Pierre on the sensuous and material can be wonderful.

‘Axolotl’ is a really funny little family dialogue among those salamander-like animals in which a teenager gets told off for eating too much (of a neighbour family) and  contains the essential history of Mexico since the Conquistadors. In ‘Quantopia’ the hyper-relativity of modern existence is put in its place by the hyper-reality of a strong martini – now that is an account of quantum mechanics one can relate to.

Some of these pieces seem like aborted reportage, suggesting that Pierre has been researching some deep ideas in some of the world’s very troubled places. There’s a riveting quality to the prose in ‘Paradise’, about a refugee family – again, the material descriptions of this far-flung republic, the weather, the foods that are offered to those humanitarians who have come to help, are charming and moving and chilling: ‘In a world hooked on the turnover of conflict, on the savage, career-making glamour of unfolding crises, this is like a taste of things to come. The taste of permanent aftermath.’ But has Pierre gone to places like this? And did it depress him so much that this is all he can bear to give us?

Now it’s perhaps wrongful to accuse a writer of emptying his pockets, notebooks and bottom drawers out onto the reader’s plate, but in many ways this would seem to be the case with Petit Mal, no matter what weak intellectual justifications for the rag tag and bobtail are suddenly given towards the end. Having outlined the collection as ‘allegories of youth, wrongness and right’, which sounded promising and fun, Pierre ends up bleating that we must accept this book as ‘motifs and miniatures of accident, nature and legend’. He asks us to embrace ‘an honest flexibility to chaos’ and to ‘distil fresh nuance and live in it’. But I would much rather that he had done that.

What I can’t quite explain is why I dislike the cartoons and pictures in this book so much. Is it because they look like 1960s greeting cards? Is it because they reduce this book, which contains valuable thought, to a grabbable, point-of-sale object? There must be a point to its being designed so inelegantly, but what is it? In its little square format and colour covers and pawky observations interspersed between some interesting fiction, it seems that Faber and Faber want it to be nothing more nor less than the Happiness is a Warm Puppy of the 21st century.


(This review was published in the Herald, Nov. 16, 2013)


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