29 January 2009
I’m nearly half-way through, and here’s a surprise: I’m really enjoying it. I’m surprised because when I read it in 2005 I didn’t enjoy it at all: I remember thinking that I just didn’t get what it was trying to do. Here’s this clever novelist, not American, writing this first-person account in the know-all voice of a Texas adolescent. Suburbia, obviously, is a nightmare: at best a freakshow and at worst a vicious pit of snakes, Sometimes Vernon sounds quite sophisticated – he’s got a fine line in Chandleresque metaphors with an extra twist of disgust (there’s a lot of disgust), and he can describe the friendly neighbourhood chats – red in tooth and claw – like a real commentator. Just as often, though, he’s naïve to the point of infantilism. Such as, Things turn out right, don’t they, you know, like in movies? Such as, to get out of a scrape, telling lies – any stupid lies – that are bound to make things worse. Such as, well, behaving like a twat nearly all the time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I‘m listening to a recording – and from the first sentence the tone is clear: this isn‘t reality, but a satire – and it’s often so funny I laugh out loud. All other comments have to be seen in the light of this. Ok. It’s a satire on American life, like (very like) Beavis and Butthead or South Park. It’s cynical-lite, like those two shows: everybody – everybody – is either stupid or dishonest, and the way things happen shows up America for the stupid, venal place it is. Some of Vernon’s comments are spot-on, which is fine: we don’t have to worry too much about the plausibility if this 15-year-old being so sharp-eyed in his observations because it‘s good fun. Ok (again) plenty of its targets are fish in a barrel: the petty point-scoring of American housewives, the mindless materialism of the lifestyle, the obsession with food, the reliance on a third-rate media for any information… it‘s fine.
However. Vernon is an archetypal unreliable narrator, Bart Simpson five years on with his post-pubescent attributes seen as though in a grossed-out nightmare. So… can we believe anything he tells us? The problem is, sometimes we have to. The stereotypical Mexican greaseball really does con Vernon’s mother out of her savings, the electricity really does get turned off. But sometimes we’re not so sure. Is Vernon really treated like a criminal just for being the school murderer’s friend? Is the prejudice against him as damning as he thinks? Does the psychiatrist really ask him to strip and then (squeamish readers look away now) stick his finger up his ass? Dunno.
Does it matter? If this is a satire, don’t we just need to play along? We’re ok about all the adults in The Simpsons or South Park being no better than kids themselves… so why not here?
I’ve had a think about it, and I feel it does matter. It just isn’t very satisfactory if the appalling stuff that happens is really little more than the imaginings of a moronic adolescent. If they aren’t – that we’re supposed to believe this stuff – well, why not give it to us straight? Why mediate it through this other voice? The problem I had with the novel the first time round is still there: I don’t get what it’s trying to do. If it’s holding America up to ridicule why make it such a tissue of stereotypes upon stereotypes? After all, there isn’t a single thing in it that isn’t covered a hundred times elsewhere in the culture – as I‘ve already been suggesting. Does Pierre do it better than, say Matt Groening? Has he moved things on by taking the theme of We Need to Talk About Kevin and using it to take the piss out of America rather than getting all earnest? Or is he just pushing at the boundaries of taste as a sort of dare?
Still Dunno. But it is funny.
Chapter 13 – to the end of Act 2
Vernon has a crackpot scheme to make some money – setting up old man Deutschman to feel up Ella, the underage, oversexed bit of local trailer trash so Vernon can take a Polaroid and blackmail him. And guess what? It works. Unluckily Lally, the greasy Mexican, is videoing Vernon photographing the old man… but everything’s going right for Vernon: maybe his life does work like a movie after all. He hurls himself at Lally, knocking him over, and manages to grab the tape. As the American Dream starts to work for Vernon we go, Yeh right. But it‘s fine.
Nah. Everything I liked in Acts 1 and 2 is missing in Act 3. The plot, in about three sentences: against all the odds Vernon gets to Mexico, via a quick stopover to ogle Taylor Figueroa’s panty line. She’s the one he fantasises about all the time and, surprisingly, she’s interested in him. He gets into Mexico, and she comes to meet him – but guess what? She’s part of a sting to trap him and take him back to stand trial. D’oh.
DBC Pierre lived in Mexico for a long time – so why does nothing of the country come to life? The easy, satirical stereotypes of the Texas chapters are replaced by even easier national stereotypes in Mexico. I would only be able to believe Vernon’s effortless passage from the Mexican border to a handy beach-house identical to the one in his fantasy if it was part of the sting. But it isn’t, it’s part of Pierre plotting by numbers. He needs Vernon and Taylor in Acapulco drooling all over each other: it’s easy to get Taylor there, she’s rich; but Vernon needs help from a friendly passing truck driver who – who what, exactly? – takes him under his wing and buys him beers and tequila. It would be ok if it was entertaining, but it just seems lost. USA venal, Mexico open and welcoming. Zzz.
Anyway, now he’s back in the States, and Lally has the rights to turn the trial into a media circus. It just all seems babyish, somehow.
Acts 4 and 5 – to the end
In fact, I haven’t read to the very end. I’m up to where Vernon is next in line for execution, and Pam is getting his final meal ready. Pierre is setting us up, of course, and I’m finding the company of this particular author… exasperating. My problems with the early Texas chapters – constantly wondering what we’re supposed to believe, what we’re supposed to read as a satire – come back in spades in the trial scene. The trial is a joke, presented as a kind of Judge Judy (a show Vernon actually mentions) but played for higher stakes. The whole country – not just some silly bored housewives – have bought into Lally’s nonsense, and the whole thing is a national TV event. Different participants meet in makeup and nod to one another affably. Later, Lally has persuaded the legislature to make the order of executions subject to a Big Brother-style telephone vote….
The problem with this particular joke is that – what? – it doesn’t work. If Pierre has a serious point to make about the way the media can manipulate opinion, well, it’s already been made before the trial starts, and he doesn’t offer anything new. Even more than the satire on American consumerism in the earlier chapters, it’s just lazy. The trial is a slapstick comedy, with more and more ridiculous things being heaped in the balance against Vernon. Pierre doesn’t bother with subtlety, showing how a jury’s opinion can be tweaked by a devious prosecution. He simply has the jury falling for stupid nonsense all the time. Three examples (out of God knows how many): Vernon is indicted for murders he couldn’t possibly have been at because the witnesses are stupid; Lally’s mother is discounted as a witness because she’s blind; the friendly Mexican’s sworn statement about Vernon being in Mexico is discounted because, for reasons we know about, he gets Vernon’s name wrong.
So. Predictable, with caricatures from the Matt Groening or South Park book of cartooning for beginners. And it’s not even as though the tone is consistent: at one level, the world of this novel is presented as though it‘s the world we know and recognise. The defence counsel’s opening speech is a critique, told absolutely straight, of how the media can influence witnesses. He is ignored, obviously, so Pierre makes the point he’s been banging on about since page one: people are stupid and have been manipulated from the start. The rest just follows from there, with the jury believing more and more outrageous whoppers just so we sophisticates can stand by and snigger. Wake me up when we get there.
Well, we do get there. The media circus, populated with media clowns, carries on. If there is a serious point about the erosion of liberties, it’s lost in the caricature of justice – which is itself only a caricature of the TV courtroom dramas Vernon is so fond of. Fine.
In the execution room, chemicals flow into Vernon’s bloodstream – an anaesthetic, Vernon assumes, because all they do is send him into a serene and rather enjoyable out-of-body experience. This, Pierre now makes clear, was only ever a fairy tale. Vernon floats omnisciently over the town, watching all his wishes come true. Lally gets what he deserves, Taylor gets a gratifyingly retributive bullet in the ass – and Vernon realises the old con was right: he does love his mother. It’s just what always happens in The Simpsons (I never could get that show out of my mind as I read this): all the absurdities come to an end and everybody realise how lucky they are. Not only is Vernon reprieved – his propensity to have a crap at the most inopportune moments saves him in the end by providing rock-solid evidence of his innocence – he even gets the girl: bargain-basement nymphet trailer trash Ella (is that her name?) is transformed into the most stunning woman in the room. And she still loves Vernon….
Don’t take any of it seriously, Pierre sees to be saying, it’s only a story – and look how outrageous I’m being in giving you your fairy tale ending. Isn’t that what everybody wants? Grumpy old man that I am – why do some books do this to me? – I just thought, Smartarse.