Review of modern fiction Review of new novel

DBC Pierre’s Lights out in Wonderland – Not the Wonderland you’re thinking of

Lights Out In Wonderland, by DBC Pierre
Lights Out In Wonderland, by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, London, 2010)

Vicariously living the drug-addled, suicide-obsessed life of the delinquent first-person narrator, “Gabriel Brockwell”, in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, was a strange and unnerving experience. But I got through it, mainly because I was too weirded-out to stop reading. The book has nothing to do with Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland. The title refers to the fact that, in reality, life is brutal and not nice and people fool themselves into thinking everything will turn out fine – in short: the lights will inevitably go out in Wonderland. Gabriel’s life goes down the drain at a smart pace and one reads on with a rising sense of dread of the outcome.

DBC Pierre explains his view on narrative in this interview in The White Review:

“Narratives are only triumphant in the end because that will sell the movie and make you feel good. The odds across the world are incredibly slim that this will actually happen. The chances are that if you have suicide on your mind then you won’t end up chairman of the board, the chances are that you’ll be found in the Thames.”

Lead-up to the party to end all parties

Briefly, the plot is this. Gabriel breaks out of a rehabilitation facility and wants to kill himself, but before he does so, he wants to have one last, great party. He contacts his friend, Smuts, in Tokyo, who works in an upmarket restaurant for the very wealthy Didier, a.k.a “The Basque”. Smuts gets high and ends up killing a customer with poisonous fugu (blowfish) and lands in jail. Gabriel runs away to Berlin to see his father’s former business partner whom he thinks still runs a really cool club. The guy turns out to be a doddering old fellow who runs a sausage kiosk in the huge, empty Tempelhof Airport building. Then an agent of The Basque contacts Gabriel and asks him if he has any ideas for a party, a bacchanal, feast, gala, a decadent, hedonistic, paid-for-in diamonds Do, with a capital D. Gabriel gets him access to Tempelhof as a venue. And then they have a party. And that’s sort of It.

Writing style

DBC Pierre depicts Berlin in such a painterly manner that you almost feel as if you’re there. Everything is precisely detailed and realistic, from the sidewalks to the weather. He applies the same precision to the party to end all parties. Here are some of the recipes for the night, included in the book: vegetarians, stop reading now. It gets disgusting.

  • Kiwi and Hummingbird Broth (with 4 kiwi birds and 14 blue-capped hummingbirds)
  • Western Fanshell Muesli Soufflé, with Black Rhino Horn (50 g of horn, polished, powdered with occasional polished chips)
  • Olive Ridley Turtle Necks in Parmesan and Brioche Crumbs (7 turtle necks)
  • Golden Lion Tamarind Brain & Blue Cheese Ravioli with Champagne Zabaglione (using 1 monkey brain)
  • Giant Panda Paw with Borlozzo Beans & Baby Root vegetables (using panda wrists, trimmed and tipped with arm and claw joints removed)
  • Caramelised Milk-Fed White Tiger Cub, Steamed Silken Tofu and Eggplant  (with a chiselled tiger-tooth toothpick)
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

And if eating endangered, rare animals weren’t bad enough, the pièce de résistance on the menu for the super-wealthy guests looking for the biggest kick of their lives is the serving up of a more than hundred-year-old tortoise off the Galapagos Islands, “…the single rarest creature on Earth, the last of its kind. A real coup.” 

That does it for Gabriel. He has found the limit to his indulgences. “The odyssey unveils a new cone, a new point, a new end-play to deal with” (p. 295). And deal with it he does. Read the book yourself if you want to know how.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe comes to Tempelhof

The descriptions of the party at the airport and the other crazy goings-on are outrageous – the fatalistic hedonism (and weird creatures on the menu) of Milliways – The Restaurant At the End of the Universe of Douglas Adams, crossed with the perversion and death of Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights, crossed with the drug-addled partying of Studio 54 in New York in its heyday. These scenes are contrasted with the grim realism of today’s Berlin, particularly for those people who came over from East Berlin to the West.

Ludmila’s Broken English, by DBC Pierre
Ludmila’s Broken English, by DBC Pierre

Something unpleasant and lingering

Pierre has strange touches in his writing style in; Gabriel keeps saying “whoosh” when he gets an insight or just whenever. His girlfriend keeps saying “Pff”. His buddy keeps calling him “Putain” and says “Uh” a lot. Every now and again there’s a footnote, none of which I read.

A recurring theme is that of an ecstasy-inducing wine, Marius, which Gabriel lugs about like bars of gold, and the perfume he wears, Jicky, created in 1889 by Aimé Guerlain. Both are real and rare, and the fast-moving action takes place in an equally rarified atmosphere of utter decadence, crossed with grittily Marxist, anti-capitalist under-tones. It’s heavy stuff. It’s not at all amusing like Pierre’s 2006 novel Ludmila’s Broken English, with the cleverly invented “broken English” of the title.

And the point is…?

Last Call, by Judith Stenneken - haunting Fine Art photos of Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, which ceased operation in 2008.
Last Call, by Judith Stenneken – haunting Fine Art photos of Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, which ceased operation in 2008.

I kept wondering what the point of writing it was. I still don’t know, but in the end it could be a life-affirming message of sorts. It’s also an indictment of conspicuous consumption and ridiculous wealth and power: “Something prickles me, listening to the men, something in their utter detachment from the world around, and the insulation of their jargon from human touch, and in the humdrum of their voices plotting such guaranteed dismay: It’s the shadowy forces themselves” (p. 281).

As Pierre explains in The White Review:

“Governments serve the markets. People are elected based on their ability to manage the market. That’s their purpose. Lights Out in Wonderland takes a big swipe at Adam Smith [theworld’s first free-market capitalist], but in fact he recognized very early on that, given the opportunity, the market would take advantage of the individual. And now, your life is judged a success or failure depending on how willingly you let yourself be shafted. If you bend over and take it up the a*** then it’s fine. People are really now a human shield to protect this culture. As human creatures we’re too easy to tickle with little tricks. We’re conned into consuming by smutty plays on our insecurities. Progress is suffering because of this focus on profit. As a species we’re simply consuming.”

I read this book not only because I had enjoyed Ludmila’s Broken English, but because the setting of Tempelhof Airport has fascinated me ever since I saw a book of photographs by Judith Stenneken taken there, called Last Call (2010). And also, I like to read Booker Prize-winning authors

But let’s just say I’m not going to re-read this one. It will probably take me a while to get it out of my head.


DBC Pierre, by Sarah Lee, from The White Review
DBC Pierre, by Sarah Lee, from The White Review

About the author

DBC Pierre, born Peter Finlay, wrote the novel Vernon God Little, which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2003. He was born in South Australia in 1961, before moving to Mexico, where he was largely raised. He now resides in the Republic of Ireland.