Rolling his own reality

Lights Out in Wonderland
DBC Pierre
Faber & Faber, €12.99

DBC Pierre won the Booker Prize with his first novel and he has just released another, Lights out in Wonderland. He speaks with Conor Power

NOW aged 48, Peter Finlay (aka DBC Pierre) burst onto the international literary scene seven years ago when he won the coveted Man Booker Prize with his debut novel, Vernon God Little. Since then, he has written Ludmila’s Broken English to somewhat mixed reviews. His third and latest book – Lights Out in Wonderland – has just been released.

“I will get a serious kicking from certain very established corners of literature over the form of this book as I have over the form of the previous two because it doesn’t have the form of a novel in a number of respects. It’s an allegory rather than a novel,” says Pierre over a sandwich and a beer in a hotel bar in Carrick-on-Shannon,

“I don’t set out with an intellectual idea to express, but with a feeling, and these three books form a loose trilogy. I wanted them to leave a taste of their experiences: they’re like art works where, regardless of the ideas in them, the ideas aren’t so important as the feeling the book leaves.

“With the first book I wanted a sense of triumph; with the second book I wanted a sense of lingering dismay and with this book I wanted a sense of inkling – I wanted to see that by the time you get to the end of it (although there are many ideas along the way), what’s important to me is that you get the sense of an inkling that you feel the answer nearby to the question of humanity’s current state.

“On top of that, it was infected by the modern day; by the notion that in the 20th century we proved a few things wrong: this loose trilogy of books was meant to be a loose snapshot of the first decade of the millennium because I think things are going to change dramatically sooner rather than later. And this was a little reflection in that limbo between ideology and whatever comes next.

“For instance, Britain has just elected the first government ever without an ideology … They’re a management team, which is not to say anything against that, but we’re not driven any more by ideas that always governed society – we’re just treading water. We’re in a kind of a vacuum.

“In the 20th century, we saw communism rise and fall and prove itself unsustainable. We’re just now seeing capitalism show its really basic flaws and that will be unsustainable in its current form.

“So we’re in a waiting room and the next big idea isn’t there yet and that inspired me for this book.”

Pierre’s latest book concerns a disillusioned, suicidal, left-wing activist whose salvation, for a variety of complex reasons, lies in one final blow-out in a disused international airport in Berlin. The inspiration for the idea and the main setting of the story in Germany’s capital grew somewhat organically from his experiences with Vernon.

Pierre’s first novel was a very big hit in Germany. The semi-literate Texan drawl of the books principal character was converted into East Berlin street slang in its German version. Getting to know the German translator and the book’s continued popularity in Germany led to Pierre spending more and more time returning to Berlin while simultaneously formulating the idea for Lights Out.

“It struck me that Berlin was like a test tube of ideas for the rest of the world. Even Napoleon said ‘whoever controls Berlin controls the rest of Europe’ and that has been true for quite some centuries in a certain way … Not only was it a test tube for all the main ideas of the 20th century, but it also had a wall running through it, dividing the two main ideas of the century

“This book is about taking a pause and seeing what worked and what didn’t work and start thinking about where we’re going to head.”

One thing that’s prevalent throughout all of DBC Pierre’s books so far is the consumption of illicit substances. Gabriel Brockwell – the principal character in his latest book – spends most of the story working his way through a large bag of drugs. Is all of this wanton self-abuse necessary?

The question provokes a loud, mischievous laugh from the author before he adds: “I can tell you that the next book won’t have any, but for these three books it was important because substances are a feature – and possibly the feature – of the times we live in. It’s a feature of decadence that substance abuse grows and grows … particularly when you take into account the use of legal remedies too … it’s because we’re obsessed with feeling better.”

Consumerism, generally speaking, comes in for a bit of a bashing in his books, but he’s insistent that there’s nothing radical in what he’s getting at, pointing out that he too is a consumer – he buys burgers and he comes back from holidays with useless trinkets. The problem, he says, is that the consumer market continually uses your base instincts to trick you into getting things you don’t want and don’t need: “If you’re being shown burgers a hundred times a day, then you’re going to end up eating more than are good for you… and that’s wrong.”

I ask him about his discipline when writing – whether he’s the sort of person who locks himself in his office and doesn’t emerge until his quota of 5,000 words is served … or not?

“I tend to write things at night in the dark and then I use the day to revise and edit and see if I was right or wrong the night before; because sometimes you go into ‘creative land’ at night and have these broad ideas and the next day, you realise they’re shit. So I have that checks-and-balances during the cold light of day and then at night I run amok!”

Even to the most casual outside observer, Pierre’s national identity is confusing. Born in Australia and baptised in England, he spent his formative years in Mexico City. When he was aged 21 or so, he attempted to return to his nominal homeland of Australia and instead ending up going through a Kafkaesque nightmare of trial and conviction for importing seeds into the country. This bizarre but true series of events was set in motion as a result of him bringing home his late father’s effects from Mexico, including some varnished cobs of corn from a dried flower arrangement. He now lives in “more flexible” rural Leitrim.

“I came up here one misty afternoon in the dead of winter, drove alongside the lakes and up the mountain to this house that had been abandoned. The house, by all accounts, had once been a brothel and a shebeen – all this wild history sat by itself on the mountainside in the mist, overlooked by Iron Mountain. It was just way too fantastic, romantic … it was just too stimulating; too beautiful. It simply was the best place I saw in Ireland.

“Ireland got its hooks into me and Leitrim hasn’t let me down. There’s something very special here. In this day and age, space and time are the only two very valuable treasures that we have left and Leitrim gives me that.”


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