|'Our elegant place has become a level of hell.'|
2) I haven't got a shiny clue what either of Pierre's first two novels are about, despite having read them both. Damning? Possibly. Equally likely it's some sort of degenerative disease of the brain.
This was the very last uncorrected proof copy I ever made off with from my life as a bookseller (that I still own that is), and in large part this was due to the fact that it had (and still has) a shiny embossed belly band which nicely obscures the title and author on an otherwise drab trade-format paperback. It also helped me overlook it for the best part of five years. There I go, judging books by covers again. So, for posterity, or to remind me about my worryingly high levels of casual prejudice, I've left the following rash judgement here, hastily typed during paragraph one of page one of chapter one of this novel:
I've just started reading this and already I suspect it'll have the Engleby effect on me.Engleby, for the bored, is the eponymous character in a rather dreadful Sebastian Faulks novel which made me grumpy, fidgety and rather unpleasant to be around–more so that normal. Which in turn made me bilious and resentful of the book, and the bearded twat-faced author*. I suspected the same of this, based on the opening passage of the novel, which lays bare the premise of the entire book, related below.
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea: I don't have to do it immediately.
Whoosh – through a little door. It's a limbo.Unreliable narrator. Self-indulgent. Intent on deceiving himself and his audience. Instantly dislikable. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Bleugh.
To be fair, in this Pierre is remarkably consistent; but he also allows Gabriel small, believable steps along the path to self-discovery, by the end of which he may well have some modestly likeable characteristics, rather than simply a collection of irreverent personality tics, as effortlessly laid bare by Anna, stern and disapproving German love interest. Yup, despite endlessly repeating himself, in both actions and words, he does slowly grow on me, more through his interactions with the other characters than by any accidental revelations of hidden worth. And Pierre's prose style, swilling around the page like wine in a glass, has the legs of a fine vintage, softening what might otherwise have proven to be unpalatable. But I feel it's the supporting cast that steals the show, Smuts notwithstanding. The Germans particularly light up the novel with a little bit of gentle stereotyping, subverted by equally gentle humanising. Gabriel himself is caught out in some assumptions by Gerd, Anna and my favourite, Gottfried, the stone-faced Stasi man. Berlin has never sounded more attractive than when reflected by these lost bastions of a divided city and the girl of the future Berlin, on her way to the Galapagos Islands to visit Lonesome George and delayed only by distant filial responsibility into working for Uncle (?) Gerd at his kiosk in the massive and soon to be discontinued monument to the Third Reich, Berlin-Tempelhof Airport.
In Gabriel's exploration of vaguely confusing states of limbo, of his own competing motivations–self-destruction and enlightenment–we see some of the ambivalence at the heart of the human experience, and some of the snide diatribes against the current capitalist ethical model (which his epigraph invites the reader to change) are amusing, as are his theories of the relatively low level of ingenuity it takes to con the majority of people the majority of the time. There are also some genuinely funny set pieces. But the novel suffers from its form, of notes taken during the boozing and scheming, written in who knows what lucid moments between bottles of wine and snorts of cocaine and is lacking verisimilitude to a damaging degree. For all that, it is an entertaining read once my own peccadilloes are appropriately handicapped by some advance generosity, and I wouldn't let me talk you out of picking up a copy, which you can do by clicking on the little picture below.
*Odd - since re-reading my original review of Engleby, I notice I wasn't quite so vitriolic in the first instance and even seemed to grudgingly enjoy the novel. It seems then, that over time the Engleby effect strengthens to the point of acute psychological poisoning. What utter filth.