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Interview with DBC Pierre

DBC Pierre first came to the attention of the world with the publication of Vernon God Little in 2003. This furious satire on contemporary life, with its eponymous victim/hero accused of complicity in the murder of his classmates, addressed the questions suddenly being asked by Western societies in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre.

 

This was among the first novels to recognise and lampoon the pernicious influence of an hysterical, twenty-four hour media environment and the hypocritical reactions to criminal behaviour of a social organisation steeped in prejudice and injustice. Its scabrous, caricaturist humour would become a feature of DBC Pierre’s work. The author’s succeeding novels, Ludmilla’s Broken English and Lights Out in Wonderland, explore similar territory – taking contemporary issues (human trafficking in the former and luxury consumerism in the latter) as starting points for witty, choleric investigations into the behaviourisms of contemporary Western society.

 

We met on a clear cold day that promised spring and sat on a bar’s flat roof in North London. DBC Pierre drinks English Breakfast tea throughout the interview (he was speaking that evening to 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square). A multi-national, troubled upbringing is evident in Pierre’s entertainingly itinerant accent and acronymic pseudonym (Dirty But Clean, apparently). Nevertheless, he considers himself English (we talk about cricket; take note of the tea drinking; and he refers to the English populace in the first person plural), and his attitudes to art are those of an Englishman in the mould of Hogarth or Huxley. The restraint evident in his choice of tea does not, incidentally, extend to his heroic consumption of unevenly packed roll-up cigarettes. He is generous with his answers and good company throughout.

 

Q

The White Review

— When did you start writing?

A

DBC Pierre

— Just before the turn of the millennium. I started because I was pissed off. I was pissed off for a number of reasons but also I was just pissed off with a lack of reason in the world. It was anger that started me. I was in London. I was unemployed and poor, and had been for ages. I’m actually an artist, a designer, photographer and painter – a visual artist – but I didn’t have any materials.

 

I managed to borrow a laptop and write a page that was in Vernon’s voice. I’d seen a clip on the TV, some dumb kid being arrested. There was this kid – I couldn’t even hear the sound, he was just in the background of the shot. It was on the news, some dork in a hoodie – 12, 13 – being bundled into a police car in America. And you just knew – although it was pre-Columbine – you just knew that he’d brought a gun to school and…

 

But it just occurred to me, you know, he’s pissed his whole life away, and all these other lives, but I came to the question of how responsible you could hold him. In the kind of culture we’re in, particularly in the States. We’ve overtaken them in this country in some respects in our pursuit of capitalism, but in terms of the established stereotypes of success the US must be a fucking hard place to grow up if you’re not smart, and if you’re not rich, and if you’re not an athlete or good looking, or if you don’t have the right stuff. There are too many slats to fall through. And they boil that culture really hard. It’s really bubbling, and I thought ‘these are the first bubbles popping’. The culture’s being overheated, telling everyone that they have to be this or they have to be that. These poor cunts. They fall into subcultures, they develop these suicide ideations, become antisocial. And it just occurred to me, the culture has to take a lot of responsibility for that.

 

So I started thinking in the kid’s voice. When I started writing Vernon he was guilty, he was that kid. He was in jail already, going ‘what the fuck kind of life is this’ and it unfolded from there. It only took about five weeks to write.

Q

The White Review

— When did you decide to introduce Jesus, Vernon’s troubled best friend and the real perpetrator of the attack?

A

DBC Pierre

— I realised that if it was going to be a proper statement then the protagonist couldn’t be guilty. He had to be railroaded. There needed to be a third party close-by. The TV movie wouldn’t have a guilty hero and the reader won’t stick with a guilty party. I had to make him innocent, and I had to let him live.

Q

The White Review

— Did the hero have to be naive?

A

DBC Pierre

— That’s our voice, that’s America’s voice. It used to be a very innocent country in the seventies. It’s still like that, to an extent. It’s still a naive culture. There is an ‘ideal America’ separated from the reality of American society. I wanted Vernon to be America looking back on itself asking, ‘What the fuck?’

Q

The White Review

— Is the novel dead then?

A

DBC Pierre

— Reality has overtaken it, to a degree. The form of the novel is too quaint, too fabulous. You can’t resonate off a core set of values now in the way you once could.

Q

The White Review

— Is life no longer naturalistic? Or at least naturalistic as we understand the term in relation to the novel?

A

DBC Pierre

— I don’t know, we feed back too much of the culture in which we live now. I can remember the very first Americans to say ‘Have a Nice Day’. And they were uncomfortable with the sentiment, the same way that we would be twenty or thirty years later. They were uncomfortable with it, but it was a sales thing. But, quite quickly, genuinely friendly people picked that up as a stock phrase and infected it with their genuine hospitality. And then after a while everybody could say it without embarrassment. And suddenly that whole sales ethic becomes part of our day-to-day behaviour. These things are fed back to us from the media and it all served to destroy naturalism in a way. Naturalism as we know it – as the expression of reliably uninfected sentiment – is at a minimum, at least in our urban culture.

 

You can see naturalism if you read a certain type of older Irish novel. Read McGahern – he opens The Dark with ‘Say what you said because I know’ and you know that is straight out of a genuine life. You know what it means, but you’re not going to hear it said on an episode of CSI.

Q

The White Review

— Isn’t that just a point about the condensation of language, about how an increasingly homogenised vocabulary means that we’re reduced to stock phrases?

A

DBC Pierre

— We just pick up habits. The language we use doesn’t really express how we are now. I like living in a rustic place, though I’m from the city, because there isn’t any calculation there. I find it incredible. It is still naturalistic. Their response is still informed by their own culture, not by a sales message.

Q

The White Review

— Is that why McGahern is so good, because his voice is shaped by personal experience rather than vicarious experience?

A

DBC Pierre

— Yes but it’s harder to do that without characters becoming weird. You can tell that it’s completely natural with McGahern, but to invent that? To try and sell that book?

Q

The White Review

— Is that why voice has always been so important for you? Your characters are always possessed of a distinctive accent, background or dialect.

A

DBC Pierre

— All of these novels are patchworks at one remove from reality. They’re not naturalistic, they’re overheard or invented. The structure for Vernon God Little I took off a TV movie, an American TV movie. So every chapter the hero is facing a new obstacle and getting beaten down, and losing, and I built a pressure under that. And in the end I just had an out-of-the-blue, completely improbable triumph. And I haven’t had anyone come back to me and say that the form of the thing also reflected the subject. It was the only way. In the first draft I killed him. The obvious thing is he’s going to die, so I killed him. But a TV movie wouldn’t do that. He has to live and he has to live improbably. Not only that, he has to end on top of the world.

Q

The White Review

— That happens in Ludmilla’s Broken Englishtoo, and Lights Out in Wonderland.

A

DBC Pierre

— Yeah, absolutely. It happens in all of them. It’s taken from the culture in which we live and it’s my most bitter commentary on it.

 

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.

Q

The White Review

— What does it mean that we’re each brought up expecting this American dream, this parabola of achievement and overcoming?

A

DBC Pierre

— The thing is the ten in one million people today who have experienced a positive reversal in their lives are all over the TV. I mean, I’ve had a positive reversal. It’s not to say it can’t happen but in the American media everything is ultimately a morality play. And we’re like hamsters – we take cues without thinking. I do as well, I’m not sitting outside the question throwing stones. Everything we say is a fragment of a sales message, a fragment of a concept of happiness based on sales.

Q

The White Review

— Your three novels describe a decade. Vernon God Littlecame out in 2003, just as we invaded Iraq.

A

DBC Pierre

— Yeah and what is that war for? To kill Manchester United supporters? The third biggest stronghold of Man U supporters and we’re bombing them? They’re different from us how?

 

I have a general feeling that since Plato we’ve been able to adjust and corrupt a basic framework of reason, but we’ve nonetheless stuck with it. All the ideas we hold sacred flow from that: democracy, the inalienable right of the individual. But now we’re tugging hard at those moorings. We’ve run that gamut. Democracy is no longer a functioning thing – it no longer even suits the governments any more. The supposed freedom we have to install representatives is now minute, and is anyway chosen in back rooms that we don’t have access to.

Q

The White Review

— As has recently happened in this country…

A

DBC Pierre

— Well exactly! We have a government nobody voted for. But it applies also to moral values. The truth is that society is more disintegrated than ever. Across the world more people are bearing arms, more states are at war, there’s much more bad than good. It’s not a place for naturalism.

Q

The White Review

— This idea of coming to the end of an age recurs in your work.

A

DBC Pierre

— We’re living without ideology. It’s interesting, it’s the first time. We know we don’t want fascism and we don’t want the church back, but it’s impossible to assemble this many individuals without a template. Or the template can’t simply be profit, which is what we’re left with. It’s definitely time for a big idea. It’s getting close.

 

What’s alarming is how flexible the concept of reason has become. Things normally snap back – to a hangover, a realisation. But we’ve lost that foundation. Things have become really bent.

Q

The White Review

— What happened to reason then?

A

DBC Pierre

— The markets washed it away. 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, but in fact he recognised 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 arse 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.

Q

The White Review

— But there’s a conflict there. Reading Lights Out in Wonderland I was excited by the banquet as much as repelled by it. I wanted to be there. Isn’t this always there, this line between being disgusted by something but also being seduced by it?

A

DBC Pierre

— I wanted to be at the banquet! I guess it comes back to whether the human animal is even capable of self-control. If not, who should be the one to dictate what that good is, and to make us do it? A lot of the great thinkers, the great moralists, ended their lives convinced that we would never be able to overcome ourselves.

Q

The White Review

— How do you write?
A

DBC Pierre

— I’ve got a list of about two dozen things that I’d like to do. I’m a compulsive note-taker. Whenever I get an idea or see a fragment of something I’ll add it to the notes. So I’ve got all these documents, and over time certain of them collect more notes than the others. And then I go to the one with the most notes and follow that. I try and complete the first draft quickly, just throw down all the words that I can. Hopefully that’s where the art will come up. And then I go back to chisel it into a shape and structure it.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review


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