IT IS A DANGEROUS THING to take up the language of excess. Prose, in its purpling, can draw attention to its artificiality so fully as to outshine its ostensible subject. This is true even if the subject is excess itself. As DBC Pierre writes in his new novel, Lights Out in Wonderland,
Surely to throw light on a decadence we have to step away from its lingo, twisted as this has been to sanction outrage. Because isn't language the buttress of civilization? Honed to explain quirks and crimes in all subtlety, without margin for error or escape?
Perhaps writers have taken this caution to heart - because while there is no shortage of dissolute or decadent characters in recent fiction, the style of decadence itself has receded over the past several decades in favor of a more workmanlike prose that describes contemporary life without tunneling into its spirit with twisted lingo or approaching it obliquely through symbol and myth. Few mainstream contemporary writers actually allow their language to be infected by the wild, baroque, and unreal. Perhaps, in a time like our own, the straightforwardness of newsprint seems hallucinatory enough. Still, artifice has to be part of the conversation: superficiality, extravagance, and the whole aesthetic spectrum between pleasure and obscenity are undeniably part of the Way We Live Now. And as two new novels -including Pierre's - prove, there are still writers nuts enough to risk engaging with too-much-ness in its own vernacular. By turning contemporary decadence into a style, they demonstrate the truth of Oscar Wilde's maxim that "nothing succeeds like excess."
Of all the terms used to describe genitalia in House of Holes, Nicholson Baker's "book of raunch," the "Malcolm Gladwell" has been, perhaps understandably, the most discussed. Yet there are ample others to choose from: "thundertube of dickmeat," "Pollack," "peckerdickcock," "peeny wanger," "thumper bean," and "simmering chickenshack," for starters. Not to mention this mouthful: "fully spunkloaded meatloaf of a ham steak of a dick." A female character "DJ's" herself, while a male one sends off a "long whipflick of silly string" and then a "lasso of manstarch." An orgasm makes the body go "clong, clong, clong." In his novel's juicy game of hide-the-weasel, Baker's prose itself copulates and is reborn as wild portmanteau and neologism - with emphasis, of course, on the "jizm."
The novel enfolding this gutter-brained idiom is more a series of fantastical erotic vignettes than anything else. Each chapter unfolds in a more or less traditional pornographic format, ending each time, more or less, with " clong, clong, clong." Yet what happens within that arc, although solidly within the pornographic tradition, is far, far beyond what most porn is capable of imagining. Baker's use of language is so nimble and inventive that it translates the structure of the pornographic encounter - situation, build-up, climax - into literary fiction without discarding the book's (ahem) utilitarian aspects. Because despite its outlandish (if strictly hetero) perversity, this exuberant, squishy novel, which captures the mechanism - and, lord knows, the ...