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 effect – of porn, operates on the level of satire without lowering or entirely trivializing its subject:
“How much nakedness do you want? Be honest. So few people are able to tell the truth.”
“Let’s see.” Pendle took a deep breath and then poofed it all out. “I think I need twenty-four horny nude women at the same time.”
“Twenty-four?” said Lila. “I don’t often tell people this, but you know that a man can really only handle one horny nude woman at a time. Maybe two. Even with two, it’s like that trick where you have to circle your head and pat your stomach. Do you want to reconsider? Think.”
Pendle closed his eyes and visualized his dream of desire. He didn’t need twenty-four horny women, he realized, only eight.
The omniscient narration is fanciful in an almost childlike way; the chapters bear matter-of-fact titles, like “Polly Visits the Hall of the Penises” and “Cardell Goes to the Laundromat,” that operate like a tease and a wink.
The House of Holes, the book’s titular sex resort – which visitors enter through holes of all description – might be best described as what the literary critic Steven Marcus, in The Other Victorians, called a “pornotopia”: a place, in his words, where “all men […] are always and infinitely potent; all women fecundate with lust and flow inexhaustibly with sap. […] Everyone is always ready for everything.” A Gothic convention, the pornotopia exists outside time and space, so that – unlike, for example, the libertinage of De Sade – it does not depend on an existing moral code or social structure to pleasurably transgress. In fact, Baker’s fantastical sexual thrills do not require that the participants hold any knowledge of transgression at all: if one wants to have sex with a tree, one simply does it, and no one looks askance. Baker’s eroticism is generous where De Sade’s was selfish; his is more of a pornotopia than De Sade’s could ever be.
Baker’s revival of the “pornotopian” genre, published during a summer that brought us both the Anthony Weiner scandal and No Strings Attached, cannot but reawaken questions about the place of sex in our national discourse. To place value on being up for anything sexually, while expressing moral outrage at those who are (shaming Weiner for his antics while being more than happy to ogle his “thundertube”) is a singular characteristic of our time. In fact, Baker does hint at such moralities, dropping in the vaguest suggestion of social commentary. But he never goes all the way. He stays, instead, in the thrall of sexual lightness and verbal eroticism, creating high comedy out of base materials. While the entanglements of money, sex, and power, and the confusion of consumption with pleasure are hinted at, they are never quite present enough to let the wind out of a reader’s sails.
Still, amidst all the “UHLLLLLLLL” and the “ah, ah, AAAAAH, hoof hoof hoof” remains the fact that the House of Holes resort is a paradise firmly rooted in the principles of market capitalism: those with enough cash are in whatever they want to be in. Those without fall into debt and have to pay through the removal of body parts – men turned into headless automatons and leased to female guests, for instance – or are put to work flying the pornsucker ships or operating a Penis Wash. Baker manages to reanimate pornography without unshackling it from commerce, but even those pressed into “work study” don’t appear to feel exploited: as in a porn film, there is little below the House’s interpersonal entanglements but a kind of hollow, a hint at the emptiness lying beneath it all.
It is into this hole beneath the Holes that DBC Pierre – an author who could never be accused of paucity – casts his withering eye. To Baker’s hole Pierre holds up a “limbo,” and while both suggest permissiveness, Pierre’s is the more penetrating by far. A limbo, unlike a hole, is a condition, not a thing; it is a state of being with no definite beginning or end. While guests eventually have to leave the House of Holes and return to their empty lives, those very lives, Pierre would say, are holes waiting to be filled. The question is why we pay someone to fill them for us – with food, “peeny wangers,” or what have you – instead of recognizing that the emptiness, unfilled, makes us free. Confusingly, however, in Pierre’s hands this freedom-limbo is also a vortex: on the other side of the decadence it enables he spies totalitarianism. As he has one resident of Berlin note, “We tasted decadence like you’ve never tasted it. We tasted it so much that in the end Hitler seemed a welcome relief. And now you come with that same flavor on you, a smell that took us a century to wash out of our clothes. That smell of a vacuum, of a selfish chaos.”
Lights Out in Wonderland is the last book in what Pierre has referred to as his “End Times Trilogy,” which also includes the Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little and the underappreciated Ludmilla’s Broken English. The books, though not linked by plot or character, describe in Pierre’s signature mode the irresistible forces of law, celebrity, war, and unregulated capitalism, and our powerlessness before them. While some have accused Pierre of divided loyalties – of ending Vernon God Little by celebrating rather than criticizing the reality TV world it describes, for instance – this is the gamble undertaken by someone writing from within his subject rather than about it. Author and reader both become submerged, letting their mouths be filled by the very language they are trying to repudiate. A neat trick, if you can pull it off. But whether or not he’s succeeded in the past, Pierre, who wears his own decadent youth like a badge, has never been one to play it safe, and in Lights Out in Wonderland, he once again wreaks havoc with his reader’s moral compass.
The novel’s narrator is Gabriel Brockwell, a self-described “Ebenezer Scrooge on a moral tour of Culture Present.” Gabriel, like Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Huysmans’s Des Esseintes before him, is a dissipated aesthete hell-bent on sensations fortes. He is one of those poets who doesn’t write poetry, and his narration – which, like that of Vernon God Little, highlights Pierre’s remarkable ability to ventriloquize a character – is rich and beautiful, lavish with metaphor and even wisdom, if of a somewhat undergraduate bent. A Burger King sign presents “a delicate graduation of reds, from hot capsicum to dry blood”; a laptop is “that vacuum of life, that cretin savant, that pilfering Latin maid, that predator’s restroom.” Gabriel is careful with language throughout, aware of the power it has to shape thought:
To take hold, a decadence relies on communal thoughtlessness, and this is first brought about by language. Through language the acts which a few years ago would have caused outrage come to be accepted […]. Vocabulary shrinks, forcing more concepts to live behind fewer expressions; and in this process the acceptable and unacceptable come to mix, and are passed off for each other.
Sensing his impotence in the face of capitalism’s “Master Limbo,” and his failure to achieve according to his ability, Gabriel decides to kill himself. Culture is dying, he figures, so he may as well too. It is a decision as jubilant as it is bitter, and the language of Gabriel’s declaration echoes this too: “This party’s over. Bottles are empty. Kegs are spitting foam. Our empire of shopping is in its last dying twitch. Bye-bye free markets, farewell terms and conditions, ciao bogus laughter, ha ha, whoop, wa-hey. The last revelers are the dregs we see at any free event, now vomiting wine.”
Yet he is too much concerned with aesthetics to kill himself right away: like De Sade planning an orgy, Gabriel plans to choke on excess, to orchestrate the ultimate going-out party. He will kill himself, but not until he’s enjoyed limbo to the fullest. Along the way, those pleasures to which he turns – the pleasures of fine dining, drugs, and sex – are taken to a level of excess so obscene as to enter the realm of irony. For not unlike Pierre himself, Gabriel plans his exit from the Master Limbo through its very heart, pitting the complete freedom preceding his own death against the even greater license carried by wealth. In the process, he comes to respect the Master Limbo, becoming a kind of subverted Brillat-Savarin, a connoisseur of dissipation, noting, for instance, that “hot sake seems to act as a balm between sharp and soft substances, blending them in the way a painter joins sea and sky. Sake and MDMA make a fine sky for spirits and cocaine in this way, busy yet bathed in tranquil light.” In the epic bacchanal at the novel’s close, Gabriel, by now disgusted, still takes care to include recipes for such delicacies as milk-fed tiger cub and giant panda paw with borlotti beans and baby root vegetables.
It’s interesting that, while Pierre’s descriptions of lustful consumption are far less graphic than Baker’s, his are the ones that appear obscene: Baker’s science-fictional landscape seems downright wholesome when compared to the tortured darkness of Pierre’s Berlin and Tokyo. Part of the reason is that while Baker is dealing in fantasies of pleasure (more is more fun) Pierre deals in those of consumption – (more is just more). Much of Lights Out in Wonderland is concerned with whether or not consumption, of whatever sort, is imbedded in nature, with whether, in choosing life, we automatically choose to consume or there is a way to avoid falling into the eternal economic battle of desire and disappointment. The profit motive physically unites and divides the inhabitants of the House of Holes, while in Lights Out the Master Limbo of capitalism inexorably rules all, forcing individuals to seek pleasure even as it prohibits some from achieving it. It is the over-world and not the underworld that is the purveyor of filth and transgression, and Pierre captures the interplay of sex, food, death, and politics with sordidness worthy of Jean Genet. The lavish rococo nightmare at the end of Pierre’s novel is reserved for a super-rich few, but Gabriel and the other high-end caterers with whom he falls in find themselves peering through the curtain at the spectacle, equally intrigued and disgusted by what they see. One might feel the same way faced with Baker’s novel, save for the pleasure he reserves by refusing to look too deeply. Pierre’s banquet, on the other hand, carries little pleasure; the guests wallow in their riches not for enjoyment but because indiscriminate sex and exotic (and especially illegal) foods are markers of status. Their saturnalia is no celebration but more of an illustration of the great capitalist limbo where money is master.
Like the “black meal” in Huysmans’s À rebours, Pierre’s portrait of this shadow-op gourmandaise reveals the morbidity and mortality lurking inside vanitas. In the tradition of decadent literature, he celebrates deliberate perversion and strong sensation of any kind; the text, like the characters themselves, trumpets artifice or art for art’s sake:
Dudes swagger, blokes plod, lovers stroll head-down, smiling as if into the face of a bright Danish child, past pubs where beer mist swirls, through smells of pizza and yesterday’s sick turned gentle; and wherever the lights are most dazzling, Euro-teens gaggle like piles of socks, each a hundred and sixty-five centimeters tall, approved by Brussels, oblivious to skanks and shanks and shit in the shadows.
This feels like the correct mode for addressing these end times, not by describing so much as engaging in their very spirit, grappling with them on their own turf.
Perhaps because a look at a given day’s newspaper headlines can so strain credulity on its own, such a pure use of language – language acting in its own interests as much as in those of description – can seem superfluous, redundant even. But it is not entirely so. There is, as Pierre writes, a gap between the world we inhabit and the world we dream, and it is in the world we dream that most of the real living is done:
Reality is a lottery of horror whose chaos led humans to develop an alternate world of hopes and plans. Human existence is what we do in the gap between those worlds. All joy and failure arise from managing that fragile duality – and unhappiness from trying to live too far above the horror. But protect your gap, as regimes will seize it to fill with their ideas, controlling your fears for their gain -and none more than commerce, assuring us we’re different, and should expect more. This evening’s vital message, then: Mind the Gap.
It is because of this gap that lurid fantasies like Game of Thrones can tell us as much, or more, about who we are than can a social realist treatise like Freedom. It is the reason fairy tales exist, and their contemporary offspring, including House of Holes. If there is to be a decadence, books like Baker’s and Pierre’s suggest, let us choose how to fill it, and not limit ourselves to choices that are realistic or those that are advertised to us. If 18 Italian masons in overalls are what you need to get off, you deserve 18 Italian masons, and don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be so. Pierre’s narrator, urging that his words be used the way Dorian Gray uses À rebours, suggests why we need literatures like these, now more than ever before:
We will all be destroyed whether we like it or not. I say let’s like it. May this small book of certainties from a short life be your compass in a decadence, your mentor in times of ruin, your friend when none is near; and may its poking from your pocket be a beacon to all who share our spirit in end times.
The suggestion is hyperbolic, excessive, and over the top; it also happens to appear, right now, to be true.