Lights out in Wonderland

In a perfect inversion of plain truth, the Royal Bank of Scotland
recently assured from billboards that it is “Here For You”. In reality the
exact contrary is true: We Are Here For It. Capitalism without pesky democracy
is our future. If any novelist can collate the killing irony of what is
happening around us it is DBC Pierre, who has boiled it down to a culinary emulsion
of Hunter S Thompson and Ludwig Bemelmans.

In Lights Out in Wonderland Gabriel
Brockwell is an anti-globalisation activist whose daddy never loved him, a
booze- and cocaine-partial sybarite in his 20s.

Like Herman Hesse’s Harry Haller,
from Steppenwolf, Gabriel is liberated from the contradictions raging within by
a pledge to commit suicide after one final blowout. Torching his rehab establishment,
he flees England with a stash of cocaine and the embezzled funds from an
anti-capitalist action group. He heads for Tokyo, where his childhood comrade –
Nelson Smuts – works. An implosive neophyte chef – “the epicurian underworld
pulled him into its rarest bowel” – Smuts is bound for the blessing of a
Michelin star. Smuts’s promise has been sponsored by a sinister party organiser
and international playboy, Didier Laxalt, “the godfather of high-octane
catering”.

And it is wine lore that sets up
this brilliant satire: Marius is a vine so precious it grows with the assistance
of virgins’ pheromones and transports the imbiber with visions of its Cote
d’Azur slope; the grape is “an ovary inseminated with dreams”. It is
accompanied by highly toxic blowfish, cut “so thin you could watch porn through
it”. Gabriel enters a night of gangsters, a teenage girl, a vast fish tank and
an octopus. Amazingly, he fails to poison himself in scenes of visionary and
comic brilliance.

Smuts believes Gabriel has
travelled to Japan not to kill himself, but to invite him to chef in a decadent
Berlin nightclub in which Gabriel’s father holds a share. However, Smuts is
detained in a Tokyo jail on a possible murder charge, giving Gabriel the sudden
purpose to free his friend.

The social signifiers of fine wine
and exclusive dining have been trumpeted with great solemnity in the last few
decades of our culture, but this novel renders it all ridiculous. Pierre shreds
the pretentious sophistication and fake joyousness of our Michelin-starred
palaces, driving them to the ultimate conclusions of hedonism with ferocity
worthy of de Sade.

Lights Out in Wonderland is an
allegory and admits “the improbability of the scheme”, but Gabriel is not given
over to hedonism; he is a suffering penitent, “Ebenezer Scrooge on a moral tour
of Culture Present”, and it is the fluency and symphony of fine writing which
convince, his waking with daily remorse to one’s “mental jury, that tribunal to
which we plead and present our mitigations”.

And lurking in such a brazen tale,
who would expect such penetrating and subtle Frankfurt School analysis: “Consuming
went from being a privilege, to a right, to a duty . . . The fantasy theatre of
the markets became our vernacular, till governors themselves pressed ever more
spectacular fictions into their service . . . all the evil terrorist men
couldn’t frighten us together again.” Didier Laxalt depressingly confirms that
“Capitalism was never a device for societies, it is a rocket, the people who
built the rocket are way up in space. Nothing will ever touch them or their descendents
for five hundred years.”

The wild plot teeters as it ascends
to its Grand Guignol climax – a little too in love with the decadence and grand
hotels it ultimately condemns, but the point is that decadence itself is not
our problem so much as the fact that we can never all practise it. Only the
people in that rocket can.

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