‘To abdicate your power is so much harder than it seems,’ the narrator of Lurid & Cute says. It’s a difficulty that Adam Thirlwell’s fiction up to this point has neatly illustrated. Reluctant to surrender his authority as a critic, he interrupts each of his three previous novels with an almost identical off-stage persona, the writer as tour guide, who with perky erudition encourages the reader to examine the machinery of the novel with him while he tells the story.
Politics, his debut, acknowledged the influence of Milan Kundera and interspersed short sections of narrative with political anecdote – taken from Thirlwell’s reading, since he didn’t have Kundera’s Cold War experience – as a way of reflecting on his characters and their behaviour. The voice is friendly yet domineering. No sooner is a character or event introduced than the writer steps forward to control the reader’s response: ‘I think you are going to like Moshe’; ‘Let me explain’; ‘I do not want Nana to be misunderstood.’ Politics and his next novel, The Escape, are intelligent and full of irony, but the hatchet jobs they provoked from Adam Mars-Jones (twice) and Theo Tait weren’t surprising. Thirlwell was bound to annoy people. The charm of the early books is based on chutzpah, on an authority that’s constantly trying to exceed itself. In Politics, when the narrator takes to task those too concerned with fashion, he describes his own attitude to it as a ‘technical interest and respect combined with an amazed sarcasm. This is the unimpeachable position.’ The cockiness is quite endearing. How serious is he, we wonder, when he says, ‘When it comes to kinkiness in prose I am a better writer than the Marquis de Sade’? The urge to charm through provocation, the conviction that he’ll be liked, leads him to praise the phone manner of Stalin and ‘to rather warm to Adolf’ Hitler; this over-confidence results ten years later in Kapow! in the objectionable claim that he is writing a ‘new kind of story’, and a reference to Hosni Mubarak as a president who couldn’t ‘stand being sassed’. The persona’s glibness has worn thin, and it’s hard to know where it stops and the writer begins, especially when a similar voice is employed in Miss Herbert, Thirlwell’s book about literary influence.
The narrator of Lurid & Cute is superficially similar to those of the previous novels – suburban and hyper-educated – but we know from the start that his cute exterior hides something filthy. For the first time Thirlwell does all his novel’s thinking through the voice of his protagonist, and his style becomes darker and denser. The narrator tells the story of his ‘moral life’ as a jobless thirtysomething who still lives at home with his parents ‘on the outskirts of a giant city’. We don’t catch his name; his wife, Candy, twice calls him Zezette (baby-French for ‘genitalia’), but we assume that’s a pet name. He doesn’t consider himself to be from a wealthy background, but he is from the class of ‘those with sparkling water in the refrigerator and unusual fruit from the supermarkets’. With a nod to Kafka in more than just its chapter headings – ‘in which our narrator wakes up to discover his transformation’ – the novel begins with him awaking to find things are not as usual: he’s lying naked in a hotel room next to Romy, a friend of his wife. She’s unconscious and bleeding from the nose, a result of the drugs he gave her the night before. The narrator is rarely without some kind of chemical stimulation and he regrets that morality is more difficult for him than it was for the older generation: ‘The basic effect of our many drugs is to enable things that were previously not possible, and while this is an advance I think it’s possibly also the reason why loyalty is more complicated for me and my camerados than it was for our happy parents.’
The first of his many moral problems is what to do about Romy’s need for medical attention. Alerting the hotel would alert the authorities which might alert his wife, so he smuggles Romy from the hotel to his car before dumping her in a hospital waiting room and making a cowardly getaway which he then tries to convince himself wasn’t cowardly. When he goes home to his wife we learn that he speaks much less eloquently than he thinks; his richest communication is inward. (The dialogue in the novel isn’t used to distinguish character: the characters speak similarly, with rising inflections and no irony.) The reason he stayed out all night, he says, is that he thinks he might have been feeling sad: ‘I think I might just always be about to cry? You know? I think maybe I’m unhappy.’
His wife doesn’t seem to believe him, but she’d rather not examine her doubts and so ‘catastrophe had receded.’ Still, the adventure is the beginning of a descent; the narrator continues cheating on his wife, takes part in an orgy, visits a brothel and holds up a nail salon with a replica gun. Moments of prolepsis alert the reader to his eventual comeuppance; the story is told ‘now that I am maimed and aged and all alone.’ The casual way he takes and talks about drugs is reminiscent of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis or Tao Lin, but Thirlwell goes below the blank affect to focus on the manic energy of solipsism.
The plot might sound noirish, but the novel doesn’t try to entertain with suspense. Javier Marías’s novels might be a model for the lurid element of the narrative structure, the use of vulgar plot events – violence, murder, adultery – to suspend long strands of thought between. His voice is precious, deluded, and becomes increasingly claustrophobic. The fastidious self-justifications involve the reader in uncomfortable trains of thought. His duplicity has a seductive logic: is cheating wrong if no one finds out? Isn’t having many selves more adventurous than having just one? Since we will all die, isn’t renunciation of new experience a greater sin than indulgence?
Thirlwell has set himself a hard task: how can he deal with ‘the whole fluorescent question of likeability’, how can he make up for the formal monotony of his narrator’s recursive thoughts, for the unpleasantness of a monstrous character constantly trying to explain why he isn’t monstrous, when this is itself the chief constituent of his monstrousness? What entertains when the pleasures of plot and differentiated characters have been removed? He compensates partly by making the surface of his novel vivid. The setting is inventive, a dreamlike pathetic fallacy, a lurid and cute landscape painted with a ‘pastel colour-palette of chemicals and candies’. It’s an altered but recognisable present, sharing today’s fashion and technology, but it’s not recognisably London, or anywhere else. The ‘maritime city’ he lives in has elements that could come from Rio, LA, Mumbai or Tel Aviv – from any affluent place, the novel suggests, where the young residents talk ‘all quick and chancy with a polyglottic drawl’. It’s a ‘very bright vibe’; he wakes in a ‘green dawn’ and heads out into a ‘powdery and blue’ morning, into a place of ‘pink filtered light and daisies everywhere’.
The ‘neon epoch’ might be as much a metaphor for the narrator’s state of mind as a description of the era of ‘Late Capitalism’: ‘Late! It had only just got started!’ Appropriately, it’s experienced in large part through consumption of the globalised culinary kind: gong bao prawn and vegetable jalfrezi, blueberry clafoutis and cardamom ice cream, coconut slushies and mint sorbet. It’s a world of ‘softness and the colours softness comes in: pistachio, vanilla, peach’, the colours of T-shirts from American Apparel. The soft pastels of this aesthetic suggest a wipe-clean world, a country club, safe from the blood the novel begins with. The narrator is constantly preoccupied with neutralising his guilt: he’s committed to the bland catchphrase ‘do no harm,’ but the mere voicing of his worry seems to be enough to satisfy him. ‘If we had discovered that we were occupying powers, we were very regretful, and I think that’s noble.’ His sense of his own amorality never overrides what for him and his friends is an inherent and almost metaphysical concept of their own niceness.
‘I totally do look nice,’ he says. ‘And yet also for example I get way up high watching very bright pornography, where a girl’s choking on a penis and her saliva’s hanging down in strands like spaghetti or maybe more precisely spaghettini.’ The fussy smirk of the description appals in juxtaposition with the violent image: he’s enjoying this too much to be sorry. Part of his descent is an awakening to the link between money and sexual power: ‘I don’t think ever before I’ve understood what money was able to do,’ he says, finding himself in a bar full of naked prostitutes.
The violent image is exactly what excites him; the lurid is the flipside of his cuteness, and reality isn’t real enough for him, especially when it comes to sex: ‘Who after all would want to be fucked in bed, like the mother in a family?’ The novel’s sad tone arises from the distance he has gone beyond the normal, how little pleasure he can take in transactions that aren’t stagey. His desires have been deformed by the surfaces of pornography:
I would stay there looking at her, just gazing between her legs and wondering what had happened to me, and wondering if even the way she tasted had changed, even though that must be impossible, like whereas before it had this penumbra that was mineral and soiled, now it was just the taste of itself, and therefore not dirty enough.
The narrator is maudlin, but he’s funny too, if rarely on purpose. The humour of the book often arises from his stunning vanity – his claim to ‘have a rich and sympathetic inner life’, or that he deserves sympathy for the ‘problem’ of being ‘really good in bed’. His face is ‘one of the most youthful you will ever see, but also it is so mobile and vulnerable to giving itself away’ – an interesting claim for such a guarded and successful liar.
There is a talky Jewish fizz to the prose: ‘Always girls have made me shy’; his problems are ‘psychosemetic’, his wife says. He’s preoccupied with sex, but too buttoned up to be mistaken for a Roth character, though there’s some Portnoyan rapture as his downfall nears: ‘The gusto and the joyfulness! Am I to abandon this for the pleasures of kindness and loyalty? Is this really how the argument is concluded? For surely happiness is a moral virtue, too? Surely, the true sin is ennui?’ When a prostitute sits down next to him ‘my mind just went blank – like the way the wheels on a suitcase go suddenly softly silent when they move from the sidewalk’s tarmac onto lavish hotel carpet.’ It’s a perfect moneyed juxtaposition. His description of Romy’s hairstyle is similarly fine, ‘a lazed out bun’ that is ‘that kind of drawly thing’, just the way you imagine she speaks.
Some of his similes, though, are just cute. ‘It was kind of the time desperation of being on a Game Boy with the battery run down to zero when you’re poised to triumphantly enter the Hi-Score table’ is the way he describes the much more worrying experience of smuggling an unconscious person into a car. It sounds like YA fiction, even if its glibness is in character. This comes early on, when Thirlwell might have been concentrating harder on throwing his voice. As the novel progresses there are moments when the persona of the earlier novels reappears, and I was reminded that Thirlwell still hasn’t told a story without the filter of a narrator as educated as himself, and that he still likes to quote: ‘I remember once an erudite friend trying to explain to me in some pub or other dive how there was a difference between the conscious and the reluctant narrator, the one who knows what they’re revealing, and the one who doesn’t – whereas I’m not so sure you can maintain that distinction.’ It’s difficult to see how this gobbet of theory improves the novel. It belongs in a different book, but Thirlwell can’t quite surrender his position. The reader, enjoying his passionfruit caiprinha, finds a torn-up page in his drink. Behind him the author peers over a modern classic and tries to look innocent. But that’s not really his style any more.