Meanwhile in Dopamine City, by DBC Pierre, pub Allen & Unwin, $45
A number of culprits have been fingered in the frequently diagnosed death of the novel. Writers themselves are sometimes held to blame, especially the modernists of a century ago for exhausting the novel's form with their experimentations. Cinema, television and mass culture are commonly arraigned as chief suspects.
Even reality itself has come under suspicion. How can the fictional contents of a book compete with the preposterous excess of happenings that passes for fact these days?
DBC Pierre's back-story itself slots into the "fact is stranger than fiction" category. Born Peter Finlay in Australia in 1961, he was mainly raised in Mexico, where his father, a pioneering geneticist, worked. A wayward young adulthood ensued, involving car-smuggling, film-making, drawing cartoons, itinerant travel and drug addiction.
His debut novel, Vernon God Little, was a black comedy about a high-school shooting in Texas. A surprise winner of the Booker Prize in 2003, wilder and more profane than the typical lit fic contender, it tackled one of the main causes of the perceived irrelevance of fiction in the present era, the restless, sensationalist culture of 24-hour news.
Pierre's subsequent novels have taken place in a baroquely contemporary or near-future world of internet bride websites, super-luxury consumption, violent wars and globalisation, all spun together with an energetic, maximalist prose style and a satirist's taste for spilled blood.
Meanwhile in Dopamine City marks his most sustained attempt yet to fit the novel's 19th-century form for use in a technologically driven, media-saturated, hyper-modern setting. It is set in a fictional city in an unnamed country that most closely mirrors the United States. There are hints, too, of Pierre's birthplace, Australia - the locals' racist nickname for the refugees who have immigrated there from war-torn countries is the Australianism "reffos". Dominated by a mysterious Big Tech corporation called the Octagon, it is an everytown like Springfield ofthe cartoon series The Simpsons. Pierre's version of Homer Simpson is the beer-chugging, befuddled loser-patriarch Lonregan.
Lonnie, as he's known, or Lon, is a blue-collar widower aged 36 with a son, Egan, who is 12, and a daughter, Shelby-Ann, who is 9. At the start of the novel, he has just lost his job working in the sewers. A confrontation with the alarmingly precocious Shelby takes place, during which he slaps his daughter "with a sudden hatred he would later suppose was love". The argument is triggered by his anger at her for wearing a revealing outfit — a weird anxiety for a parent to have about a 9-year-old, although accelerated childhood is one of the novel's themes.
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The slap triggers a visit from a social worker and the threat of losing his children to his dead wife's mother, who loathes him. These supplementary characters are among a large cast whose lives buzz around Lon as he tries to keep his family together. The narrative fizzes with ideas, too.
Pierre's principal focus is the exponential pace of technological change. "His brain," he writes of Lon, "had learned over millions of years to sift data for meaningful patterns; but the maths had changed overnight." This disorienting change from the deep time of human history to the accelerated time of the computer age is neatly folded into the passage of the novel itself.
At the start, we find ourselves in a high-tech but familiar milieu of computer games, children pestering parents for smartphones and the omnipresent "grid" (the book's version of the internet). As the pages go by, drones, robots, advanced virtual-reality, sophisticated artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms make increasingly oppressive appearances, marshalled by the shadowy Octagon corporation that runs the town. By the end, we are in the realm of dystopian science fiction.
The novel's architecture also undergoes a change. The first portion is told in the conventional form of third-person chapters. But then it switches to two columns of text on each page. One column is made up of first-person narratives, told by multiple different characters. The adjacent column has targeted news stories, each tailored to the story being told alongside it as though by an algorithm. So, when Lon describes a car journey with his daughter as she pleads to have a tiger at her 10th birthday, a news story about wild animals being kept as pets unfolds in the neighbouring column.
It is a clever effect, done with technical skill by Pierre. Our attention is constantly disrupted, moving between the two columns of text and their separate but linked content. The intention is to illustrate the book's satire about Big Tech's theft of our attention spans and inner lives, which Pierre depicts as a perverse and unnatural accomplishment of a computerised consumer capitalism. "Every second an arm like a blade combs the surface of the earth for dopamine, yours and mine, our whims and arguments, our relationships with others, our attempts at love, our anger, our caring, to embezzle it as revenue for a dozen male college dropouts."
But there is a large, old-fashioned hole at the centre of the action. Lon's family drama, revolving around his fraught relationship with his daughter and obsessive memories of his dead wife, makes for thin narrative gruel. Suspense, plot, characterisation — all these old-school tricks of the novelist's trade are in short supply. Pierre's prose is full of life and his evocation of a surreally technologised society is vivid. But the novel suffers a kind of entropic breakdown, opening in an impressively kinetic fashion but then losing energy and force, like a baggy, ultimately feeble pushback against Big Tech's takeover of the human need for stories.
Reviewed by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
© Financial Times