DBC Pierre can vouch for a hangover as an author's aid, he tells Francesca Angelini.
The author DBC Pierre evolved a distraction technique while he was writing his most recent novel. Whenever he hit a bad patch, he would sit back and invent an app to include in his futuristic new story. GoWay uses radar to pinpoint people you want to avoid and finds an alternative route. Chhrush is a dating app that matches partners based on their first crush. The best is probably J-Trice, a nurse and nanny-run chaperoned taxi service for "juniors".
"It was really fun to come up with these," Pierre says, grinning over Zoom from his lockdown home in Cambridgeshire and revealing a missing front tooth. On one level Meanwhile in Dopamine City is a handbook of excellent ideas for tech-bods. This seems awkward, given that the world it satirises is a high-tech hellscape. But it's not technology that's the problem. "That's cool," he says. "It's the way it's used."
Set in a nameless city run by "the grid" (a network that's a few steps up from the internet), the novel is a fast-paced comedy centred on a single dad, Lon, who gives in to his 9-year-old daughter's demands for a smartphone. Nothing good comes of this. Meanwhile, scientists are at work on devices that bend time, 3D holograms and avatars that give people a public trust score based on their every action. Again, nothing good comes of any of this.
Pierre was catapulted to fame in 2003 when Vernon God Little, his wildly funny debut about the aftermath of an American shooting, won the Booker Prize. Attempts to piece together his past revealed a history of drugs, drink and conning an elderly friend out of a large sum of money. The initials stand for Dirty But Clean, a nickname earned in his youth. Julian Barnes this is not. Now 59, he's more settled, although his face is that of someone who has lived.
Since winning the Booker, he has written three novels, all witty and filled with extravagant set pieces and high-energy prose. He's by no means the only novelist right now looking at how technology is changing the way we live and think. Next month, Why Visit America, a collection of Black Mirror-like short stories from a young American writer, Matthew Baker, arrives, several of which have been optioned by Netflix and Amazon. Micaiah Johnson, whose debut, The Space Between Worlds, is also published in August, is being touted as a strong new voice in science fiction. Last year there was Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me, a novel about artificial intelligence that McEwan would rather wasn't termed science fiction. "Speculative fiction" seems more agreeable to literary snobs. Call it what you will, the genre has been around forever but why are so many more writers, prominent ones too, at it now?
"Technology is all-encompassing," says Pierre. "That's my problem. I'd love to write a Tudor romance, but I'd be sitting here one night writing and then there'd be this f***ing telephone or the f***ing internet, excuse my French, and it would be inevitable that it would enter into the book."
His novels, he says, are "flags in the sand", a dark reflection of the world at the time. He begins with a news clipping, then applies "the slippery slope fallacy", imagining what would happen if it went even farther. In this case, that means an awful lot of vacuous bloggers, a terrifying mob mentality and an aversion to face-to-face interactions.
"I spend my time watching and feeling the human landscape. It occurred to me that it was an absolute crux of civilisation, if you like, in the sense that we had new technologies shifting the way we interacted.
"This book flowed from, 'Thank f*** I don't have children.' What would I do?" he says, tugging on a cigarette. "I just can't imagine looking down the barrel of that. It's ironic that kids don't play outside any more because of all the threats on the street. But the moment they have a phone they're getting date-raped by corporations, farmed by a new kind of capitalism."
An episode in the novel in which a court rules that it is a violation of human rights to take a phone away from a child will tickle readers. "Yes, that's actually true," he says. "In court it has come up that it is an unusual punishment now to isolate a child, to take the phone away." Lockdown and its push towards remote working has been a "tug on the hook down our throats".
Pierre comes with a wild past but he's nothing but incredibly polite and warm. He writes at night. By day he evidently can rail for hours about the pernicious effects of data harvesting. The short version is that all our likes, dislikes, fears and behaviour are being "traded like derivatives", which is ultimately eroding our agency over how we behave. The good news is that his novel is a lot more fun on the subject.
It is also, among other things, about the madness of crowds. Characters get swept along into all sorts of absurd trends, from using bee stings to make lips swell to giant pacifiers for adults. None of which is totally implausible. A digital "cancel culture" also features, which seems prescient. Unlike other prominent writers, Pierre hasn't yet had to face a cancellation.
"That would be a shame, because I like writing novels. But it's an act of God, it's like being hit by a plague of locusts," he says with a laugh. "My problem is the psychology of it. Probably I'd say the vast majority of individuals who entered into a cancellation, if I met personally, face to face, we would come to a different arrangement."
Much of it, he thinks, stems from social media, which, without face-to-face interaction, makes us say the first thing that comes into our head and creates black-and-white battlegrounds. "Think back nine years to the level of background conflict in our lives — a different world." There are, he says, plenty of other ways to educate. "It's like taking down the statues — just change the plaque on it and say what happened. 'He won this battle but he's also a racist, so make your mind up.'"
Pierre has always been something of an outsider. Born Peter Finlay, his early years were nomadic as his family moved around Australia, America, Mexico and Britain, which makes for an unplaceable accent. He came to writing late, almost as an act of redemption. Was winning the Booker a blessing or a curse? A mix, he says. It gave him prominence, but he also felt it "as a duty on my head, it made me fish for deeper fish".
Now he lives mainly in remote Ireland, in County Leitrim, although he has been in Cambridgeshire for lockdown. He never feels part of a "tribe", doesn't have a social circuit, but this outlying position, he says, is a great place to observe from. "I don't consider myself actually outside the culture, and certainly not aloof from it. I'm at this party with everyone else — yay! et cetera — but I'm the one talking to the waiter by the kitchen door."
Remarkably he finds hangovers a good time to write, "especially at a certain point the next afternoon because it is an incredibly serene and a strong-feeling place, filled with gratitude to have survived another Friday night". He pauses. "Actually, it's like practising for old age and death in a certain way. You know, you just hobble that little bit more. You're a little more sensitive to the noises, to the light. You want things quiet. And that little state, I figure, is a practice for a much older age - and older age is a very wise time in which to write."
Hangovers notwithstanding, his full-blown hell-raising days are over. What he does now "is put the adventure into a book instead. I think that's a correct use of madness. And we can all benefit from it in some way, or at least have a laugh." And, hopefully, we'll all benefit from the invention of the J-Trice.
Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre (Allen & Unwin, $45) is published on August 4
© The Times of London