Decadent, dark humor in ‘Lights Out in Wonderland’
When Adolf Hitler conceived Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport as a monumental gateway to his planned capital of Germania, he could not have envisioned that seven decades later it could be reinvented as Orgy Central for the impossibly rich. That preposterous makeover could perhaps only be facilitated by Gabriel Brockwell, the coke-snorting creative thinker at the heart of DBC Pierre’s blisteringly funny tale of three cities, “Lights Out in Wonderland.’’
The Australian-born, Mexico-bred Pierre swaggered onto the fiction scene in 2003 with “Vernon God Little,’’ the caustic chronicle of a Texas teenager who is demonized for a school massacre he didn’t commit. The 25-year-old Gabriel of Pierre’s third novel shares with Vernon the emotional burden imposed by bad single parenting and a propensity for venturing into pools of trouble until he is up to his neck.
End of parallels. Where Vernon’s first-person voice sputtered with the petulance of a central-Texas Holden Caulfield, that of the London-dwelling Gabriel exudes the dyspeptic deadpan of a disaffected young European who insulates himself against life’s disappointments with the armor of irony and an arsenal of stimulants, legal and otherwise.
An anticapitalism activist who, by his own admission, has failed to reach every marker he has set for himself, Gabriel now fixates on one final goal he believes he can ace: suicide. First, however, he must flee the mental-health facility where he has been confined following a one-night bender. Then, he must experience one last debauch, a blowout to carry him the rest of his self-terminated lifespan.
Stuffing his pockets with cocaine and his wallet with stolen funds from his action group, Gabriel hies it to Tokyo (business class), launching an odyssey in which he discovers that his own decadence is small potatoes compared to that of the top-1-percent earners. Tracking down his former partner-in-excess, Nelson Smuts, a chef for an exclusive restaurant that traffics in toxic fish, Gabriel is initiated into the machismo of dangerous dining and becomes complicit in a high-stakes eating duel that climaxes in the poisoning death of a mobster.
Matters plummet from bad to worse as Gabriel flees to Berlin to seek out a former business partner of his father, a nightclub entrepreneur-turned-sausage peddler, and finds himself at the nexus of a balmy scheme to refit the atrophying Tempelhof Airport for “the greatest bacchanal since the fall of Rome.’’ On the menu: opium, licentiousness, and a menagerie of cuddly animals, cooked up to an haute cuisine fare-thee-well.
For much of the way, Gabriel manages to keep himself at an emotional distance from this spectacle of degeneracy, aided by his “compulsive need to philosophize everything.’’ This pedantic tendency reveals itself in acerbic footnotes ranging from the existence of God to the stupidity of the masses; as Gabriel inches closer to becoming a feeling, mature adult, the footnotes diminish in frequency and scope.
But the insensate, self-involved Gabriel is much more fun, and happily, he dominates most of the book. Pierre equips his antihero with a gleefully misanthropic divining rod that instantly locates the defining sickly image: a medical attendant displays “a pale, unformed kind of face, like the fetus of a horse,’’ an irritating receptionist is “a Salvador Dali girl, someone to fold over the branch of a tree,’’ a Berlin kiosk owner resembles “a rustic, slightly moth-eaten character who would appear more at home carving marionettes by candlelight.’’
Confronted with a dissipating global economy, the jaundiced eyes of Gabriel see only the old Western-civilization decadence reborn: The fall of Rome is back, bigger and crumblier than ever. Reading “Lights Out in Wonderland’’ is like stumbling across the missing chapters of Petronius’ “Satyricon.’’
Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.