Friday, August 5, 2016

The limits of DBC Pierre

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 6-7, 2016

DBC Pierre is one of literature’s wild boys. His nom-de-plume is an acronym for his childhood nickname: Dirty but Clean. He doesn’t shave before posing for his book jackets. His prose is scruffy and profane, and doesn’t always kowtow to the laws of grammar and syntax (“I closed my eyes, put my best foot forward and punched through it.”) His epigraphs come from the likes of Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski. When he won the 2003 Booker Prize for his first novel, Vernon God Little, he used the cash to pay off his drug debts. 

Nobody taught Pierre how to write novels; he had to feel his way into the job. Now he has written a book about writing: part memoir, part how-to manual, part political tract. The resulting work is amazingly uneven. The chapters about technique, which constitute about three-quarters of the book, are perceptive and illuminating, and generously crammed with the kind of detailed practical advice that all young writers crave. The chapters in which Pierre vents his political spleen are puerile when not incoherent. What makes us suppose that creative writers are better qualified than, say, candlestick-makers to pronounce on world affairs? Writers like Pierre make you urgently revisit that assumption. 

He is unquestionably useful, though, when discussing his own craft. All writers are haunted, when they start out, by the sense that they are doing something radically wrong – that their stuff is somehow inauthentic. Pierre offers consolation here. Any piece of writing, he says, is trash to begin with. To make it good, you need to write your way through the bad. “It’s far easier to improve crap than to originate brilliance.” Stick at it long enough and you will emerge into “clear, thin air where things finally gel.” 

At his most insightful, Pierre gets beyond the brass tacks of craft and elucidates the deeper mysteries of art. How, for example, do you write dialogue that sounds real? Not, Pierre correctly notes, by reproducing the anarchy of real-life speech patterns. To sound authentic on the page, dialogue must be heightened, tightened: made realer than real. Pierre’s best observations on such matters are compact enough to attain the status of aphorism: “structure is an admission that we want someone to read the work.” 

So much for how Pierre writes. What makes him want to? During his twenties, Pierre discovered that reality was more chaotic than he had been raised to believe. He’d been brought up, he realised, in a “microclimate” of falsehoods. When it struck him that our culture tended to “distort and reinforce its ideas in exactly the same way,” he became a writer. 

Thus, for Pierre, the act of writing is tied up with his self-image as a contrarian. His gift, he believes, is an ability to see through our culture’s “shorthand of convenient ideas” and spot the uncomfortable truths on the far side. “Throughout history one has only had to say the truth to be subversive, and that has never been more true than today.” 

What’s so special about today, though? Here we begin to butt up against Pierre’s limitations as a writer. Bracingly specific about technical matters, he can be maddeningly vague and crude when discussing the world beyond the page. Contemporary reality, he says, is a “headfuck.” Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it is a “ratfuck.” No doubt his foul mouth is meant to be part of his charm, but it’s also a tic that lets him be lazy and inarticulate at exactly those moments when a bit of specificity is called for. Basically, our whole culture just irks him, in ways he can’t always define. He has a beef with technology. Science has let us down, somehow. “The news is bullshit.” Now more than ever, Pierre feels, we need writers who can tell us complex and nuanced truths. 

That bit is hard to disagree with. The question is whether Pierre himself is up to the job. As a sample of his ability to see things as they are, he offers the “uncomfortable” observation that a terrorist “can also be … poetic.” This isn’t necessarily untrue – terrorists can be surgeons and engineers, so why not poets too? But if the rest of us don't tend to waste much time thinking about what terrorists get up to when they are not being terrorists, that may not be because we find the question uncomfortable. Maybe we just find it irrelevant, or less relevant than the fact that the gentlemen in question want to kill us, which is a pretty uncomfortable consideration in its own right. If Pierre has any thoughts about the downside of terrorism, he doesn’t disclose them in this book. He raises the topic only once more – when likening Britain’s Terrorism Act to a witchcraft statute. 

Pierre has a strange conception of nuance, then. He thinks it means throwing out a glib paradox while dodging the central part of the conversation. He has a pretty limited sense of subversion, too, if the most daring thing he can bring himself to say about terrorism is that some terrorists can also be poets. In truth, Pierre has his own considerable knack for not perceiving or recording inconvenient facts. On the frequent occasions when reality would appear to be more complicated than his politics, he turns out to prefer wishful thinking to accurate seeing. 

Consider his virtuosic two-page attempt to demonstrate that the scientific world-view is no better than the religious one. Does the mystic embrace “ideas for which there may be no material evidence”? Well, so does the engineer, says Pierre. After all, science “routinely reverses its conclusions.” Does the mystic see “signs of his creator” everywhere? Sure, but only in the same way the engineer “notes the hand of science.” Does the mystic avoid certain kinds of food? Yes, but the engineer “might also be forsaken if he eats the wrong food, but in his case it’s food which science has rejected.” 

It’s remarkable how much energy Pierre pours into forcing an analogy he can’t possibly believe to be valid. Can he really be so ignorant as to think that revising a conclusion in light of fresh or better-understood evidence is the same thing as disdaining evidence altogether? Can he really think that not eating food that will make you sick is comparable to a religious taboo? 

Of course he can’t. Pierre simply wants these things to seem true, or true-ish, so he can get back to what he is comfortable doing – riffing about what he has called, elsewhere, the “ongoing fucked-upness of contemporary western culture.” If science is an improvement on prayer, then the modern western project might have something to be said for it – and we can’t have that. So science’s hard edges must be travestied out of existence, using Pierre’s favoured form of pseudo-insight: the bogus equivalency. All things are essentially the same, if you blur their outlines sufficiently. Somehow, while using this technique to airbrush away things he knows to be true, Pierre still manages to see himself as a progressive thinker, although it is hard to see why he should. His erasure of science would go down well at a Trump rally. But at least he has avoided the cardinal sin: that of appearing to judge the Other. 

Globalisation has created problems for all of us, not least for the kind of western writer who, like Pierre, relishes his status as an outsider. Through no fault of his own, Pierre came on the scene as a self-appointed critic of “our culture’s ethos” at almost exactly the moment when it became apparent, to everyone except the wilfully blind, that our culture, relatively speaking, does have a few things going for it. At that moment Pierre had a decision to make. One option was to admit to himself that he was, to some extent, an insider too – that certain hard-won western achievements, including his freedom to say whatever he liked in print, were worth defending. Accepting this would not have made him a lesser critic. It would have made him a better one, ready to complicate his writing to keep pace with a complicated world. 

Instead Pierre seems to have decided, along with many another pseudo-leftist, to cling to his purity at any cost, including that of turning his prose into a wheezing engine of denial and simplification: a machine for pumping out nihilistic equivalences, hobbled judgments, tactical untruths, and howling structural silences. Meanwhile millions of migrants move from basket-case countries to Pierre’s “fucked-up” West in search of a better life. It must come as an odd surprise, when they get here, to learn that some of our most garlanded writers can’t bring themselves to say that the Enlightenment was worth having.