on 28 August 2005
God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious...
...but Vernon Little's small-town dreams are literally shot to pieces when his confused best friend massacres the teenagers who cruelly persecuted him, before turning the gun on himself and taking the truth with him. Vernon has an alibi, but it's just not good enough for a nation desensitized by the drama of CNN, and begins to realise that the American public need a bit of relish with their truth to stop it sticking in their throats. It ain't what you say, it's whether it comes with flashing neon and a free gift.
DBC Pierre's biting satire is of Big Mac proportions, spanning such diverse issues as justice, the ever-increasing power of the media, and the sordid secrets of humanity that so-called Western civilisation cannot bury, with an irreverence that belies the sharp insights. Pierre sculpted the ideal character for us to follow through these troubled times; Vernon Little may not be the cleverest person around, but he stumbles on 'learnings' that come closer to the truth about what makes us humans behave in the loving, violent way we do, than anything you can find in a textbook. Vernon is a character we as young adults can all identify with; he still carries an almost naive belief that people are essentially good, but cannot quite reconcile that belief with the events happening around him.
The rest of the cast in this 'reality-documentary' are surreal. Believe they are caricatures if you want, but I can see these people around us every day. Vernon's mother is a clingy, disillusioned woman, sliding hysterically into middle-age without having achieved anything in her life. She tries to make up for this by boasting to her friends about her new fridge while hiding the mounting electricity bills, and dieting between trips to Bar-B-Chew Barn. Eulalio Ledesma is the sleazy reporter who worms his way into the family only to wrench it apart with his 'exclusives', but has a hidden past of his own. Then there's the creepy psychiatrist with steel salad tongs, the divine Taylor Figueroa and others from the slightly warped imagination of DBC Pierre.
The author, it seems, can dig up both the crass and the charming within people, and is not afraid to plunge in and find it, then come back and tell it to us straight. The book is fantastically well-constructed, with plot twists that will knock you over then jump up and down on you. The story never takes back seat to any message that Pierre is trying to send us, which means you can read it on many levels. Much of what he finds will shatter your faith in humanity, but hold on - it emerges triumphant! We track Vernon as he moves from being a boy that things happen to, a victim of his own circumstances, through being a criminal on the run, and finally as he becomes Vernon God Little, who knows the secret of life...
All in all, this is an astounding first novel, and fully deserved to win the Man BOOKER Prize, the Whitbread Best First Novel Award, and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003, despite it being a rather irregular choice. Take note all - this could be the handle of a mop..
It is ironic that a Booker winning book is written entirely in an American voice, when - of course - Americans cannot enter. I suspect that there are niggles with unauthentic American references, just as there are wrinkles in the book generally. However, it is a great book with a narrator who is both frustratingly naive and deeply knowing. It draws the reader in, makes us care, and keeps us dangling until the end.
I wonder if this is how Donna Tartt would sound if she had a really firm editor? There is the same sense of mystery, and some of the same low life Americans, but much punchier pacing.
The other great thing about the book is that it is littered with genuinely funny puns. Don’t worry about the hype, don’t worry about the implausibility of the author, just let yourself laugh and cry with Vernon.
Booker winners seem to fall into 2 camps; studied literary works like The Sea or rollicking fantastical works like Midnights Children. VGL falls into the second category.
Told in the voice of 15 year old Vernon from small town Texas, the novel certainly has a original and mostly compelling voice. Not one everyone will like him, but it is I think what makes this a very good book, for all his flaws (and doubts about his actual role in the shooting) it is difficult not to warm to Vernon.
The story of the aftermath of a Columbine style school massacre seeks to make satirical points about obsession with possessions and celebrity. Some of it is quite telling, but I despite the claims on the cover I rarely found it laugh out loud funny. Vernon does become a bit irritating and I did give up on the book for a while. But I'm glad I went back to it as the closing section is the best part of the novel.
However I had two problems with the book; firstly the story is just too fantastical, in particular the success of the manipulative Lalio stretched my credulity beyond breaking point. More fundamentally though the satire on the life of the Vernon's mother and here friends is too broad and unsympathetic. I never truly believed in them, or that the author new people like them. This feels like writing at second hand rather than from real experience.
All in all though it is certainly worth a read, but not I think worthy of the lavish praise some have heaped on it.
on 8 January 2004
After the first 20 pages I've got to admit that I was beginning to lose faith in this book. Sure the language was unusual, but that's been done before and better (if you're adventurous read a book called Sozaboy by Ken Saro-Wiwa) and the story had not yet gripped me. But patience paid off: Vernon God Little blindsided me and without noticing the transition I went from nearly hating the book to loving it.
Do I think it deserved the Booker Prize? Probably not. This book is not a great literary accomplishment (whatever that means), what it is - and what storytelling used to be before it got dirtied by overbearing academic purity - is a great warm yarn that leaves you with a big silly grin on your face. And sometimes that's all we want.
on 3 March 2009
Compare and contrast Vernon Little and Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), could prove a very interesting essay for all those keen students out there. Never mind that though, let us be honest, how this was short listed for the Booker Prize? God only knows! Despite the unusual writing style, this is just an ordinary novel. One (me in particular here) needed to read several chapters before able to embrace the words and the voice with due credit. It may be difficult for the reader to engage Vernon, without giving time enough. One could quickly and wrongly dismiss this as trashy. The book does improve significantly as you get deeper in, but never makes great heights (or great depths). In part it is much like a teen/road movie as it does not dawdle and just keeps you awake.
on 14 June 2005
The characters in this book are meant to be unreal, they symbolise the plastic, all consuming parasitic society that is becoming an 'unreal' reality, everyone striving for their own personal gain, hiding behind fear to avoid the stark emptiness that faces them every single day, that they refuse to acknowledge, finding it easier to buy in to this fake, plastic dream then to admit that their own lives lack in every single way. The way that the characters are portrayed as caracatures only serves to highlight this layering, putting layer upon layer over broken dreams and regrets, and the realisation of a common humanity that brings them closer to the protrogenist then they could ever admit. This book for me, highlights the emptiness that pervades everything, that is everywhere all around us. The emptiness and hollowness that I feel in a profound way in this consumer obsessed world. How all our priorities are f**ked as we strive for all the wrong things. Without this understanding I can see why this book provokes so many negative comments, from the likes of Rachel Walker for example who didn't even give the book a chance, but I think this just serves to further, for me at least, the book's success. A great book, like any piece of art should elicit debate and controversy, from those who get it and those that don't. And I think that anyone that has ever felt disassociated or disatisfied with society and what it has to offer will be able to identufy with Vernon Gregory Little and the world of drones that surround him, helpless to control his own fate, a microcosm of the fate of this world.
on 6 November 2012
You could almost call it 'super-hype': a hyped novel about hype that hypes itself. DBC Pierre's post-modern existential tragi-comedy is a classic, and in my view, certainly worthy of the Mann Booker Prize. The characterisation of Vernon Gregory Little is superb and the vernacular - a great strength of this author - is superlative throughout. I admit, though, that at first I struggled. This is a book that rewards the patient reader. You do have to adjust to Vernon's voice, though thankfully that voice becomes more articulate and exigent as the story draws to its dramatic conclusion.
There are some treasured vignettes here. Aside from Vernon's own moments, there are the antics of 'Lally' (my favourite character, actually), a fairly shallow TV repairman-cum-media celebrity and one of the most hilarious literary characters I have ever encountered. The telephone tag between Lally, his blind mother and Vernon is priceless, as is his advice to Vernon early on about 'paradigms'. Inevitably you 'love-hate' him by the end. Then there is the knife metaphor, a literary device that the author uses effectively at several points to convey the emotional callousness of those who interact or share the stage with Vernon. There is the wisdom of 'Lasalle', the axe-murderer who didn't miss the boat. In a revealing passage, Lasalle shows that he understands all too well the social relations that underpin what is happening in society.
And one of the things I liked most was the comparison between the two defence lawyers, 'Abdini' and 'Brian': Abdini achieves professional redemption by means that seek truth, whereas "Brian" (by no means a bad guy at all) attempts to save Vernon using the same devices as Vernon's foes - legal shenanigans and verbal trickery. For all his skill, Brian's failure is all-but inevitable and he is humiliated, winding-up as an apologetic failure as most criminal defence lawyers do when they have decided they can do no more for their condemned client. On trial, Vernon presses 'the green buzzer' provided to him because he wants reality, he wants truth. The 'reality TV' of the courtroom (which actually works as most real courtrooms do) is not reality at all. It is an anti-reality, as contrived and antithetical to truth-seeking as any score of lies. Abdini may lack the professional skills of "Brian", but like Vernon, he has the insight and perception to see this.
This book is sold as a comedy, and there are some darkly funny moments: Lally I've mentioned. There is also the off-the-cuff hilarity of Vernon himself and hundreds of passages of cold, dark black, devastating humour. But to my mind this novel is in actuality a satire. Admittedly, there is nothing revelatory here - the themes of media predation, journalists as gratuitous feral scumbags and corruption in the criminal justice system and so on are well-worn - however the author does something new. He tackles the subject-matter through the lens of a disturbing hyper-reality of facsimile people and values in which Vernon Gregory Little - the 'anti-facsimile' kinesthetic who can still taste, touch and smell vividly in a plastic world - becomes the object of sacrifice, the man that everyone wants to crucify for their own 'wants' expressed as 'needs'.
Vernon's ultimate 'learning', courtesy of 'Lasalle', is the awkward and depressing truth that most people are facsimiles of themselves. It is Vernon, ultimately, who transcends this and becomes himself.
From the press coverage at Booker time, this was clearly going to be a novel I would either enjoy enormously or become extremely irritated with. Fortunately it proved to be the former, despite some loss of conviction and narrative energy in the mid-late stages. A rather odd comment on the blurb says that it is 'the only novel quite unlike any other' (so what does Tristram Shandy resemble?), but it is true that it is difficult to categorise: at some stages it even lurches towards the detective story. As a rites of passage story it holds up pretty well, but as a satire on contemporary American society it is hilarious: unfair, perhaps, even obvious, but still hilarious. The most remarkable feature is the essential goodness of the main character: not the likeliest or most fashionable quality for a foul-mouthed, anti-social teenager, especially one on the wrong end of a murder hunt. In my ignorance of the other contestants I can't say whether this is a worthy Booker winner, but, if entertainment is one of the criteria, it was bound to be a contender.
Parts of this book reveal genuine originality and even the odd spark of genius; other parts, however, show an author a little too much in love with his own self-conscious quirkiness, jemmying in supposedly killer one-liners on every page. The upshot is that the biting satire on the needy, corrupt insincerity of uncaring aspirational middle-class American society is undermined, as too many potentially brilliant strands and ideas fizzle out and remain undeveloped.
All in all, the book descends into an incoherent series of bitty, albeit well-realised, setpieces which does not quite add up to a consolidated whole.
Vernon's world is classically topsy turvy, with those on the outside looking in having the most profound contribution to make. There is a good deal of prescience in the idea of execution as a TV show, complete with 'phone-in votes, as life is devalued and turns into little more than a glorified gameshow. This will ring bells with anyone who saw the footage of the lead up to Saddam Hussein's execution recently.
DBC Pierre was born in South Australia in 1961, before moving to Mexico - where he was largely raised. "Vernon God Little" was his debut novel, and was awarded the 2003 Booker Prize. It was also awarded that year's Whitbread First Novel Award.
Vernon Little is a fifteen year old boy who lives in Martirio, a small town in Texas. As the book opens, Vernon's being held at the Sheriff's Office. A few days previously, Vernon's best friend, Jesus Navarro, arrived at school and killed sixteen fellow pupils before turning the gun on himself. There's naturally a lot of grief in town, and Jesus' suicide has robbed the population of its most obvious scapegoat. Vernon, who shot no-one and wasn't even at the scene of the crime, is therefore being stitched up as an accessory to murder. There's a clear attitude of guilty unless proven innocent since, let's face it, Jesus MUST'VE said something to him. All Vernon wants is to skip across the border to Mexico...
Given the awards and the good reviews I'd read, I was expecting to enjoy "Vernon God Little". Instead, I found it a struggle. I can't say I hated it, I just found it dull - and when I set the book down, the thought of picking it up again felt like a chore. Not for me.