One of the duties of a reviewer is to alert potential readers to the flavour and content of a book, particularly if it comes into the category of ‘not a suitable present for your great-aunt’. I always dislike this duty, since it spoils surprises, which are the essence of enjoyment in reading; but Adam Thirlwell’s first novel, Politics, did perhaps require a few alerts. The title gave no clue that it was about a sexual threesome, and would have introduced the putative great-aunt to rimming, undinism, and an exhausting range of esoteric practices.
The flavour of Thirlwell’s third novel, however, Lurid & Cute, is blazoned on the cover. You can’t fault this one on the Trade Descriptions Act. This is a ‘tale of suburban sex and violence’, told, as the narrator says, ‘with all the tones that no one ever admires — the Gruesome, Tender, Needy, Sleazy, Boring, the Lurid and the Cute’.
The tone I find far the hardest to stomach is the ‘Cute’. The narrative voice in the three novels by Thirlwell I have read (Politics, The Escape and now Lurid & Cute) is the same: arch, winsome, twinkly, clever-clever, faux-naif. This time around, it has lost whatever charm of freshness it once possessed.
A narrative voice which is part Woody Allen (neurotic, Jewish, highly sexed, still worrying about ‘my dentist who removed a milk tooth and then never replaced it… the teachers at the school who would not give me the magic mark which would allow me to use a fountain pen, which meant that technically I am still forbidden from using anything other than a pencil or biro’), part the deadpan, perpetually innocent citizen from Damon Runyon (‘I’ve always mixed in atmospheres where people are quiet and respectable’) is a potentially richly comic and beguiling persona. But one too many back-flips or loop-the-loops of self-referentiality, and the effect is merely cloying.
One stylistic tic I find particularly irritating is the repetition of ‘Me, I...’ as in ‘Me, I ask these questions all the time….’ It is infantile crossed with French intellectual; and has the effect of Miss Piggy’s simpering little-me ‘Moi?’
The aesthetic of Lurid & Cute is that of a wide-eyed manga comic, which can contain disturbingly graphic depictions of sex and violence in an innocent-seeming format. It is, says the narrator, a ‘kawaii tale’, expressed through emoticons.
The infantalised narrator is an only child, whose ‘best career’ to date has been as the adored son of parents who think him a prodigy. Out of respect for his own ‘inner grandeur’ he has left his job, and is living at home with his parents, together with his wife — his childhood sweetheart, Candy. He is self-professedly ‘kind’; though he watches gang-rape porn.
Our hero has ‘this face which is wide-eyed and also innocent’, which he has consciously to deploy from the opening scene of the book, when he wakes up in a lurid motel next to a bleeding and unconscious woman who is not his ‘happy wife’.
‘Fate,’ we are told, ‘was all around me, like the crimping on a beer-bottle top.’ Metaphors like this will either carry the book for you, or not. Me, I like them (tics are catching); and the novel is crammed with fine examples: ‘The jealousy kept on working inside me, the way water keeps on rocking inside a bucket when you set it down.’
Our hero is led into the ‘innovation’ of new moral perspectives by his ‘crazy’ friend, Hiro, who has ‘always been into pharmaceuticals and narcotics’: recently released from a clinic, he moves into the hero’s spare room (given the narrator’s obsession with super-heroes and mini-fantasies of time travel, Hiro’s name may be intended to recall the sci-fi character Hiro Nakamura from Heroes). Under Hiro’s guidance, our hero enters what the blurb calls an ‘extravaganza of suburban noir’. This, of course, includes the obligatory orgy, brothel and escalating violence.
Thirlwell regularly allows comically hum-drum anxieties to deflate the lurid highlights: the hero’s uncertainty about whether he can remove his regulation-issue plastic sandals in a brothel (is it a matter of hygiene, or etiquette?) is a typical moment.
But self-deflation can lead to implosion; and the novel is vulnerable to that clever-clever touch too far. Is the moment when someone is shot really ‘as smart and irrevocable as the moment whenever the instrument known always as the bonjo acquired the new name of banjo’?
The trouble with allowing our hero to question his existential reality — ‘possibly the moment itself might not exist at all’ — is that we question his reality too. If one gives up caring about the story, ‘a giant weariness’ is, as the novel acknowledges, the prevailing mood. Certainly, despite the many moments of incidental brilliance, I found my attention increasingly spinning off into irrelevant speculations. Why on earth does the hero’s dog smell ‘supersweet’, like ‘frosted vanilla’? Could it be a yeast infection, or canine diabetes? When a reviewer’s mind turns to veterinary diagnostics, there is something missing from a work of fiction.