"Ludmila's Broken English"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage SEP 30, 2006)
"He pulled some straggle of hairs from his face, and peered through the doorway. Night’s gravy was thinning. Although the basement’s tiny street-level window was shut, its net curtain wavered, hovering air from the road: a road spread like toast with a Marmite of diesel soot and pigeon shit. Bunny tried to ignore the hoot of car alarms and sirens starting to rise like banshee cries across the borough. They unnerved him, made him mindful of the violent tangle around him, the city of lurid reflections on fetid tarmac, the hamster wheel of never-quites."
I’ll have to admit that DBC Pierre’s novel, Ludmila’s Broken English is one of the more bizarre novels I’ve read, and there were sections I really struggled with. But when all’s said and done, it’s one of those novels that comes together at the very end, and after its conclusion, I appreciated the clever, original plot and the author’s wild, creative genius. This is an absurd, bizarre and ultimately touching novel that depicts a chaotic world rife with constantly present terrorism and out-of-control globalism.
Now to the plot…The novel is set in an undated--but not-too-distant future. Twins Blair and Gordon Heath are born conjoined “anteriorly at the trunk.” Blithely abandoned by their parents and institutionalized in the historically significant Albion House, the boys lead a bizarre symbiotic life—Blair is the stronger of the two, but Gordon also known as "Bunny" is “cunning” and therefore the dominant twin. When the boys reach the age of thirty-three, they are surgically separated. Bunny suffers from the separation—but Blair thrives. They are given four week’s holiday, booted from Albion House, and sent to live in London. Blair can’t wait to get out into society and experience all the things he’s missed, but Bunny believes that their holiday is a cover for something more mysterious, and he tends to believe that Albion House—founded for an illegitimate son of Charles II—also housed a “dodgy royal baby.” Bunny argues “it’s what the Establishment’s all about, covering up things for one another.”
Blair and Bunny are unleashed in London and soon connect with Don Lamb—“from another untidy corner of His Majesty’s government” and Truman--the American head of the powerful global company, Vitaxis. Meanwhile in war-torn Russia, a young girl named Ludmila struggles to survive while staving off starvation, a groping grandfather, and brutal warring factions. The contrasting worlds of the twins and Ludmila collide when Blair decides he wants to experience sex and promptly discovers a Russian bride website.
The story unfolds with chapters alternating between Ludmila in war-ravaged Russian Caucasus, and Blair and Bunny with their newfound freedom in swinging London. Unfortunately, while the chapters concerning Blair and Bunny are frequently hilarious, the Ludmila chapters are, by comparison, dull and violent, and the author’s prose style in these sections is cumbersome. While the twins are viewed with a certain tender affection, Ludmila’s brutal experiences are treated with an off-hand humour that is decidedly un-funny. This creates an often-jarring unevenness in the novel. By far the most interesting element to the novel is the symbiotic relationship between the twins—they need each other—although Blair would never admit it. Their dialogue is incredibly funny, and the banter back and forth resembles that of an old married couple. Blair can’t wait to launch himself into the world, and says, “I’ve heard a clock ticking and it bloody ticks for me.” He sees his weaker, physically unattractive brother as a nuisance. But as the plot unfolds, their need for one another becomes glaringly apparent.
Ingenious, original, brilliantly funny, but also spotty, and uneven, the novel requires the reader to be patient and overlook some of its weaker elements, but it’s ultimately the reader’s decision whether or not the payoff is worth it.
Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
"Vernon God Little: A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death"
(Reviewed by Wenkai Tay NOV 12, 2003)
"You don't know how bad I want to be Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ram her f* gun up her ass, run away with a panty model. But just look at me: clump of lawless brown hair, the eyelashes of a camel. Big ole-puppy dog features like God made me through a f* magnifying glass. You know right way my movie's the one where I puke on my legs, and they send a nurse to interview me instead."
Reporters go wild at the news, and flock to the quiet town of Martirio, Texas. The townsfolk are transformed into monsters by the sudden attention. As Vernon stands trial under the intense media coverage, it seems as if "normal times just ran howling from town."
For all his faults, Vernon Little is innocent. Mr Nuckles, Vernon's physics teacher, knows the truth, but is unable to talk. Vernon can absolve himself of his guilt, if only he were willing to admit to an embarrassing medical condition and reveal a truckload of family secrets. Because of his misguided sense of family honor, Vernon chooses to stay mum. But ironically, even Vernon's mother remains utterly convinced of his guilt.
So instead of taking his chances in court, Vernon decides to jump bail and run off to Mexico with the girl of his fantasies, Taylor Figueroa.
As events spiral out of control, Vernon becomes the unwitting victim of a perverse conspiracy.
DBC Pierre's modern morality tale is preposterous and believable at the same time. He sketches a town full of heartless, amoral inhabitants who stuff their faces with burritos and Chik'n'Mix from Bar-B-Chew Barn, while betraying those closest to them for a quick buck or for fifteen minutes of fame. But laughing at the Martirians is akin to laughing at ourselves. In them, we see how selfish and self-indulgent we've become in today's society. DBC Pierre has an eye for the riddling inconsistencies of modern life.
Yet DBC Pierre's most dazzling creation is puckish Vernon Little himself, whose mind we inhabit for just under three hundred pages.
Vernon Little conceptualizes his sorry existence in terms of a whacked-out TV show. He even hears soundtrack muzak playing in the background - "Fate tunes," he calls them - that establish the mood in every scene. He fancies himself as the hero in an action blockbuster when he thinks of running off to Mexico just like in the movie Against All Odds. "Jean-Claude would do it", he'd say. Or, "This would never happen to Van Damme."
The source of his grief is his dysfunctional relationship with his widowed mother. "I'll tell you a learning: knife-turners like my ole lady actually spend their waking hours connecting shit into a humongous web, just like spiders. It's true. ... Like, 'Wow, see that car?' ' Well it's the same blue as that jacket you threw up on at the Christmas show, remember? ' What I learned is that parents succeed by managing the database of your dumbness and your slime, ready for combat."
There's something delightfully odd about the way the teenage Vernon speaks to the reader. Our precocious protagonist can't tell a "paradigm" from a "powerdime." Yet he speaks with a world-worn wisdom beyond his years, in a cadence that's catchy and true, plump with imaginative images.
Growing up in front of the TV, Vernon interprets his life in terms of television images. But now, as a victim of the media frenzy, he begins to question the reality of the artificial world he's grown up in. "Where TV lets you down, I'm discovering, is by not convincing you how things really work in the world."
Indeed, Pierre's first novel is a study in the effects of the media and "the breadth of human suggestibility." Our society's insatiable appetite for media images already borders on the voyeuristic; Pierre merely draws this trend to its absurd but natural conclusion. Pierre wisely avoids using a heavy-handed, moralizing tone in his novel. He chooses to let a sense of revulsion build up within us, while keeping us laughing all the way to the last chapter. The result is sick, twisted, farcical, and remarkably effective.
Vernon God Little was awarded the 2003 Man Booker Prize, edging out literary heavyweight and previous winner Margaret Atwood. Booker winners a decade ago tended to be "art" books that were dense and slow-moving. Recent picks like Vernon God Little and last year's winner Life of Pi by Yann Martel suggest a shift towards books that are more progressive in style and subject matter. That the Booker committee has taken to awarding the prize to more whimsical works sends the message that good literature can be well-written and fun to read at the same time.
Only when literature effectively tackles contemporary issues can it stay afloat in today's media deluge. DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little is a step in the right direction for modern writing.
Amazon readers rating: from 145 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Vernon Good Little at Guardian Unlimited
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Vernon God Little (October 2003) /
- Ludmila's Broken English (May 2006)
- Lights Out in Wonderland (August 2011)
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- The Guardian on DBC Pierre
- The Guardian review of Vernon God Little
- The Christian Science Monitor review of Vernon God Little
- ReviewOfBooks.com review of Vernon God Little
- Times Online review of Ludmila's Broken English
- Guardian Unlimited review of Ludmila's Broken English
- Telegraph review of Lights Out in Wonderland
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