Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
What did it win?
Man Booker Prize 2003
What’s it all about?
A fifteen-year-old Texan boy is suspected of being involved in a mass killing. He runs away to Mexico, but is captured and brought back to face trial.
Was it really any good?
It was certainly a divisive choice. Not for the Man Booker jury – its selection was nearly unanimous and immediate – but in the critical response to the award. People were angry at this book, and even angrier that it won such a prestigious prize. Why?
Because it’s a lousy book? No. There have been any number of lousy books that have won the Booker to no great objection. And while Vernon God Little is not a great book, or even very remarkable as a first novel, it isn’t that bad.
Instead, I have a theory that what really fueled the anti-VGL backlash was politics.
In the first place, the Man Booker Prize has been in the news a lot the last couple of years because of all the debate over whether it should take books by American authors into consideration (for my thoughts at the time, see here). So far it hasn’t happened. And now here’s DBC Pierre, a variously transplanted Australian, winning the big prize for writing a satire on America in a Texan voice!
The critics do have a point: V. G. Little doesn’t sound remotely Texan. He doesn’t even sound like a fifteen-year old. He sounds like an adult British Commonwealth writer trying to sound like a Texan boy. His “fucken” obscenities sprinkle the text like they’ve been thrown in by some kind of random writing program. As Twain, a master of the vernacular, understood, bad language is music first, feeling second. It’s part of the sing-song of the natural spoken word. It’s main function is rhythmical. Vernon’s voice is simply too literate, and not just in the obvious ways. Even Caliban, after all, is a poet. I mean in simple little sentences like “The door stands ajar.” Think about it.
So a poor approximation of Texas speech is made worse by the fact that this is an appropriation of voice! And the Booker still isn’t open to the real thing. Where’s the reciprocity? Sharpen the blades.
As if that weren’t enough, this is a book that is anti-American. Writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail, reviewer Ron Charach “wondered if the [Man Booker] judges had fallen for an orgy of anti-Americanism.” American reviewers expressed concern that Europeans – even their strategic allies! – saw the United States as a nation of gun-toting, ignorant rednecks addicted to junk food, Internet porn, and home shopping. Satire is one thing, but you don’t expect to see this kind of stuff winning literary prizes in the New World Order of Bush and Blair.
Again, the critics have a point. Pierre’s satire is over-the-top, cartoonish, and not even terribly original. But I think the political angle gave the response to VGL a lot of its edge. VGL is no more anti-American than, say, Eric Bogosian’s Mall. But “anti-American” is a label now.
(As a final note on the response to Vernon God Little I should say something about the slack reading skills shown by some of today’s professional book reviewers. While Laura Miller’s review in Salon made a number of excellent observations, I had to wonder who “the vacuous blonde Vernon yearns for” was. Taylor Figueroa is blonde? Then there was Michael Lind calling Pierre out on the Texan hayride: “My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest.” Good point. But Pierre makes it himself when he has Vernon say this a little later: “A hayride, gimme a break. We don’t even have fucken hay around here, they probably had to buy it on the web or something.” Let’s pay closer attention to the text folks.)
But while politics may have given the critical knives some edge, the truth is that this is only a decent first novel. And it is very much a first novel. It took me a while before I realized that the subtitle – “A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death” – really was a subtitle and not just a blurb. Who would give a novel a subtitle like that?
At times the writing is downright clumsy. When Pierre wants to introduce a philosophical problem from Immanuel Kant into the text (and just wanting to bring Kant directly into the text is bad enough), he does it like this:
“Man, remember the Great Thinker we heard about in class last week?” he asks.
“The one that sounded like ‘Manual Cunt’?”
“Yeah, who said nothing really happens unless you see it happen.”
So subtle you hardly notice it at all.
At its best, and the book is not without its moments, Vernon God Little is a book about needs. When he stop to show some sympathy for his characters is when they become most real.
Fate puts Vaine Gurie in the Pizza Hut opposite my bank. She sits by the window, hunched over a wedge of pizza. Sitting by the window ain’t a sharp idea for a diet fugitive, but you can see the place is overflowing with strangers. I stop and fumble in my pack, watching her through the corner of my eye. Strangely, I get a wave of sadness watching her. Fat ole Vaine, stuffing emptiness into her void. Her eating strategy is to take six big bites, until her mouth’s crammed to bursting, then top up the gaps with little bites. Panic eating. Here’s me yearning for Mexico, there’s Vaine hogging herself slim, just another fragile fucken booger-sac of a life. I stare down at my New Jacks. Then back at Vaine; detached, sad, and furtive. I mean, what kind of fucken life is this?
Stuffing emptiness into the void. Aren’t we all? “Learn their needs” is finally revealed as the secret of life, a “learning” Vernon has already received before he enters prison. There are the needs of his mother for love, of Jesus Navarro for understanding, the needs of the novel’s many perverts for sex, and the needs of its other villains for fame. Like Vaine stuffing down her pizza, everyone in the novel is hungry, yearning for something to fill the void.
We feel these needs in the novel’s quietest moments. More than once I found myself wondering why Pierre even bothered with the Columbine plot. The book would have been better if it had only been the story of a boy and his mom. Most of the slapstick is comic buckshot, only hitting a fraction of its target, and the stereotypes are narrative lead.
For such a colorful character, DBC Pierre (a pseudonym for Peter Finlay) has the briefest bio-line I’ve seen in quite a while: “DBC Pierre is in the process of writing his second novel.” On the strength of Vernon God Little, I’ll probably read it. But I hope he’ll take some learnings from the first.