Lights Out in Wonderland is lights out

Gabriel embarks on a quest to save his friend's life, even as he is considering ending his own.

"Suicide is painless" or so goes the theme song from the movie and television show M*a*s*h. I've never considered suicide, but saying that it'a painless may be a bit of an oversimplification, depending on your method I suppose. Sleeping pills may be painless, although the stomach aches from taking so many would cause me to purge. A shotgun would be painless but for an instant, and you wouldn’t remember it anyway. Jumping off a bridge or walking in front of a bus definitely don’t qualify for painless. I would think that timing would also be important; should it be day or night? And what day of the week? Should there be a note? It’s enough to drive you crazy, but Gabriel Brockwell’s father already thinks he’s a little crazy. That’s why he had him committed to rehab, and Gabriel doesn’t see much sense in continuing in this life.

Gabriel, the protagonist in DBC Pierre’s sophomore novel Lights Out in Wonderland ($25.95, W.W. Norton & Company), doesn’t have much left to live for. He lost his job cooking french fries at a truck stop; his girlfriend left him a “Dear John” voice mail, and he’s in the loony bin at the mercy of his merciless father. What else is left in life but to end it before anything else goes wrong? He surmises that he doesn’t have to do it immediately, and that puts him into what he calls “limbo,” because never again will he have to “answer the phone ... or pay a bill.” His “credit rating no longer matters. Fears and compulsions don’t matter. Socks don’t matter. Because I’ll be dead.” And to live out his last hours, he decides to look up “the most accomplished profligate I know: my friend Nelson Smuts,” and take off on “nothing less than a last wanton dive to oblivion.”

So begins Gabriel’s madcap adventure that takes him from England, to Japan, to Berlin. He manages to escape from the loony bin, steal 5,000 British pounds, smash his cell phone and laptop (he’s serious), and fly to Tokyo with some “grams of coke, some hash and some ecstasy.”

Gabriel is ultimately thrust into the position of having to free his friend from jail where he finds himself facing the death penalty largely because of Gabriel’s wanton diving. He seems an unlikely choice for that assignment given his suicidal bent, but Lights Out In Wonderland is a parable, and parables require a learning experience.

Visions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight come to mind. Gawain was a knight of the Round Table who had to embark on a quest that would surely end in his death, all in the name of honor. He learned about himself along the way, and while comparisons may seem remote, Gabriel’s quest is noble, and he has a lot to learn. His friend’s life is on the line, and he must place his own life on hold, or prolong it in his case, to save his friend. His life has been one of chemical excess, and his redemption is only possible by realizing the folly of excess.

Gabriel narrates his own story, and so we are graced with his philosophy about everything that he encounters. He is the outsider everywhere he goes and his outside-looking-in, conversational style narration provides an irreverent cultural and social commentary that only a drug-addled 25 year-old can provide. Pierre has a propensity to offset Gabriel’s deeper philosophical wanderings in footnotes that range from the practical reasons for death to humanity’s mission. The footnotes are expositions on subjects that the conscious Gabriel is either too drunk, high, or immature to consider. Almost like an alter-ego or subconscious, the footnotes provide insight into a sober, mature Gabriel Brockwell. They begin to fade away as the story progresses, almost as if his subconscious and conscious merge to form a complete person, just as Gawain did when he finally met the Green Knight. Gabriel is more than just a failed fry cook intent on suicide; he is a likable and thinking man who maybe never took the opportunity to enjoy life other than through chemical induction.

There are some cliche devices (i.e. girl, elderly couple that will lose their cafe) that cloud the story a bit. They would be a disappointment except that they occur in what used to be East Berlin where Gabriel finds himself in the midst of a bacchanal that is in stark contrast to the utilitarian remnants of Communist era Berlin. The contrast lends a sense of the surreal and there is enough of a crusader in Gabriel that it doesn’t take much to send him on his quest, and avoid suffocating in the cliches.

DBC Pierre is a pseudonym for Peter Finlay; DBC stands for “Dirty But Clean,” and Pierre was a nickname he earned in childhood. His first novel, Vernon God Little, about a Columbine-style massacre in Texas, won the Man Booker Prize in England. We might worry about an apparent obsession with death, but both novels fall into the dark comedy genre. Gabriel turned himself into a righteous warrior, and it would be no surprise to see him in another novel. Let’s just hope the sober Gabriel is as entertaining as the loaded Gabriel.


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