After D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little won the Booker Prize last month, book review editors across the country picked up their phones (O.K., so they probably sent email, but that doesn’t suggest nearly as dramatic a split-screen image). Pierre’s novel is a dark comedy about the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting. A couple of weeks ago the wave of new reviews started breaking, the earliest ones appreciative but distinctly lacking ardor, as though people were unmoved by the book but hesitant to gainsay the Booker committee.
Now the reviews are turning plainly negative. Today everyone will be talking about Michiko Kakutani’s takedown of the book in the New York Times. A small taste: “In trying to score a lot of obvious points off a lot of obvious targets, Mr. Pierre may have won the Booker Prize and ratified some ugly stereotypes of Americans, but he hasn’t written a terribly convincing or compelling novel.” But Kakutani was anticipated in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week, in a review whose lifetime as free web content may be about to expire, so be warned. John Freeman gave the novel’s inventiveness its due, but wondered whether it was this quality as much as the scorching of life in these United States that earned it the nod from the Booker judges:
Vernon God Little might be the most vicious satire of American life to come out of Britain since Martin Amis’ 1984 Money. Set in a small Texas town at the center of a media circus, the book places an astute, if needling, finger on the scary collusion between entertainment and law enforcement in American culture….
Still, in spite of its linguistic daring-do, Vernon God Little is less a satire than it is a burlesque. It ignores the emotional strafing such high school massacres leave in their wake in order to make a point about the way the media–and Americans’ susceptibility to the media–warp the moral contract.
What grates even more about Vernon God Little is that to make these points, it twists itself into a pretzel of unbelievable plotting and gross generalization. None of the characters, including Vernon, earns our sympathy. They are uniformly cruel and crass to one another.
Writers are entitled to their bleakness, and satire demands license. But when books go so far over the top, their insights become easy to dismiss. The acclaim that Vernon Little God received abroad shows us that learned Brits are happy to see America reflected in a funhouse mirror.
And at Amazon, an Australian reader who loves the book groups it with the (by many accounts also fictional) work of Michael Moore, clucking, “This, and Stupid White Men, should be compulsory reading for all Americans.”
I’ve picked up the novel a few times without getting very far, so I can’t responsibly comment on its literary merits. One tic I have noticed is the awkward insertion of self-consciously literary language into Vernon’s crude vernacular. For example, “My buddy, who once did the best David Letterman impression you ever saw, has been abducted by glandular acids.” As far as I can tell, the incongruity of this typical sentence serves to shore up the distance between Pierre and his material, with the narrator stuck uncomfortably in between. In other words, the writing usually seems pretentious. The effect reminds me of American Beauty, a very different work, but one whose writer and director looked down on their poor, soulless suburban subjects from empyrean heights of sophistication and general superiority.
But there I go reviewing a book I haven’t read, when I wanted simply to point out the political alertness of this latest wave of reviews. Is it possible that Pierre’s critique of Texas and America told the Booker committee what they wanted to hear, and thus helped him win the award? I’d say it’s likely. Prize competitions never take place in a vacuum, nor are books written in one. Judges unavoidably will be influenced not only by the intrinsic merits of the books they read, but also by their own world views; some will be better at suppressing this kind of influence than others. It’s not exactly scandalous if this year’s Booker selection was as much a political statement as a literary one. But it is pretty sad, and will take some of the bang out of the whole shebang next year.
UPDATE: On the other hand, Maud likes the novel. Maud trumps Michiko any day.