Vernon God Awful

Once upon a time Brian and I belonged to a baby-sitting group.  In fact we still do.  Over the years it has provided us not only with baby-sitting services but also with a crowd of friends.  Nowadays, however, the “babies”have grown up (indeed, one called her parents last week from Nepal where she’s currently spending her gap-year to say she’d been offered a job and, providing she could defer her university place, could she stay for another year?)  Anyway, obviously the “babies” don’t need baby-sitters any more but, keen to remain in touch, we adults have been, belatedly, looking at ways of re-inventing ourselves.  Due to an excess of something (middle-class guilt?) we can’t just get together and, say, drink and/or chat.  No, we need a purpose.  Not terribly originally, we’ve decided on a book group and this month we’re reading Vernon God Littleby DBC Pierre.  Now,  as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not especially well-read and, if I was abreast of modern fiction, I would probably have read this five years ago when it won the Booker prize.  But, hey ho, I’ve read it now.

I should start by saying that I didn’t dislike this book as much as the post title suggests.  No, that was me trying to be funny but, for a book that’s variously described as “a wicked satire on white trash America” , “dangerous, smart, ridiculous and funny” and compared to everything from Salinger to South Park, I was expecting something more.  Quite a lot more, actually. 

At the beginning of the book we meet Vernon Little in the aftermath of a multiple Columbine-style shooting at his high school.  As sole survivor and the best friend of the gunman, Vernon is a convenient “skate-goat” for a community slavering for revenge.  Despite his innocence there is only one voice raised in his defence, that of his attorney, Mr Abdini, who is presented as a clownish figure.  Almost every other character, even Vernon’s mother, is preoccupied by a mind-numbing cocktail of reality TV, dieting and conspicuous consumerism.  Add to this a television repair man, posing as a TV reporter, who seduces Vernon’s mother while selling her son down the river, and Vernon seems like a condemned man.  Having set the scene, Pierre proceeds to catalogue Vernon’s efforts to clear his name and, in doing so, supposedly satirises contemporary American society by revealing it in all its gullible, venal hypocrisy .  I have two problems with this supposition.  Firstly, the picture painted of small-town Texas is lazily stereotypical (it reminded me of the joke that Texans are living proof that native Americans (very PC, me!) screwed buffalo) and, secondly, it just isn’t satire.  Pierre holds a mirror up to certain aspects of American society (for American you could just as easily read “western”) but he doesn’t satirise it so much as caricature it.  My understanding of satire is that it should take some recognisable situation, worthy of criticism, and push it  to just beyond the bounds of plausibility, but just beyond or it becomes farce or fantasy.  To be fair, Pierre manages true satire towards the end of the book when Vernon and the other inmates of death row become “contestants” on a Big Brother-style reality TV show to decide which of them should be executed but to get to this point the reader has had to wade through chapter after chapter of repetetive stereotype.

Pierre’s other sin (in my eyes, anyway) occurs towards the middle of the story when Vernon, briefly, escapes over the Mexican border.  Now, I realise that Pierre spent much of his (extremely privileged) youth in Mexico and perhaps that coloured his judgement, but it still doesn’t excuse his romanticising poverty in a way that is horribly reminiscent of “The Worst Film Ever Made” i.e. James Cameron’s Titanic.  If you remember (and the memory isn’t too painful) in Titanicall of the rich characters are portrayed as class one, grade A bastards.  Luckily for Kate Winslet, however, Leo is on hand to whisk her away from Billy Zane and co. in first class and transport her to the proletarian paradise that is steerage where you can cut the “Oirishness” with a blunt knife.  Oh sure, all they have to eat is gravel and every one of their 35 children is riddled with TB but, even though they have nothing, they’re happy.  No, because they have nothing they are happy.  And so it is with Pierre’s Mexicans.  Now, undoubtedly a reduction in western consumerism would be no bad thing but to equate its total absence with unalloyed happiness is not only lazy, it’s wrong.

To sum up. Vernon God Little: not a bad book as such but, if you want teenage angst, read Catcher in the Rye.


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4 Responses to Vernon God Awful

  1. Mr D says:

    I’m far from expert, being the reader of one novel a year (and it has to be thin, small and cheap). But I’d say that with such quality writing I now suspect you of being a secret literary critic!

    What book’s next?

  2. Tim Footman says:

    I did read VGL shortly after it won the Booker, and I’d managed to forget almost everything about it. Was it really that ordinary?

    Titanic I do remember. That was shite.

  3. marshaklein says:

    Tim: I must say I found it a bit boring. The language is very repetitive (perhaps in an attempt to replicate adolescent speech)and I couldn’t help feeling that much of the press praise stemmed from the book’s alleged satirising of the general awfulness of the media – it smacked of critics trying claim common ground with DBC Pierre and thereby partially exonerate themselves from his criticisms.

    Mr D: Thank for your very kind comment. Our book group is also reading “The Talented Mr Ripley”* this month. I read this years ago but am always happy to re-read it. I’d highly recommend it – it’s a fascinating study into the psychopathic mind.

    *Yes, I realise we should be reading more recent stuff but bear in mind that most of us having been busy child-rearing for the last 16 plus years and we’re trying to re-acclimatise ourselves to adult society.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I remember reading it some time ago, and can’t remember much about it, but thought it was quite good.
    Perhaps you’d like to try We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver – that’ll get you all going!

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