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Book Review: Lurid & Cute

By (April 15, 2015) No Comment

Lurid & Cutelurid & cute cover

by Adam Thirlwell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Comedy is the hardest of all the literary feats to pull off successfully, but it’s the most easily dismissed. “Yes, Portofello’s Moon Pies is funny, certainly, but …” goes a typical offhand subject-shift, handing out a consolation prize for the head-breaking labor of making comic prose before moving on to loftier matters. This must be maddening for writers who attempt the feat anyway, driving some to more and more furtively yukking prose (Douglas Coupland and the late Terry Pratchett, for a couple of examples) and others to a kind of leaden resentment that can curdle otherwise sharp comic sensibilities (John Lanchester, say, or Edward St. Aubyn). The Republic of Letters has reached such a woefully stratified state, where all “serious” “literary” fiction has to be composed of Franzenesque blocks of congealed navel-gazing solemnity, and even then most stylized levity-for-levity’s sake is a faux pas equivalent to a Nobel laureate in physics telling knock-knock jokes at a dinner party.

Adam Thirlwell (who’ll very likely be prefixed with “promising young British novelist” until he’s 90) will accumulate more than his fair share of these consolation prizes for his latest novel, Lurid & Cute, which thoroughly subjugates its somewhat ad hoc plot to the sheer effervescence of its execution. The book relates the picaresque adventures of its louche main character (unnamed, of course – no novelist so far in 2015 has bothered to get up off his couch and actually give his character names, so why should Thirlwell be the first?), from the opening moment when he wakes up in bed with Romy, who’s a good friend of his wife Candy, through the series of increasingly exotic adventures he has with his old friend/partner in crime/Batman to his Robin Hiro. The unnamed narrator floats through the book’s meandering plot-lines like a bubble on a stream; he’s rife with self-pity and too-smart justifications for every mordantly self-absorbed thing he thinks or does, but he’s also more or less aware of his own shortcomings. “I would happily bet in any world currency that no one has a clue about the kind of story they are currently inhabiting – everywhere they look they are muzzled and confined,” he confesses. “… I don’t mean I’m some philosophy champ. I just mean I was very confused.”

The youngish narrator is an abandoned hedonist, a feckless dreamer with a penchant for quips (“Waking up, I just mean, is such a terrifying state that it’s a wonder anyone survives it”), and through him, Thirlwell is able to indulge in one inner soliloquy after another anatomizing all the traits most people don’t want to admit they have, like personal trust’s great potential for satisfying damage:

Because, to put this another way, it turns out that in the perfect marriage where you are absolutely trusted there is no end to what you can do. For lying only distills its gorgeousness if you are doing it to the person who wakes up next to you every day, who believes they know your inner heart more than they know their own, that’s the perfect person to lie to because only when you lie to someone like that can you create a perfect lie, the kind that opens out new possibilities of other lives and other worlds, as if you’d made a voyage to the moon in your own home-made jetpack. You just do something with panache and anyone who loves you will believe you, if they have no other reason not to – and most of the time they do not.

Or the labor-intensive side of deceiving people (and why, therefore, layabouts like our narrator tend to excel at it):

For the deep temptation of massive leisure time that is perhaps not obvious to you as you read this on the metro, is that leisure time gives you all the means you need to deceive other people: it is you who are commuting and hard-pressed with deadlines who are going to be luckily limited in your interior life, and therefore unavailable to temptation. Whereas the unemployed have so much time at their disposal. When a person needs a secret phone call or long meeting it is always possible to arrange.

“Show me a soul that is not a trash vortex, gathering its plastic in the otherwise bright blue sea,” this poor man-boy muses, as we watch him spasm from one misadventure to another, clinging to the nebulous Hiro, serially betraying both Candy and Romy, and the whole while musing airily on the nature of deception, all in Thirwell’s unflaggingly readable prose:

but really secrecy makes your ordinary life so minute and heavy, it has this difficult effect that it forces you into braveries that no one really should have to bear. It sounds contradictory or kooky but secrecy, it turns out, is a form of exposing yourself to more things in this world than you should; it is to take your privacy into places that it should not need to go –

Lurid & Cute is such a gaudy spectacle of ineptitude and squalor that it’s tempted more than one critic to go on about it being a commentary of some kind or other. And it may well be – Thirlwell is, after all, a promising young British novelist! – but the book is also very funny. For whatever that’s worth.