I’m on a bit of a time constraint with this post, as I have to leave the house in about forty minutes, which is a situation in complete opposition to the unnamed flaneur narrator in Adam Thirlwell’s most recent novel, Lurid & Cute. This 400 pageish novel is Thirlwell’s longest work of fiction by quite some way, and though still half the size of his entertaining and informative non-fiction book on literary translation, Miss Herbert (my review here), this unfamiliar size stretches out the cloth of his usual fictive narratives and, unfortunately, kinda exposes all his flaws. The other big let down (for me) is the failure of Lurid & Cute to pick up on the strengths of his 2012 snorker, Kapow! (my review HERE), which were its honesty, its contemporaneity, its relevance and its political awareness. Lurid & Cute could’ve been written in a vacuum*, whereas Kapow! could’ve been written and published at no time other than 2012. Go away and read Kapow!: that will be the over-arching message of this blog.
Lurid & Cute is a picaresque about a man descending into a malaise that leads to much infidelity and some petty crime. It is a mid-life crisis novel about someone who is 30ish rather than 40ish, it is a drug and sex-sodden fiction written with (to be fair) some panache and some rather playful gaps in world creation. The setting, a city as unnamed as the narrator, is warm and tropical, rich and provincial, sprawling and varied: it is London and Hong Kong and New York and Buenos Aires and Cape Town and Singapore and Sydney and Guadalajara rolled into one. The narrator lives in a house in the ‘burbs with his parents and his wife and his dog and – for most of the text – an old school friend also suffering from a mental and emotional collapse. They are elites, but not super rich. The narrator and his friends all went to a good school and had good jobs, but some of them (maybe all of them?) start dropping out of society and pursuing increasingly selfish lifestyles. There are orgies and hold-ups, car chases and vandalism, adultery and instant messaging: yeah, the technology is there of the present age, people buy drugs off the internet, people use iPads and smartphones and whatever, but in terms of saying anything new about the world, Lurid & Cute fails to do so. Lurid & Cute might have some fun passages, some good jokes, a genuinely moving break-up scene, a few pop culture references that are fun to spot**, but what it lacks is any kind of humanity in its protagonist.
Maybe, for Thirlwell, that was the point of the exercise. Writing a long novel where the central character has no redeeming features. Though we open with him having fucked another woman for the first time, a woman who has overdosed on some narcotics he had given her, everything turns out (in the short term) to be fine and the immediate descent into stark darkness is held off for a couple of hundred pages. In fact, Thirlwell can be commended for never going too lurid with the text (though he maybe does go too cute in his inclusion of a central man-dog relationship***): although there is sex and violence and near constant drug use, it never goes too far. There is no torture, there is no exploitative sex, there are no truly irresponsible instances of drug use (maybe intoxicated driving, but people tell me that drug and drunk-driving is the norm and that I am “weird” for not doing it). There is a lack of self-control that leads to damage of property and violence perpetrated back at the self, but there is no real horror. The romantic relationships are written far better than the crime scenes – the gently intoxicated sex reads far better than the gently intoxicated violence; Thirlwell’s magnum opus (imo) is Kapow! and what that does is dissect the impossibility of trying to write a love story set in the midst of the Arab Spring. Kapow! is a meta-fictional masterpiece about literary failure that becomes glorious literary art. In that text, real life violence overwhelms theoretical and unreal romance, in Lurid & Cute a similar thing happens: Thirlwell damages his novel about a disintegrating marriage by adding the petty crime and the violence. A drugged out depression and dysfunctional marriage is a strong enough premise for a novel, and particularly strong enough for a 200 page novel, like the ones Thirlwell has written before.
As I said at the offset, this is Thirlwell stretched out and laid bare, his flaws magnified by the text’s length. Following on from Kapow!, one of the best contemporary books I’ve read since beginning this blog, Thirlwell has produced a novel that is fine, that is readable, that is entertaining. But it offers no fresh universal truths about the world or about literature, it says little about human relationships that Politics (his debut, my review o’ that one here) doesn’t and it doesn’t engage with the modern world as much as I’d wanted it to. Then again, I could be completely wrong, and Thirlwell’s very intention could be the emphasis that modern life is little more than mediocre parties where one does things one should – but doesn’t – regret, where life is lived through screens and where contemporary culture is little more than a macho, violent, tweaked reality.
I enjoyed bits of it, but I was underwhelmed. I wouldn’t recommend it. But I cannot recommend Kapow! enough.
* Albeit a vacuum with a boxset of Breaking Bad in it. There is an extended scene in the middle where the narrator directly watches ten minutes of the show, and the novel also contains a nail salon with possible links to organised crime.
** As the book neared its conclusion, I was very worried that Hiro, his old school friend and roommate, would turn out to be a Tyler Durden-esque phantom of his imagination. It is quite possible this was the intended reading, which is a bit tired, right, up here in the deep 2010s?
*** I say that, but I’m expecting to buy a fucking puppy this week, and I think it is highly likely that my life will evolve to include a central man-dog relationship. ‘Cause god knows my cat is failing to give me the emotional return I’d expect from a significant other.