Meanwhile in Dopamine City is tough going. This is in part deliberate: the split page makes it hard to follow the narrative “thread”, and the parallel universe that is Palisade Row is hard to picture, not least because there is nothing to see there. But it is also tough because the language is tough. One of Lon’s friends is described as “literally chewing his words, gnashing and gnawing them audibly”, which is also what Pierre does. His sentences, which have carried magnificent freight in the past, are now loaded down with waste: Lon “propped a smile on his face as one props a length of fence against a wall to smash it to fuck with an axe”; the weather was “one of those jiffies that lifts the skirts of time to show its sausage flesh, and mottled and real, too real, and gristled and fatty and indifferent”; “He closed his eyes as his brain sucked the drugs that resolve busted souls and forge wisdoms, that bring on a binge after bloodshed”. Is this the rich English prose that Lon fears we are in danger of losing, or is it part of Pierre’s satire? It is unclear, but I suspect it is meant to be the former.
What is clear is that Pierre has created, in this blisteringly angry novel, a hand-held device that outsmarts the smartphone. For this at least he deserves a lot of likes.
But it’s also just so full-on. Every phrase is a gnarled, slangy epigram, and not all of them are elegant. It’s tough to pick out the story, and this becomes even tougher when Pierre introduces the second annoying thing. About a quarter of the way in, the text splits into two columns, and stays this way for most of the rest of the novel. On the left, a monologue from one of the characters; on the right, their social media newsfeed. At one point the newsfeed reports a controversy about devices eavesdropping on conversations to serve relevant content, and the two sides do indeed feed on and inform each other.
As a stylist, Pierre has retained his gifts. His descriptions are perversely striking, and you have to admit they’re brave: the novel’s opening line is “She looked like a sawn-off tramp”, and it’s describing an underdressed nine-year-old. And when Lonnie acquires a smartphone, the text splits into two columns, which forces you to experience, for hundreds of pages, what divided attention is like. But the novel can’t make a focus of all these distracted fits. It’s like wandering in a Boschian hellscape that has no theological answers to give.
Few novels have managed to replicate the atomising feverishness of life online, but DBC Pierre gets closer than most in this brain-frazzling dystopia about a newly unemployed widower struggling to bring up two children in an unnamed city in the near future...
Pierre’s satirical shots at a world eating itself to death on a junk food diet of AI are chilling, and if the novel’s assault on the reader’s attention span makes it resistant to meaningful engagement, then that’s partly Pierre’s point.
But there is a large, old-fashioned hole at the centre of the action. Lon’s family drama, revolving around his fraught relationship with his daughter and obsessive memories of his dead wife, makes for thin narrative gruel. Suspense, plot, characterisation — all these old-school tricks of the novelist’s trade are in short supply. Pierre’s prose is full of life and his evocation of a surreally technologised society is vivid. But the novel suffers a kind of entropic breakdown, opening in an impressively kinetic fashion but then losing energy and force, like a baggy, ultimately feeble pushback against Big Tech’s takeover of the human need for stories.