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What I definitely learned just now is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words.

Do you remember the first time you saw a ‘Parental Advisory’, sticker on a CD? What an unusual gesture that was. I especially loved how that black and white symbol got slapped onto rap albums back in the nineties, ensuring premium sales in white middle-class teenager demographics. Here’s this badge that supposedly alerts parents to the insidious content of the album’s lyrics and it’s become a marketing goldmine for records that might not otherwise have been sold.

Funny thing that. To my mind this is all part and parcel of our instant-access voyeuristic culture. Scripted ‘reality television’, phone-in lines for talent shows, programming targeting women with low self-esteem about their body types – this is entertainment now. Not stories with meaning and innovative plots, just ordinary people jumping through hoops to find some temporary catharsis courtesy of the cathode-ray tube.

Television brings no relief for Vernon Little’s problems. His only friend in the small Texan town of Martirio just went on a shooting spree in their school, before killing himself. With the perpetrator dead and no trial to capture the media cycle, it falls to reporter Eulalio Ledesma to create a story, stoking the flames of suspicion in Vernon’s direction. When a witness to corroborate his story that he was not an accomplice to the crimes fails to come forward, Vernon finds himself transformed into Public Enemy number one.

Before he has even set foot in a court-room, trial by media has already judged him a psychopath. Ledesma, who likes to be called Lally, initially befriends Vernon, then seduces his mother and establishes himself as a new father figure for the fourteen year old boy, all in the name of controlling the story. By the time Vernon realizes he is being manipulated by the huckster it is already too late. The town of Martirio was cheated of its chance for revenge against his friend Jesus, and so he has become an accessory to murder. When another shooting tragedy in California hits the news, Lally engineers even more crimes committed by Vernon to scandalize.

Realizing he has no hope of a fair trial, Vernon attempts to run to Mexico, but with no money and televisions blaring his photo in every bus depot it seems he’ll never be able to stop running. Plus he has a secret that even Lally has failed to pry out of him. There is another gun, hidden nearby the school. It has Vernon’s prints all over it.

If Chuck Palahniuk were to reimagine A Confederacy of Dunces, it might come out something like this scorching debut from DBC Pierre. The doomed narrator Vernon sees injustice everywhere, but completely inarticulate, unable to defend himself, let alone condemn the hucksters of this world like Eulalio Ledesma. This Texan small town runs on spite, gossip and innuendo. A loner like Vernon never really had a chance. He encounters incompetent law enforcers, pedophile rings, opportunists and liars, all wanting to profit from his misfortune.

Vernon perceives the world through the moral code of television movies. He cannot understand how he can be found guilty, as at all times he has tried to live by his own set of principles. His friendship with Jesus the shooter only manages to incriminate him. His own mother is easily manipulated into identifying him as a murderer on camera by the sly Lally. Vernon has no one he can trust, no one who won’t betray him to make a quick dollar. It is only when he learns to become more like Lally, like the pimps and liars that have corrupted the world, that he earns a chance to fight back.

This book is written from the confused and hormonally intense perspective of Vernon himself, with a fixation on describing sex organs and bowel movements. As a foul-mouthed Humbert Humbert for the twenty-first century, this teenage narrator presents his own personal spin on contemporary Americana. Crimes are punished in response the degree of sensationalism they attract. Dieting is the height of discourse and innocence is just an invitation to being exploited.

Welcome to the dark heart of contemporary satire. It’s really not that funny a joke.

I mean, I’m just tired of being wrong all the time just because I’m a guy. I mean, how many times can everybody tell you that you’re the oppressive, prejudiced enemy before you give up and become the enemy. I mean, a male chauvinist pig isn’t born, he’s made, and more and more of them are being made by women.

See when the Late Review panel were discussing Fight Club and getting a bug up their nose about the fascist implications of the film, or the mocking tone with regard to therapy groups, I remember watching them fret, kvetch, moan and gibber, thinking to myself ‘they’ve missed the bloody point’ Palahniuk is writing comedy. This stuff is funny. Offensive, shocking and controversial – but funny none the less.

At least I hope he’s being funny.

Victor Mancini is a failed medical student, historical re-enactment performer, conman and sex addict. He schemes and plots to fund his mother’s medical bills, which involves faking choking on a mouthful of steak in restaurants and then hitting up his would-be rescuers for cheques to support him in his hour of need. It’s a decent scam, allowing him to spend his days dressing up in period costumes with his best friend Denny and teaching obnoxious school kids trivia about life in 1734. His sex life is conducted with fellow addicts at their weekly support group. Victor narrates to us his past with his mentally disturbed mother, who kidnapped him on at least several occasions from new sets of foster parents, all in the name of ‘rescuing him from a conventional life’.

Victor’s life is certainly not conventional. Problem is he’s not a nice man.

Unfortunately conning innocents out of their savings can’t pay all of his mother’s medical bills and as her condition deteriorates he is made an outrageous offer by Doctor Paige Marshall. But is she for real, or is Victor himself the victim of a long con?

Palahniuk enjoys drawing out the grottiness of his character’s failed lives. Over and over he insists that we have to stop reading this book, that it’s only going to get worse. Sex addicts are everywhere rutting in public toilets, looking nondescript in their everyday disguises. Victor’s narration introduced me to a new euphemism for the penis, as well as warning of the dangers of mislaying an anal bead. He also speaks in a parody of a medical dictionary, obsessively diagnosing syndromes and cancerous growths, proving that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. His extreme loathing for the boy he was, unknowingly swept up by his mother’s psychosis, seems to lie behind all his failed attempts to be a better man, or a doctor, friend who is needed, perhaps even the second coming of Christ!

Palahniuk’s humour mocks the pretentions of nihilism, its self-pity and refusal to take responsibility. When Victor is having sex a nymphomaniac in a toilet stall with his dog not for one moment does he consider what he is actually doing. His behavior is caused by addiction. He cons people to save his dying mother, whom he secretly hopes will never recover. He adopts different personas when he visits her, as she is too deluded to recognize her own son and spends most of his days pretending to live in 1734.

For this generation of men the greatest failure is to ejaculate prematurely (or in Victor’s words ‘trigger’). Sobriety and self-control are too much to ask of them. Everywhere they see the threat of increasingly dominant women and a mother’s love is never sufficient. Palahniuk is no prophet of doom, however, he’s just offering to smack modern man upside the head shouting wake the hell up!


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