Kirby Fenwick recently posted on her blog Kirby Bee a list of goals for 2015. Kirby and I have been talking online about preparing to go abroad this year (she is going to London, I’m going to Berlin), so one of her goals stood out to me in particular: finish the ‘to be read’ pile before leaving the country. My bedside table is always dominated by a stack of books, and if it ever gets down to two or three books, I find myself getting anxious. Being surrounded by books makes me feel like I’m at home: I grew up in a house filled with books and now as an adult, I never feel like I’ve truly moved in to a new house until the books are unpacked and lined up on shelves. But I am also hopeless at buying new books before I’ve given myself a chance to read what I already have. And now that I have a date in which all of my worldly possessions need to be donated, stored or packed, it seems the most difficult task is going to be curving my propensity to leave a bookstore without an armful of new titles to read. So as I continue to read new releases and trip up by walking into the bookstore, I’ll be weaving in those books that have wished me goodnight and seen me at my early morning worst. Reading the ‘to be read’ pile before I leave feels like, as Kirby writes, a nice way to tie up some loose ends, as well as bringing variety into what I’m reading over the next four months. The first book to be pulled from the pile was DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland.
Gabriel Brockwell is an anti-capitalism activist who’s campaigns have begun to make a profit. Disgusted and overwhelmed, he escapes the rehab centre he has woken in, steals the profits from the activism group and vows commit suicide: but not before one big last night out.
There's no name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea: … I don't have to do it immediately.
Needing to escape London before his colleagues do the job for him, he decides on a whim to fly to Tokyo to visit his friend Nelson Smuts, who is working for a decadent restaurant. Here begins a wonderful, caustic take on the hedonistic hospitality of those who boast entry to the Michelin guide book.
Smuts and his kitchen KGB, with its shadowy culinary myrmidons. Who knows when any of them find the time to cook or eat amid intrigues. They probably spend their time at Burger King, plotting overthrows.
But when Gabriel takes his big night out too far, he needs to save Smuts from ruin and finds himself back in Berlin, where he lived as a child while his father ran a salubrious nightclub at the fall of the wall. From this point (roughly halfway through the novel) it becomes a chase to see if Gabriel can keep it together long enough to make things right.
On the run from rehab, we get a glimpse of the narrative dripping in evocative sarcasm and wit that I adored in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, of which Lights Out in Wonderland feels like a wonderful contemporary extension. In buying a sandwich to take on the train to London:
Ah, sandwiches - the beautiful game.
When it comes to finally choosing, I play safe and go for egg. I buy the one showing the most yolk, but having bought it, upon lifting the bread I see a row of yolk half-slices arranged at the front, with a single lonely lump of white expanse behind.
Happiness thus limited, I make my way to the platform.
Gabriel’s voice as narrator carries us through the novel, sweeping the reader up in each ‘whoosh’ of ecstasy and with a decisive thud with each comedown and hangover. Pierre manages these ups and downs with perfection: the speed of the narration takes us with Gabriel in every moment, and the technique is so compelling it’s like taking a roller coaster ride. It’s as evocative as Irvine Welsh’s heroin riddled streets of Edinburgh in Trainspotting, with heady excess and dark consequences, but without the violent punch of Welsh’s work. Not to diminish Welsh’s novels, where this brutality is important and brings in broader discussions of contemporary culture in Britain and Scotland, but Lights Out in Wonderland felt kinder, with the consequences always in sight of the writer, even if not yet imaginable to the reader at times.
Pierre does a wonderful job of describing post-wall Berlin, particularly given that Gabriel has spent time in the city during the wall and returned. It allows for a really strong exploration of Ostalgie - the German word that refers to nostalgia (nostalgie) around the elements of East Germany (ost meaning east) that were lost after unification with West Germany in 1990. But through Gabriel’s narration and the scenes set at Tempelhof, we are also reminded that history is inescapable in Berlin:
Because no amount of Kölch beer can alter one fact:
History has stalked Berlin.
She has nothing to learn from the Cologne bourgeoise.
If you put aside three centuries over which she anchored a kingdom, a province, an empire, a republic, a fascist Reich and a Marxist-Leninist commune, and ignoring the fact that her streets gave birth to communism, modernist architecture, fascism, the theory of relativity and the atom bomb - in the space of twenty-five years alone, Berlin’s foyers went from hosting naked sex slaves with pet monkeys and jewellery full of cocaine, to Adolf Hitler’s command, a Russian mass rape, an American middle class, and a Soviet state that would shoot you for crossing the city.
Berlin has nothing to learn from anyone.
There are some wonderful moments in Lights Out in Wonderland - a really interesting portrayal of Berlin, as well as the western world’s obsession with luxury food, drugs and drug culture, and the backlash towards the over capitalism of contemporary society. This is all told with humour and a sense of adventure (like Gabriel’s panic attack in IKEA which he describes as “a flughafen (airport) of commerce”), which balance out the darker or more serious moments, making it an always entertaining read. Lights Out in Wonderland reminds us of how ridiculous the world has become, but also how grateful we should be for what we’ve left behind.
Sometimes being a grown up can feel exhausting. I often wish I could just spend my days doing ‘silent reading’ (my favourite time of the day at school) and then come home to a ready made snack, without having to worry about going to the market, cooking or money. Though I try to cook at home as much as possible, and indeed for the most part really enjoy doing so, occasionally I just need to eat snacks for dinner. Recently I’ve been struggling to get back into the routine of cooking an evening meal after being away from home for a month, and have been relying on throwing bits and pieces together to eat in front of the television. My partner and I often eat a big shared plate of chopped up raw vegetables with hummus when we can’t be bothered making anything properly. But this week I made another batch of Heidi’s Nut, Seed and Oat Loaf (which I first made here), which meant I had food to rely on, even when I couldn’t be bothered doing more than boiling an egg, slicing some cheese and pulling a tin of mackerel from the pantry and a few pickles from the fridge to munch on while I watched TV. As Gabriel says in Lights Out in Wonderland: “One advantage of our day is that you never have to be more than slightly clever.” Preparing a few things in advance, or even just having a few things in the pantry and fridge so that you can still eat at home even when you can’t be bothered cooking, feels like a great way to cheat your way into being a full time adult. Gabriel describes his drug-fuelled adventures as a sort of ‘limbo’, where life moves quickly and slowly simultaneously, and there’s a lack of control over what happens next. To this, he receives the reply:
You describe it as a limbo — well, let me tell you something: what you've snagged on here is simply adulthood — the most terrifying limbo of all.
Best stock up next time you’re out shopping, just in case.
A great example of Ostalgie is the campaign to save the Ampelmännchen (little traffic light man). A two-dimensional graphic used on East German traffic lights is not only dearly loved by Berliners, but according to a study should be made the standard design across Europe due to its strong adherence and quick recognition from pedestrians.