(Contains spoilers, but really, in doing so I’m saving you from having to read this book. Your regular kind and measured reviews will return tomorrow. )
I’ve learned to become very wary of pull quotes over the past few years: it is a risky endeavour indeed to trust a pithy little phrase massaged into carefully positive shape through decontextualisation and the generous application of ellipses. Unearthing the true meaning of the dialect known as cover quote speak is a linguistic challenge all in its own right.
A book that is “uplifting” invariably contains a dead dog. A book that is a “triumph of the human spirit” is about war. A book that is “ambitious” is terrible. And a book like Vernon God Little, which is apparently “scabrously funny”?
Well, my best guess is that this phrase actually means “about as funny as picking a scab”.
I tried to do the right thing by this book. After my post on hideous covers last week I thought that I’d be the bigger person and read through some of the award-saturated but design-deficient books in my pile in order to prove that a book cannot necessarily be judged by its cover. Well, this one can.
This is a book that is as ugly on its inside as it is on its outside, and which will leave you feeling as though someone has stomped over your soul in muddy boots and then ground in some chewing gum for good measure. If it weren’t for the Booker Prize sticker on the front I wouldn’t have persisted past the first three pages. In retrospect, I should have peeled that little sticker off and saved myself some pain. Because surely that sticker is a mistruth? Surely, surely it’s a joke: the result of some brat having absconded with a set of hand-printed stickers and having stuck them willy-nilly on a landslide of self-published books as part of a piece of performance art?
Vernon (interchangeable middle name) Little is an anally fixated juvenile delinquent who has found himself the prime suspect of a school shooting massacre courtesy of the original shooter, and Vernon’s buddy, having offed himself at the scene. Vernon is taken in for questioning and, after some musing about feces, his underpants and the dietary choices of an overweight cop, flees the scene. A hundred pages or so of brutally ugly satirisation of small-town Texas, the trusting obliviousness of the downtrodden, and the west’s obsession with the soothing social panacea of the media follows before Vernon flees again, this time to Mexico, where he indulges in a sort of Kerouackian bender, gets busted, and ends up on death row hyperventilated over by the modern-day equivalent of scaffold-watchers.
Everything about this book jars. It’s three hundred pages of a radio tuned between channels, of a dentist’s drill needling its way into the back of your eye. Vernon’s voice is one-note and tuneless, a slurry of fuckens and panties and fuckens and panties that is so basely, heinously foul that even though you know you’re meant to be reading the white space in the story and appreciating the unreliable nature of his narration you can’t summon up the readerly vim to rise above the words on the page.
The characters trot through the pages in a toothless, health insurance-less house of mirrors, layering the drudgery and pettiness and guilessness of small town life into a poisonous trifle of ignorance and idiocy. The sheer absence of any, any spark of humanity on these pages is, one supposes, an authorial achievement, drawing an ugly parallel between the perversity of the media described in the book and the book itself, but then, you remember that even ugly books are meant to be read.
Perhaps, if I draw a really long bow and arm it with an arrow of enduring cynicism, I can tell myself that this book was chosen by the Booker judges purely because they themselves were attempting to extend the satire of the media and our voyeuristic desire to watch humanity wallow in the deepest, grimiest bits of its nature. Perhaps, even, their choice is a commentary on the current landscape of books as artefacts, as transactional bits of cultural capital purchased to sit prettily and authoritatively on shelves without being read–where possession is nine tenths of the law. Because that’s the best I can come up with here.
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