DBC Pierre: “Novels are free spaces, just about the only ones left”

The Australian novelist on fifth novel Meanwhile in Dopamine City, surveillance capitalism and why Beowulf deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize.

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DBC Pierre was born in Australia, grew up in Mexico, has lived in Ireland and now calls Cambridgeshire home. His fifth novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize, is set in a very near future in which Lonnie Cush, a single father of two, struggles to protect his kids from the threats of city life. Chief among these to Lonnie’s mind is the grid, which is like our internet, only worse. Or perhaps our internet perceived more clearly.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Novels are satellites of reality, free from earthbound dogma. We can triangulate true positions from novels, as from GPS beams – and groundbreaking novels offer a long view over the horizon.

What was the initial spur for Meanwhile in Dopamine City?

As with earlier novels: disbelief at how much and how fast we’re willing to normalise the outrageous. This book was also driven by a sense that today’s normalising effect is being aggressively, covertly designed.

The geographical location of the city-state in which the novel takes place is kept vague. Does this vagueness have something to do with the flattening, homogenising effect of the internet?

Yes, it does. The tale had to apply to any of us in the Anglo bubble I call the derationalised zone. I feel that surveillance technology’s success accrues from Anglo late-capitalist values, requiring not only affluence and leisure, but decadence and boredom; it’s a next logical step for us, whereas in many foreign parts it’s being experienced like the alcohol we let loose on indigenous cultures centuries ago.

The novel emulates the division between the physical and online worlds by splitting the text into two columns that make simultaneous, rather than consecutive, demands on the reader’s attention. Did you try other solutions before arriving at this one?

A few. It was like working out the four colour theorem all over again. I not only needed simultaneous off-stage input; I needed the narrative speed to pick up as the characters met the future. While I could plant a few background trends in the story, it was impossible to do it at scale without slowing it down. It had to become binary, which also doubled the narrative speed. A few might balk at first, but here’s the thing: it quickly grows natural, and we don’t even have to read the second column. The narrative works without it. We can just plummet through the story while being aware of external life.

[Read more: “What would make my life better? A tapir” DBC Pierre does the NS Q+A]

In the course of researching the novel did you spend more time than usual on the internet, or are you online a lot anyway?

I had to spend more time in the beginning. But I bumped into the same problem I had writing Vernon God Little, to which this novel is a loose book-end – that fiction requires at least some degree of plausibility, and the brightest facts of the day are implausible in their details. The art lay in using muted enough truths to keep the story rolling.

Another author shortlisted for the Goldsmiths this year, Paul Griffiths, has praised the internet for the research it enabled him to do into Beethoven’s world, for example in accessing archives he wouldn’t have been able to travel to. Does it have a good side?

For sure, and to be clear: I love the technology. It’s what’s behind the tech that makes it so insidious. This revolution should have been a breakthrough for the species. Instead it’s been hijacked for intimate surveillance. Over the last decade we’ve ceased to be customers and have become raw material, as the services we use are increasingly designed to expand the flow of behavioural data for unknowable algorithms to sell to unknowable parties. There’s a sense it’s a necessary quid-pro-quo for free services, but that’s flat-out bullshit; we’re simply talking about a handful of people who can’t be satisfied with conventional advertising revenues, nor with confining commercial operations to the commercial space – for the simple reason that they’re invisible.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

I started out with [Ukrainian composer] Sergei Bortkiewicz, and by the end the little society I’d been writing about was best represented by Johnny Aloha’s Tiki-lounge cover of “California Gurls”.

Your work seems, to me, satirical in the best sense: born of righteous outrage. Do you recognise that description?

Yes, but the outrage can only truly be righteous until it’s best accompanied by Johnny Aloha’s Tiki-lounge cover of “California Gurls”. After that we laugh through tears and have to forgive everyone.

Bookshops are clogged with dystopias at the moment, but few of them use humour. In fact, most are very sombre. Is comedy a weapon?

I think comedy is catapulted tragedy. There’s a slingshot effect which distances the theme from its reality. Also, a dystopia is something different when it already exists. Sombre is the day’s non-fiction; the rest of us have to shoot high.

Throughout the novel you play with corporate speak, mutating it into strange new forms. Is writing most enjoyable for you when you’re messing with language?

I love it, it’s an infinite runway of puddles to splash through. This novel is about language particularly: notice how many fewer words we currently use, and how many fewer the media uses to “reach” us as a result. Then notice how black and white our positions have also become, reduced to ones or zeros, love or hate. This is a key to Dopamine City. At least as many concepts affect the courses of our lives as when we used more words; now more concepts stow in fewer words, hence the absurd can be passed off as normal via Trojan horse words. The contagion effect of this will be a challenge this century, I reckon.

[Read more: “The way we read has changed radically in the digital age”: an interview with Goldsmiths-shortlisted author Xiaolu Guo]

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Because markets and people select against risk. We constantly talk about creativity, but it’s often confused with decorative craft; in reality it’s an empty, lonely place, which people don’t by nature endorse. It’s easier to reward good examples of time-honoured form than to be pushed out onto a limb which demands its own creativity from a reader, along with the risk of new opinions. Novels are free spaces, just about the only ones left. We should be puppies at an open gate when we sit down to write. The Goldsmiths Prize holds open that gate, giving courage to run and explore.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

On the basis that a very faithful translation of old Anglo-Saxon poetry would to the modern ear sound like prose, Beowulf. There are other candidates, but among the voices in my head is one that says GO BACK AND PLANT A FLAG THE OTHER SIDE OF CHAUCER, CLAIM THE ENTIRETY OF THE LANGUAGE FOR YOURSELVES.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 11 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November. Tickets are available here.

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