Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre

Blair's eyes cut into slices. He drew back his finger like an arrow, and fired it at the keyboard.


Women leapt on to the screen. Women with hairstyles and poses unseen since the days of sheiks and flappers, against lurid studio backdrops of lakesides, beaches, and boudoirs.

And in the lower right-hand corner of that self-conscious assortment, one face shone out from the thick of a genuine life.

One wild, beautiful face.

Blair's penis twitched up to his hand.

I was a big fan of DBC Pierre's first novel, Vernon God Little, which was despised by many critics but I felt succeeded on the virtue of its cojones alone, along with a skewed but evocative sense of language. That book was a dark comedy about a school shooting in Texas; it was amazingly distasteful but cut deeply into the insecurities of the American psyche in this century, and had quite a bit to say about how our superconsumptive and obsessive culture abets great violence. Ludmila's Broken English, by contrast, is a book written for some other audience, in some other time.

The titular character is Ludmila Derev, a young girl living in a war-torn Caucasian wasteland, who, in the opening scenes of the novel, kills her grandfather after he makes a drunken attempt at raping her. Without his pension check to keep their family afloat, Ludmila must journey to the nearest town to find work, and eventually--after many of what I can only describe as hijinks--her face ends up on a website advertising Russian brides.

The other half of the book follows Blair and Bunny Heath, a pair of recently separated conjoined twins who have been released from their group home and find themselves in London, a cosmopolitan world that they don't understand, where alcohol and sex--or at least the suggestion of sex--are readily available. Though Bunny wishes for nothing more than to return to the home, Blair is fascinated by this new world, and the prospect of getting laid, and finds Ludmila on the internet, bringing both stories together when he and Blair travel to the Caucasus to meet her.

What is the point? Vernon God Little seemed urgently relevant, but writing about Eastern Europe seems, without being condescending to those who live there, so twenty years ago. As far as I know, with the exception of the revolutions in Moldova and the Ukraine (both of which resulted in improved governments), and the Russia-Georgia conflict, Eastern Europe has been relatively conflict-free since the Clinton era. The rest of the world has turned its eyes to the Middle East; as a satire isn't this a case of beating a dead horse? Perhaps, as he did for American culture in Vernon God Little, Pierre wishes to show us how the endless pleasure gratification of the London lifestyle can corrupt the innocent in the case of Bunny and Blair, but Blair is assuredly not, like Vernon, an innocent caught up in chaos. Vernon is a child; Blair brings the horrific events of the novel's final chapters squarely upon himself.

Ultimately, Vernon God Little is composed of the grotesque and the baroque; Ludmila's Broken English is simply made up of ugliness. There is nothing really likeable or redemptive about it; when these characters fail I find myself without sympathy. It is as if, sadly, Pierre willfully took on the role that his critics tried to foist upon him after his first novel.

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