Such a Nice Monster

Adam Thirlwell, a virtuosic young British novelist, indicts the morals of a pampered generation.

Patrick Leger
Adam Thirlwell, the British novelist and critic, is probably tired of being described as a prodigy. Born in 1978, he is certainly outgrowing the label. But Thirlwell’s career as a writer began so early that he retains something of the magic of precocious anointment. He was named one of Granta’s best young British novelists at the age of 24, the same year his first novel, Politics, was published, and a decade later he was still young enough to make the list again. Thirlwell’s writing—he now has three novels and a book of criticism to his credit—retains an experimental relish and a capacity for disorientation that feel youthfully virtuosic.

Whether as a critic—in his unconventional study of the history of the novel, The Delighted States—or as a fiction writer, Thirlwell goes in for giddy performance, brilliant improvisation. Essential to this performance is the display of literary erudition: his 2009 novel, The Escape, came with a postscript alphabetically listing all of its own allusions, from Auden to Virgil. As both a scholar of the novel and a practitioner, Thirlwell revels in the artificiality of text and language, the sheer madeness of books, and part of the pleasure of reading him is to see him take pleasure in the process of making. He is an unashamed intellectual aesthete, a kind of writer who seldom flourishes in America—which may explain why Thirlwell’s fame has yet to really translate across the Atlantic.

Lurid & Cute, Thirlwell’s latest novel, demonstrates his talent for turning pastiche into something more than a game. Just as he drew the setting of The Escape from The Magic Mountain and its philosophical sex-comedy from Bellow and Roth, he borrows the opening scene in Lurid & Cute from pulp novels and film noir: a man awakens in a hotel room, in bed with a woman who is not his wife, and discovers that she is bleeding. The reader, knowing how such stories are supposed to go, immediately starts thinking of the next twist. Has the narrator killed his mistress during the night, maybe in a fit of amnesia? Has someone else killed her in order to frame him? How will he be able to prove his innocence?

Yet it soon turns out that Thirlwell has no interest in such developments—actually, no interest in plot. Over many pages of detailed narration, we see that the woman, Romy, is not dead; she has taken too many drugs, and after the narrator drops her off at an emergency room, she ends up just fine. Nor is there a major problem of concealment. Having committed no crime, our hero doesn’t have to worry about the police. Instead, he has to explain to his wife where he was all night, and why he’s come home covered in blood. But even that doesn’t turn out to be much of an obstacle. He simply stops at a big-box store on the way home to buy a change of clothes, and his wife, Candy, accepts his unconvincing cover story, eager to avoid conflict.

Avoiding conflict, in fact, is the real theme of Lurid & Cute, and of the life of its first-person narrator, whose name we never learn—just as we never learn where he lives, other than in a prosperous suburb of a major city. “As often as I perceived disaster,” he remarks, “it somehow also receded.” You might think, for example, that a man who shows up in a store smeared with blood and buys new clothes would excite some suspicion. But the conventions of consumption are so well established in the narrator’s world that the sovereign act of buying erases all doubts, and the store’s staff politely ignores his condition—“because that’s how they’ve been trained and it’s very useful. That’s what it’s like inside these superstores and I think that they are responsible for some of the happiest moments of my life,” the narrator muses.
Niceness is just a way of feeling good about unearned privilege.

The baroque elaboration and leisurely pace of Lurid & Cute are the product of a life without obstacles. Everything in the book is filtered through the narrator’s voice, which is hyper-articulate, scrupulously self-aware, and fond of rambling—the voice of a man whose interior life is seldom violated by the outside world. At the same time, the voice sounds less like that of a “real person,” a naturalistic or stream-of-consciousness monologue, than like the work of a very bright and woozily inventive novelist. Thirlwell stuffs his sentences with wildly artificial metaphors, many of which are like the conceits in 17th-century poetry, notable for their willful unlikeliness:

Many people think we have it good, the children of my era, all milkshake and ice-cream, but the atmosphere in general was grisaille and snow, like there had been a putsch and all of us were the worried chinovniks in the ruins of the winter palace system.

Even readers who understand the thrust of the simile—who get the allusion to St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the residence of the czars, and see that Thirlwell is talking about the confusion of a post-revolutionary moment—may well have to look up the word chinovnik (a minor official in czarist Russia). But this estrangement is not, or not just, the effect of Thirlwell’s offhand erudition. After dozens and dozens of such bizarre metaphors, strangeness becomes the texture of his prose, a tool of disorientation. Where exactly, for instance, is the novel supposed to be set? The names of the narrator’s friends—Hiro, Romy, Dolores—offer no clues. Neither do Thirlwell’s almost jokingly insistent mentions of different kinds of food: over the course of the book we hear about characters eating everything from Wuxi dumplings to blueberry clafouti. This is not any country’s cuisine; it is the food of the First World, where people can afford to cultivate a wide range of tastes and appetites.

In Thirlwell’s hands, however, such cosmopolitan appetite begins to feel decadent. Indeed, Lurid & Cute emerges, through the convolutions of its prose, as a study in a particular kind of 21st-century vice—a kind that has fascinated many writers of Thirlwell’s generation, from David Foster Wallace to Adelle Waldman: the vice of niceness, which was drilled into well-brought-up children of the post-1960s world as a cardinal virtue. “The nice thing is the major problem. Because I totally do look nice,” the narrator reflects. Yet the difference between looking nice, or even acting and thinking nice, and actually being good turns out to be Thirlwell’s central concern. The narrator looks nice but, he goes on to admit, he also enjoys watching hard-core pornography. Does that make him less nice? “Everyone I have ever met, their looks were nice … If the looks were everything, then no evil could ever happen. But it obviously definitely does,” he acknowledges.

Niceness without goodness is cuteness, and the relevance of Thirlwell’s title proves itself as the book goes on. The narrator is, precisely, cute, just as the language in which Thirlwell renders him is cute: winning but not quite serious, extorting an approval that the reader doesn’t really feel good about giving. And he remains all too complacently likable, even as his deeds gradually become more and more lurid, sliding down the moral scale from adultery to orgy to armed robbery. Each time, his wrongdoing appears to him, and to us, through a scrim of self-loving self-justification. At a café, for instance, he is mistakenly served “a tempura of market greens, and mint sorbet,” and he responds by pulling a (toy) gun on the waiter. This psychopathic act appears to him as a stand for common decency:
It seemed to me … that everything we did should be done as morally as possible, because if you don’t act like that, why bother? And here, it seemed, was one such opportunity. To take action against this locale was not at all an immoral act: it was instead a way of defending a certain ideal, for a world where niceties are not observed is not a world worth inhabiting.

Nicety becomes the excuse for cruelty and violence—­­­a process that Thirlwell eventually locates not just in the narrator’s disturbed mind but at the heart of the late-capitalist social order. (“Late! It had only just got started!” his narrator quips.) The Western bourgeois insistence on always appearing fair, kind, and unprejudiced turns out to be mere camouflage, just as the narrator’s quick-witted, relentlessly ingratiating monologue serves to conceal his monstrous egotism. Underneath, the old appetites and vices are still as strong as they ever were in the less well-behaved past. Niceness is just a way of feeling good about unearned privilege. Lurid & Cute, which begins as—and to some extent remains—an exercise in pure style, also reveals itself as a very earnest critique of the morals of a pampered generation. When you think well of yourself, Thirlwell warns, you can get away with anything.