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.
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.