Two words so rarely juxtaposed: lurid and cute. Yet as Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, convincingly suggests, there is nothing more lurid than cuteness that's curdled.
Narrated closely by an unnamed, 30-ish man, referred to throughout as “our hero,” the novel plays with the porous boundary between the seedy underbelly of life and the sanitized, family-friendly version we wish to believe in.
The pampered only son of well-to-do parents, the narrator has thoroughly absorbed every word of praise and sentiment of entitlement that colored his comfortable upbringing. He has a beautiful, clever wife named Candy. They live with his parents, who do his laundry and remain largely off-stage even as our hero indulges in drug benders and loud sexual experimentation in their home. He funds his lifestyle with the largesse of his family and his wife, having no particular drive to work. Despite his lack of positive qualities, he remains surrounded by a sea of enablers and convinced of his own moral rectitude.
“I have a rich and sympathetic inner life!” insists the hero. “Isn’t that something after all?”
He craves not just his family’s approval and his friends’ approval, nor even simply a healthy self-regard, but the approval of his audience -- us. Even as his life spirals wildly out of control, image maintenance remains his primary preoccupation. In this, and in his baroque contortions to win that approval, he resembles no literary figure so much as the iconic sympathetic villain, Humbert Humbert.
Thirlwell winks occasionally at the influence of Lolita on the novel. He even names one of the protagonist’s young love interests Dolores; the hero refers to her un-self-consciously as a “nymph.” The climactic scenes of the book, in their slow-motion, florid violence, are reminiscent of Lolita’s own closing pages.
Yet the crimes that unravel our hero’s life, though the breeding ground of Humbert-esque logic manipulation and self-excuse, seem petty when held against those of Nabokov’s charming pederast. He has fallen into an affair with Romy, a close friend of his and his wife’s. He has quit his job out of misplaced idealism. He and his best friend, Hiro, have gone on a minor crime spree, enabled by a very realistic-looking replica gun.
Our hero, who is narrating these events from some future time, deals with these sins through an exaggerated form of rationalization and moral licensing familiar to most modern Westerners. He praises himself for watching an equal number of movies by men and women or for his vegetarian ideals, then allows himself to pay a woman for a blow job or to binge on burgers at a greasy spoon. Though his affair with Romy violates his marriage vows, he contorts himself to frame it as a pure expression of his love for both Candy and Romy. He simply loves them too much to be honest!
Nabokov’s 1955 novel was steeped in the details of its setting, the burger joints and gas stations lining the American highway and the aura of clean-cut, sunny national optimism. In Lurid & Cute, the setting has been aggressively globalized; the location, a suburb of a major city, is never named, and the text is liberally peppered with references to cuisine and cultural touchstones from every corner of the earth. Much as Lolita subverted the ideal of 1950s Americana, Thirlwell’s novel undermines the modern ideal of the global economy.
Untethered by the expectations of a local culture or community, and lulled into complacency by an endless array of delicacies, drugs and distractions imported from around the world, our narrator not only falls into a mindless consumerist cycle, but develops a sturdy sense of entitlement. “Me I was addicted to my station in life’s bazaar,” says the hero. “Don’t you think such comfort might not be so good for a nature like mine?” As he makes wildly unwise choices -- to participate in a robbery, for example -- he celebrates the freedom of refusing to consider consequences; later, when the consequences arrive, he professes to be baffled by his unluckiness.
Aspiring to a feat along the lines of Lolita is ambitious, and Thirlwell’s prose doesn’t always possess the Nabokovian virtuosity needed to alleviate the repetitive nature of his narrator’s internal monologue. The characters, aside from our hero, have the depth and complexity of paper dolls. Even the hero’s so-called best friend, Hiro, acts as little more than a proxy for him, an externalization of his id. (Hiro’s name itself reads as a slightly distorted double for “our hero.”) Though the flat vagueness of the supporting cast makes sense as an expression of the narrator's extreme solipsism, it's also frustrating. Instead of the distraction afforded by a lively ensemble, we're suffocated in the narrator's neurotic mindset.
At one point, the narrator explicitly nods to recent debates on the importance of likeable characters in fiction. “I’m aware that the entire history of the theory of art is about removing the issue of the likeable from the picture,” he generalizes. Nonetheless, he remains troubled by the need to be likeable -- a likeable character to himself and to a world he views as his audience.
In this character, Thirlwell reminds us that a compelling character need not be a likeable one. “I mean, why should anyone give you any attention?” our hero muses. In his case, it’s certainly not because his unwittingly humorous hypocrisy or self-obsession are likeable.
Perhaps it’s because he lays bare our own worst tendencies toward entitlement, victimhood and moral cowardice. In a time when so many readers are participating in a morally bankrupt global economy, yet numbing ourselves with consumerism and blame-shifting, there's something undeniably fascinating about seeing our own corruption writ large.
Lurid & Cute is an unsettling reminder of how easily we’re seduced by self-flattery.
The Bottom Line: A masterpiece of seductive narration in the tradition of Lolita, Lurid & Cute is a cutting satire of contemporary consumerism and moral posturing.
What other reviewers think: The Guardian: "For a reader agnostic about this novelist, the book induced alternating annoyance and admiration."
Kirkus: "In a pallid sort of noir, a boy-man lurches through an aimless series of small adventures and stumbles into criminal behavior that eventually exacts its comeuppance."
The Atlantic: "Lurid & Cute, Thirlwell’s latest novel, demonstrates his talent for turning pastiche into something more than a game."
Who wrote it? Adam Thirlwell is the author of three novels, including Politics and The Escape. He’s also written Kapow!, a novella. He’s twice been chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists.
Who will read it? Fans of Nabokov and the unlikeable protagonist. Readers who enjoy sly satire.
Opening lines: “When I woke I was looking upside down at a line of velvet paintings on the wall above the bed. Jesus was standing on his halo beside a very bright Madonna -- I meant the religious kind, not the disco version.”
Notable passage: “It was definitely not easy, I reflected, to keep liking the things I did. If for instance things end up happening inside some casa of ill repute, well, the whole fluorescent question of likeability does impose itself. There is only so long, to choose an example from the life of my friend Kayvon, when your wife has happened upon you being dildoed by another woman on your bathroom floor, that a person can convincingly keep on saying it wasn’t me. And I’m aware that the entire history of the theory of art is about removing the issue of the likeable from the picture, it’s only the philistine spectators like Nelson who say: Jeez, there was no one in the movie you’d want to like hang out with, but maybe sadly Nelson is on to something. I mean, why should anyone give you any attention?”
Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.00 Published April 14, 2015
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