By Adam Thirlwell
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
Adam Thirlwell has had a charmed life as a writer. He has written novels (Politics, The Escape and the "new kind of story" Kapow!). His Miss Herbert (2007) is one of the best books of literary criticism written in the past 30 years. He was chosen as one of Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists" both in 2003 and in 2013. He has now brought out a new novel, Lurid & Cute, which, even were he eligible, would surely not place him among Granta's "Best of Young British Novelists" for 2023.
Lurid & Cute is the story of a young man ("kind of thirty") who lives with his wife, Candy, his best friend, Hiro, and his anxious parents in the LA suburbs. The narrator doesn't work, takes lots of drugs, some recreational, some medical, has lots of sex (including with a prostitute and some s&m), none of which seems to cheer him up; he is deeply melancholy - a word he prefers to "depressed".
We first meet him in a hotel room where he is sleeping with his friend, Romy. While he is wondering how he can explain this away to his wife, he discovers that Romy is lying in a pool of blood. This could be the beginning of a thriller but isn't. After a while, she disappears, only to turn up again later almost as if nothing had happened.
This is typical of Thirlwell's novel. There is no plot to speak of, no interesting characters, no lively dialogue. There are occasional eruptions of sex and violence. The whole book is written in a flat, neutral prose. At one point, our hero says: "On the TV screen there was one of those series that go on for ever, like without any resolution but just a system of glissando events that never reach a finale." He could be describing Lurid & Cute.
The novel is written in a hip, look-at-me style. In the first sentence, Thirlwell describes a series of paintings of Jesus and the Madonna - "I mean the religious kind, not the disco version".
Later, he writes: "If at this point you had placed me on a chat-show sofa and asked me how I was feeling…" Of course, no one would invite someone as boring as this narrator on to a chat show but that's not the point. Thirlwell is showing that he has his finger on the pulse. Lots of references to speed-dating, dub music, YouTube, "disco fries" and "LaMar's Donuts". It's the sort of thing Martin Amis used to do, but a thousand times better, in the '80s.
The other thing that is hyper-modern about Lurid & Cute is the tone: detached, anaesthetised. Nothing is surprising or interesting, even to the characters. Everyone seems to be drugged into a sort of stupor which has sapped their energy (except for sex) and drained everything except their bank accounts.
After this, hopefully, Thirlwell will return to being one of the best literary critics of his generation.