Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Well this book sure is something.  I think I admire parts of it, but I mostly didn't enjoy it.  To be honest I don't think I was supposed to.  It reads like a rant; a satirical, anti western culture rant.  It took me most of the book to even begin to understand why it might have won the the 2003 Booker prize, not to mention a whole swathe of other awards.

As a complete aside, this is the third book I have read in the last month or so, that is at least partly set in Texas, how strange.

Vernon is a 15-year-old who witnesses a shooting massacre at his Texan high school.  Events quickly conspire to implicate Vernon in the shooting.  The premise of the novel, I think, is that society is so awful (especially the media and other aspects of corporate and individual self interest) that a teenager such as Vernon, battling with his grief and trauma from the shooting, not to mention his own "coming of age" issues could be pushed into a position that has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with satisfying the needs of others.

Not surprisingly I think, the novel reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye, and to be honest that novel is not one of my favourites either.  I didn't fully engage with Holden and I certainly didn't warm to Vernon.   Again, I probably wasn't meant to. 

So I don't get bogged down I think from here I am going to keep it simple and say what I felt were the strengths of the novel and what didn't work for me.

The strengths:  The narrative arc of the book is brilliant, all the little bits fit together at the end, and the pace and tension is well maintained.  The humour is dark to the point of excoriation.  Pierre, well and truly makes his point, all is not right with western culture, especially when it comes to our media appetites.  The small town and its characters are also very well drawn, painfully so.  The insecurities and petty back biting feels very real.  I guess most importantly, the writing itself is good, the man can write; great use of dialogue, both internal and spoken.

Where the novel didn't work for me:  I don't think I like satire in my fiction, maybe it is as simple as that.  I want to be moved or entertained by a novel, not yelled at or completely grossed out.  This is an angry and often ridiculing voice, I was put off by it.  I guess my revulsion could be a testament to Pierre's brilliant characterisation because this journey with Vernon feels like going on high speed ride with a foul mouthed, cynical yet vulnerable teenager.  I was glad when it was over.

In short, I will be heading back to the Victorian classics, science fiction and historical fiction. If however, The Catcher in the Rye is one of your all time favourite novels, or you like your contemporary fiction with a darkly comic edge, you might really enjoy this book.  I would love to hear if others have read this, and what they think.


  1. This sounds like an odd little book … and not one I think I'd enjoy. The title is so odd too.

  2. Jenners - Ah yes the title, well as far as I can tell the "God" in the title is mixed up with the resolution of the novel, where now, I am not sure if I entirely got this part, but Vernon finds some sort of peace by giving the other characters what they want, there is meant to be some God association there. It did not work for me. I also think there is some play on his middle initial "G" for Gregory, you know how famous killers are often portrayed in the media with a middle name. Odd is definitely an apt description.

  3. I actually really enjoy a bit of political satire in a book, but for me this book just didn't do it either. It was one of those books that objectively you can sit back and admire so much about it, but your emotions just aren't touched by it at all. I wasn't sucked into the story in the way that I wanted to be.

    If you were interested in trying a really good example of political satire in a novel, I would recommend A Case Full of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. It's set in Pakistan and it is absolutely hilarious and so cleverly written.

    Here's my review of VGL if you were interested

  4. This is definitely not the book for me. I remember not really liking The Catcher in the Rye when I read it in high school. I'm glad to know that I am not the only one who does not swoon over that book.

    I am not averse to satire in my fiction, but I don't think that I could get past the use of a school shooting as a venue for dark humor.

  5. Becky - thanks for the recommendation, that sounds like something I should try.

    TheBookGirl - You're so right, this novel's premise is just wrong from the outset. You are certainly not the only one re Catcher :) I don't understand the general swooning over it either.

  6. DBC Pierre hit fame with his Booker Prize winning debut, Vernon God Little.



Comments are very welcome.