Review: Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell

Magnus Pedersen 30 December 2019
Image Credit: Magnus Pederson

As the decade comes to its close we can expect to see lists appear in the newspapers wherein all its achievements and personages will be neatly categorised. The Most Evil Politicians And The Most Important Sex Offenders will be ranked in glorious recherché, and somewhere nearby there may even be a similar ranking for books.

Were I to curate such a list, I believe the novel that epitomises the character of the last ten years more than any other is Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute.

Lurid & Cute is about time and place. The narrator of Lurid & Cute says he lives on ‘the outskirts of a giant city’ – But suburbia, the author hints, is not quite the right word. Suburbia is too evocative of rows of identical houses and placid, neat lawns. This is the post-war paradise of George Orwell and mid-century dystopia of J.G Ballard, where everyone is happily middle-class. Suburbia originated as a term to describe areas on the edge of the urban, the point of Lurid & Cute is that everyone now lives in the suburbs as the world has become one gigantic city. The global economy is concentrated within an archipelago of metropolises, which, separated by gigantically identical airports, are all the same: serried with gleaming perfume-glass and restaurants banded with fairy-lights. Within these cities, experiences exist as purchasable commodities. Modern cities have suffered an explosion of space; ‘the museum’, ‘the pub’, ‘a music artist’ – do not exist: because they cannot be said to happen anywhere. This is a problem for the traditional novel of ‘society’ where people must, at least ceremonially, interact with one another – which cannot happen if there is nowhere for those interactions to take place. The world is increasingly divided between those who can afford to zip between the shiny nodes of this singular metropolis; and a monolith, penumbral underclass. It is not that this has not happened before, what is unique is the lack of a middle. The World-Suburb is the remainder of this immense conglomeration. It is everywhere that exists simply to be traversed. The suburbs are the same everywhere, the narrator says “Take your pick wherever on the globe you like, in Kabul or Santiago, the landscape is the same…most inhabitants of Kabul do not live precisely in that city, but instead on its edges, where Kabul dissolves into vast light and vacant streets.”

If the space of Lurid & Cute is ambiguous, the time is very definite.

It is the period after the 2008 crash, but before the 2016 referendum. This is not necessarily the intention. It will surely be seen as a noteworthy contemporary tic that any novel which aspires to a traditionally ‘realist’ portrait of society must do so through a futuristic setting. Kazuo Ishiguro and Michel Houellebecq are examples, both writing to try and address contemporary social issues, but requiring the neuroses of the future for their building-fuel. Lurid & Cute shares in these futuristic trimmings; however, by the irony of its publication date (March 2015) it is transformed from a forecast into an elegy, thereby saving it from obsolescence. A swansong for the period where the global upper crust were flush with quantitative ease. The novel seeks to investigate another phenomenon of time, one deeply connected to the post- 2008 epoch: that of unemployment. On the brink of adulthood, a whole generation suddenly found itself locked out of the job market. This was not an entirely unenviable fate, because this recession was to have the redemptive power of brute consumption as its main escape route. This generation, that preceding our own, were thus suspended in a void between adulthood and permanent adolescence, with just enough money to spend on commodities, but not enough to warrant such rites of passage as starting a family or buying a home.

The narrator dextrously notes minutely formed dishes, the vanilla-scented softness of his dog, the parakeets or monkeys in the ambiguous trees, his own quixotic anatomy. This is the ‘Cute’ part of the novel’s title. Miniaturisation is not simply a feature of commodities, but extends to the whole Zeitgeist. To make something miniature carries as something of a necessary condition the will to make it static, to stunt growth. The period after the Cold War was to be the End of History, but the 2008 crisis, after the shoddy amateur sequel which was the War on Terror, was surely the beginning of something. However, in keeping with this infantilism, the entire period was devoted to preserving a simulacrum of undisturbed ennui. All the aesthetic production of that period had as its mission the creation of a surface-world where the 90s never ended and History would slumber in a death serene. The world had ‘ended’, yet all the powers of society were insistent on pretending things were still the same. But it was evident underneath the surface-world that things had catastrophically changed, it was just a question of when this change would manifest itself.

The entire era could be described as one of apocalypse delayed.

So Lurid & Cute turns out to be a tale of this looming rapture. Its conclusion regarding time is aptly summarised in Kierkegaard’s aphorism describing the tragedy of all narcissists: that life can only be lived forward, but it is understood backwards. Because one can only know the present through the future we can never know what role our own time will ultimately play; what seems so surely to be an old age of mankind could hold, in retrospect, all sorts of gay terrors to be enlivened by. But liberation is a two-edged sword, because just as we can never really know how interesting our time may turn out to be, we are also blind to the extent of its secret corruption. This neatly discloses the novel’s second concern approximated by a word like ‘guilt’; it is never actually known in the narrator’s spiral of crime where any threshold of sin begins: from the outset he wakes to find his paramour passed out in bed, proceeds to further infidelity and orgy, and slowly escalates to less bourgeois modes of transgression – yet this is all ‘normal’ in the ennui of the utopian suburb. The book shows this sense of time through the use of backwards exposition, one of the chapters takes place far off in the future when the narrator is already suffering the effects of what happens at the end. The temporally conditioned nature of the story is continually stressed by asides: ‘From the future perspective’, ‘There are some things which do not yet exist’ – the point is that any narrative can only be known as such once it is in the past: which is to say retroactively.

Retroactive time is the key to the temporal regime of our own epoch. ‘Nostalgia was the illness of our time’ the narrator says; the connection of various recording devices has enabled an unprecedented wallowing in the faculty of memory, beyond the dreams of every country house and Madeline. The German philosopher of history Reinhard Koselleck used the phrase ‘temporal regime’ to describe the sense historical subjects have of their own place in history. Koselleck argued that for Europeans around the end of the 18th century ‘the temporal horizon’ became detached from the ‘horizon of expectation’ – the plausible future about which we can make predictions. The result was ‘Modernity’, the continual acceleration of time towards imagined utopias and ordering thereof in linear narratives. It is my private belief that we currently exist in a completely new temporal regime. We are obviously no longer postmodernists. It just got boring. But our new temporal condition is not progressive or modernist either, instead of constructing narratives out of the past and projecting an inevitable point in the future to be reached, we construct visions of the future and wait for them to be confirmed by the process of acceleration which is assumed a priori.

Modernity is something to be overcome.

At last one must come to the only thing that matters, that is to say: individuals. Thirlwell’s narrator is an important creation: he represents a modern type of idiot. He becomes ecstatic over pricey food, he frets vehemently about ‘fascists on the march’ and croons over the ‘radical friends’ of his similarly conventional wife, pathologically conformist; his every action is accompanied by rumination on whether it will be socially approved or meets the standards of the conventional morality. Here is the man to whom the highest compliment to be paid to anything is to ‘normalise’ it. Had his fictional lifespan extended just slightly beyond his publication date it is easy to imagine him fretting about Russian interference in Facebook ads. The caricature here is of the vast swathe of the anti-intellectual western middle class for whom ‘values’ are both matters of private preference yet omnipotent in merited respect. This is the attitude of a customer when a customer is angry they ask to speak to the manager, and it is such a complaint which proves to start the cycle of the narrator’s downfall and redemption. After the loss of his possessions and the end of his relationships; the narrator at last surmounts his own guilt and prepares to defend himself; he casts away morality, throws post-colonial angst to the wind. He admits, finally, that there is nothing shameful about self-interest, that he is happy to be among the ‘powerhogs and warmongers’, and in that finds a new sense of freedom and power.

Lurid & Cute is a morality tale about the overcoming of morality, the story of a ruling class recognising itself for what it is.

Magnus Pedersen is an Historian at Sidney Sussex.