DBC PIERRE online at Border Kitchen

Photo by and © Sarah Lee

Dirty But Clean’s Dopamine City

DBC Pierre, Booker prize winner, ex-conman and addict has lived a life that could compete with the most action-packed novel. Born in Australia in 1961, Peter Warren Finlay grew up in Mexico and is now based in the UK. His latest book, Dopamine City, tackles the issue of Big Tech – specifically, the manner in which it harvests our data so that privacy is non-existent. He spoke last night at an online Border Kitchens event about the age of surveillance and  social media and why they are far scarier than the threat of nuclear war under which he grew up.

DBC Pierre won the Booker prize in 2003 for his novel, Vernon God Little. He was forty-two years old at the time and wrote it partly in the hope that if it succeeded, he would use the proceeds to repay some of the people he had let down. Dirty Pierre, as he was known, admitted, for example, to selling his best friend’s house and using the money to finance his cocaine and gambling addictions. He also racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in Mexico and Australia as a result of a failed film about Aztec emperor, Montezuma. These and other eye-watering schemes provide ample material for a series of novels, one would imagine.

Yet speaking to us last night from Cambridgeshire, it is clear that his most recent book springs from a genuine concern, ‘about what the big social media companies are doing and why’.  Dopamine City is set in the near-future in a nameless Western city – ‘white and affluent’. It takes its name from the idea that large Facebook-like companies are harvesting data about every aspect of citizens’ lives including their most private emotions via phones and other electronic devices. ‘It is the scariest thing we will face as supposedly free individuals’ says Pierre.  

The novel also follows the life of widowed sanitation sewerage worker, Lon who is put under surveillance by the city via his phone after slapping his precocious 9 year old daughter. The narrative slips, literally, into two columns a short way into the novel – the left-hand column follows the narrative of one or other of the central characters, the right- hand one, their social media feed. Pierre admits that he made up almost all of the darkly humorous twitter feed in the novel. But assures us that one can follow the story simply by reading the left-hand column.

Some critics have described the novel as ‘annoying’ in the ‘relentless excess’  of its style. Pierre read extracts to us last night that highlighted the satirical, irreverent nature of his vision. But there are also parts filled with poignancy and warmth – the scene in the funeral home, for example, when Lon goes to see the body of his wife for the last time. ‘He wanted to climb in beside her and nail the box shut’. Comparisons have been made with American writer Dave Eggers, there is also something of the cult classic, Gravity’s Rainbow in the detailed, exuberance of his style. Nevertheless, Pierre’s devil-may-care sense of humour is very much in evidence and seems designed to both counteract while subtly reinforcing the dystopian subject matter.

‘Big tech has a system whereby individual sheep go voluntarily to the abattoir’, Pierre tells us. Perhaps this is a good place to end.

But it’s also just so full-on. Every phrase is a gnarled, slangy epigram, and not all of them are elegant. It’s tough to pick out the story, and this becomes even tougher when Pierre introduces the second annoying thing. About a quarter of the way in, the text splits into two columns, and stays this way for most of the rest of the novel. On the left, a monologue from one of the characters; on the right, their social media newsfeed. At one point the newsfeed reports a controversy about devices eavesdropping on conversations to serve relevant content, and the two sides do indeed feed on and inform each other.

The assigned social worker requires Shelby and Lon to have phones so they can be monitored by the city, and so both are brought under the control of the dopamine tether.

Holding out against this subsuming self-monitoring is widower Lon, a company-employed sanitation worker until he was recently made redundant by robotics, and a fairly terrible single father. The novel opens with him in a confrontation with his precocious nine-year-old, Shelby, who he assumes has been doing something he doesn’t want her to do with people he wouldn’t like her to have anything to do with. By the end of the scene, he has worked himself up to violence: “He slapped her. For her own good and with a sudden hatred he would later suppose was love.”

In an extraordinary series of confessions to the Guardian, Finlay has admitted to selling his best friend’s home and running away with the money to feed his cocaine and gambling addictions. He has also “put his hand up” to fleeing debts of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” racked up in Australia and Mexico trying to make a film about his search for the mythic gold of the last Aztec emperor, Montezuma, in an attempt, he claims, to pay back his hapless friend.

“I am not proud of what I have done, of all the women I’ve lost, and all the good people who trusted me and were burned. I have lived in dread of this for 15 years – that one day someone like you would come along,” he said yesterday. “Living with it has been like waking up every morning to find that you have shit the bed. In a way, I’m relieved it’s finally come out.”    Souwie Buis  4th February 2021