book review

Review: Meanwhile in Dopamine City

7 October 2020

DBC Pierre: Meanwhile in Dopamine City
Allen and Unwin, 2020.
ISBN, 9780571228942, $39.99

It’s disappointing to say that there is very little to remark positively upon in DBC Pierre’s new novel Meanwhile in Dopamine City. Disappointing because a satire focussed on the pitfalls of technological obsession seems deeply needed in a time where it feels like everyone’s weekly screen time reports are trending upwards with an alarming velocity.

It’s doubly disappointing if you’re familiar with Pierre’s previous work. Pierre has a good reputation for his grotesquely black comedies. The standout being his first novel Vernon God Little which won the Booker in 2003 and reads as almost subhuman in its perversity. It achieves such a wonderful mix of morbid nihilism and real hearty laughs that despite basically scarring me for life when I read it at 16 I still recommend it with some regularity.

Since then I’ve read most of Pierre’s other books and, while none of them have had the memorable jokes and haunting images of Vernon God Little, they have never been a waste of time, and are largely fun reads. So, going into Meanwhile in Dopamine City, I expected at the very least to enjoy myself.

That was a mistake.

Meanwhile in Dopamine City follows the recently unemployed Lon Cush as he struggles to raise his two kids, Shelby and Egon, in a dystopian tech-centric future. There are hints of Pierre’s talent as a humourist throughout, with some truly great moments. One of my favourites being where an “anime deity-mentor fox” delivers a beautifully crisp monologue about how the rhythms of human nature must change with the advent of new technologies. In this monologue the prose is neat, the novel’s opinion is clear, and the satire is funny, a far cry from much of the rest of the novel. This is why the novel is ultimately so disappointing. Pierre shows again and again in tiny moments why he won the Booker, but they are never enough to make the novel entertaining in any way.

The novel’s real problems come from its obsession with technology. Ultimately it seems to come down to Pierre not really understanding technology quite as well as he should to be writing something that, in essence, rails against so many modern advances. He falls into stereotype too often, inadvertently sounding very ‘old man yells at cloud’ in his critique. My favourite instance of which being towards the end of the book, when Lon is trying to get someone to put his daughter on a video call and I was forced to read the sentence “She’s probably with Ksenya — they’re virtually camping at the new youth café”. Which sounds so much like a hastily concocted rant from a middle aged man angry at the direction of the world that it’s hard to take seriously as the witty, humour filled satire that it’s supposed to be.

Technology haunts not just Pierre and Lon but the structure of the novel as well. The most notable structural haunt being Pierre’s choice, about a third of the way into the novel, to break the prose into two columns on the page. Pierre does this to emulate how technology fractures our attention spans, with one column containing the narrative in a more traditional prose and the other containing a constant stream of the novel’s fictitious 24-hour news cycle. This means that the reader has to shift their attention to a different voice, and often a different subject, twice every page. This is an interesting technique and, reading other reviews, one that some have found to be effective and engaging as a metaphor, I’m not so sure.

Whether you deem this structural choice a failure or not is dependent, I think, on the same thing that will decide whether you find the novel as a whole to be a failure. That is, whether or not you agree with Pierre from the outset, which invariably will largely split along age lines. If you are of younger generations, having been raised with the internet and cell phones since birth, you’re likely to require an argument for Pierre’s anti-tech thesis that isn’t provided. However, if you are older, the guttural, emotional base of Pierre’s argument might be enough to pull you through with an engagement that allows you to find critiques of structure and language choice superfluous.

For me the experience can all be summed up in the first hundred pages, which covers chapters 1 through 10. Chapters 1-9 are messy, unclear, and deeply, deeply, boring. Chapter 10 however, summarises everything that has happened so far in an incredibly elegant prose, with imagery that creates a convincing case for Pierre’s wider points. Here is where we get a tiny peak at Pierre in his peak, refined form. With neat nihilistic sentences like:

He opened both eyes.
Looked at the bedroom window.
Then at the screen.
One was real life.
The other was the future.
Or something.

Should the rest of the book have matched chapter 10 and the few other passages like it (as chapter 10 is only a little over 2 pages), would have made the novel one of the best books of the year, if not of the last decade.

I cannot recommend Meanwhile in Dopamine City, except perhaps as a gift for your parents if either your parents are fervently anti-technology or if you don’t particularly like your parents and want to get them something that is a little like torture but they won’t complain about for fear of seeming intellectually inadequate.

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