05/19/2015 10:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Conversation With Adam Thirlwell About His Novel 'Lurid & Cute'


Adam Thirlwell's novel Lurid & Cute is more than an homage to Lolita -- although it consciously references entire characters and scenes from the classic book. Nabokov's love letter to the beauty and power of language may be the gold standard as far as this theme is concerned, but Thirlwell contributes a worthy work to the canon. There's a giant rift between its unnamed protagonist's life and the ways he intellectualizes his life -- his actions and his thoughts. Thirlwell discussed this and more with his friend, writer Gemma Sieff.

Read our review of Lurid & Cute.

Gemma Sieff: Your nameless protagonist's first-person account is like Candide decided to write his own Notes from Underground, a confession of sympathy and selfishness. He has a surfeit of sympathy -- for the nearest and dearest he screws over accidentally-on-purpose, for the bottom billion he screws over indirectly by living in late-capitalist London, for his own self-sabotage -- a nice-guy sentiment that warms over some pretty bad behavior.
Adam Thirlwell: I think I wanted him as a kind of exaggerated version of an everyday western problem: How do we organize our conscience? How do we care properly about people far away? Or about animals? Or our memories? In other words: How are we to live in this giant world, when our moral systems are so hopelessly small and outdated, when the categories for which we need to care are being enlarged every day? In other words, most of us feel innocent most of the time, but also totally at fault in relation to the people who make our phones, and clothes, and other enjoyments. But the extra joke was that yes, coexisting with his moral qualms was this ability to reinterpret pure selfishness and appetite as versions of a higher morality … But then, that isn’t always wrong. Ever since Henry James, we’ve known that lying might be necessary, for instance…

GS: Because I kept wondering how far his sympathy is a feint for passivity, a slacktivist morality, or even something worse, that he is sociopathic in spirit. It’s wonderful how difficult it is to decide. But you, how devilish do you think his idle hands are?
AT: This word, devil, is so great. I had this thing copied out in my notebooks from the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski: “The Devil is part of our experience. Our generation has seen enough of it for the message to be taken extremely seriously.” It seems so un-chic, that kind of language. But also necessary -- because what’s interesting to me is seeing how innocence and, well, let’s call it evil, can be sometimes aspects of the same thing. And I guess what really interests me is in separating two things which are sometimes combined: guilt and responsibility. A society where everyone says they’re guilty is one where no one takes responsibility –- and I think the real terror I get from thinking about this narrator of mine is how little responsibility he ever takes for his actions. The evil -- the heists, the sauna sex, the infidelity, the lying –- that’s much more forgivable…

adam thirlwell

GS: You mentioned Henry James, and I think of you as an Anglo-American writer too, maybe somewhere in between Henry James and Martin Amis –- a linguistic in-betweeny neither diagnostic (Emerson's English Traits) nor from on high (T. S. Eliot). The setting of Lurid & Cute is London-ish but not London per se. What does this approximate place signify—deracination? Is your protagonist a would-be global millennial? Tell us more about this made-up dialect in which you speak!
AT: Well, my narrator, no, not me? But, yes, I did enjoy this language he uses, all macaronic with Latin American and Yiddish and the odd moment of Chinese. I guess it’s important to say: This novel takes place in the London outer suburbs, sure, but a London that’s been tropicalized –- and in fact never specified. Partly because I wanted a dream-like vibe, to allow for some of the more existential investigations, but also because the international was one of the existential categories I wanted to examine. I mean, look around you! Most places now -– the suburbs of Guadalajara or LA or Cairo -– they have a shared structure, if not a shared look. There’s a certain strangeness to the way space is organized in the suburbs –- with gaps and transport systems and malls, with nothing walkable -– that I felt needed its own form. And one aspect of that new form was an English [place] that corresponded to it, with its international borrowings, neither pure sincerity nor pure pastiche.

GS: Masculinity -- he's not much of a tough guy; he feels too gently and too much. This guy -- apologetic about his privilege, steeped in women's lib, exposed to violence by proxy until he decides to give it a whirl -- is a rather touching criminal. We don't want to like or pity him, but we do, and that's what makes us queasy.
AT: Queasy, yes! I think I wanted something where the reader was constantly unsure of the tone, and therefore of her own reaction to that tone. As if cadenzas of advanced thinking could emerge from a terrible premise, or the other way round -– that cadenzas of advanced and subtle thinking could end up at a terrible conclusion. Like, I enjoy one moment where he mentions “the vast wisdom that any person who has once entered your life should never be dismissed from it. Those who don’t talk to people they slept with even just once are cowardly or strange, I think, while if I were ever a Communist and wanted to resign from the Party I would do it with a gentle grace -– because why antagonize for no reason?” Because of course, infidelity is a moral wrong, but once it’s happened, then there are better or worse ways of behaving, and the better ways may lead to even more complication.

In everything I write, I’m just realizing, at least on the spectacle level of plot, the motor tends to be this utopian wish in my characters to maintain multiple loyalties at once. I mean, who doesn’t want to form an ideal community?

GS: Yet he’s all talk, our putative hero, entertaining and intelligent. The wit and chatter a stab at prettifying his misdeeds and/or a substitute for action. One of your clever tricks is to render the majority of his observations as quick-witted but glib ... a little over-egged and loopy and funny, then to stud them with sucker-punches, pearls of wisdom nearly snowed under by a hyper-articulate, semi-persuasive stream of consciousness. A Talmudic imagination led down the garden path? Are his smarts (book smarts, not street smarts) the root of his troubles?
AT: Absolutely. See above, etc. But also, I think what’s interesting is how he’s almost pushed aside by his own thinking. Everything inside him is so hyper that he can’t control it, and I wonder how much here I was trying to do some kind of hidden allegory of the digital. I do sometimes feel that we live in this hyperbolically verbal world, of Twitter feeds and blog posts, not to mention the articles and novels and interviews and leaked movie scripts … So it’s not just on the moral level that this stream of consciousness digresses, but something even more disturbing too -– as if the riffs and comic bits of his consciousness displace him from all his recognized categories. And when that happens, no wonder he might react with fear and terror.

GS: Which is perhaps a good moment to mention the drugs. These people are serious about their casual use. They switch it up -- monomaniacal devotion to one substance, they, we, all know wrecks you -- so as to keep going. But the underlying temptation is the same for all drug-takers: control freakery and fear of pain –- a trigger-happy coping mechanism, perhaps. What do your characters' choice of drugs tell us about their milieu? Why do they like the K-hole?
AT: I think one unexamined topic, by which I mean not properly examined, is our general use of stimulants and body alterations, what the trans philosopher Beatriz Preciado recently called the pharmacopornographic era. These small digital alterations –- whether narcotic or hormonal -– seem to represent a new aspect of the human condition, just as much as the giant miasma of the Internet. We need a kind of natural history of drugs, I think, something that makes it obvious how ordinary and human they are, how they’re used for such a variety of minute reasons –- not just the banned substances, but the prescription ones as well. My characters resort to drugs in this novel the way a novelist might resort to a new scene … They’re a way of changing up the locale. As for what that says: I think evasion is one of the things I was trying to describe in this novel. And a basic sense of boredom or ennui.

And also, the drugs were a hint of an overall dreamlike atmosphere -– which I guess I already mentioned in that idea of a London that’s been tropicalized. They were just one more way in which reality was in a constant process of being melted all around us.

I’m suddenly wondering: I think decadence is another un-chic category that needs further thinking. It has such retro connotations, but it’s not impossible that this era in which we live is a decadent era, by which I mean something where sensual pleasure is everywhere, even in the most elegant ethical or philosophical thinking. This narrator gets turned on by trying to understand his situation, just as much as he does by all the lurid happenings around him: the drugs, the sex, the everyday bohemia …

GS: He's looked after by women -- his mother, his girlfriends -- who cosset him, fret over his delicate emotions, love and forgive him. Yet vestigial ape-traits remain. He's jealous of male rivals, a reaction he's shy about. His self-awareness and progressive politics muddle and muffle his top-dog ambitions. As a younger person, was he ever victor or victim in a schoolyard scuffle? “There’s nothing more life-affirming,” says Bob in Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy," “than getting the shit kicked out of you.” But since our narrator stumbles into, rather than organizes, an orgy, he can’t punch the man with the bigger penis in the throat.
AT: I love the idea that I’d know his entire childhood! What does he say about his high school? -– “For our school was basically a country club, if by country club you can also imagine the hypereducation at a small renaissance court. And also that it was devoted to the various halfies and mestizos, the octoroons and griffes: all the anxious children and grandchildren of immigrant peoples. Everything we were taught was to erase all differences between people …” I’m not sure there were any scuffles there: or if there were, then he avoided them.

GS: But is his a masculine psyche in crisis? Is the bad boy schtick, the stick-ups, sublimation: does it make him feel sexy? He's emotive, polite, sensitive, and repressed. Did he miss the bad-boy boat?
AT: I guess I just think that male is too small a category. And as for his male-ness, it’s almost the other way round, he’s so aware of his masculinity and the danger of its desires that he finds those desires almost unspeakable: “I find it difficult, to know how to want to sleep with a girl without it being scary or very wrong, like I am the person skinning a woman alive and displaying her hide. I am the primeval swamp and all its swampiness …” If this novel represents a crisis, I think it’s more than the masculine psyche. It’s, I hope, more universal: a crisis of knowing how to care.

I mean, in this trio of novels I’ve finished, vast obscenity coexists with a rarefied moral sense. And I guess the basic problem is: Where is freedom located? Is it in that vast obscenity, or in the free play of your intelligence? I’ve always thought that happiness is the secret subject of every novel, and the least regarded. And the problem with happiness, as this hero or devil of mine says, is “how often it requires the cooperation of other people.” How do you construct a network without upsetting other people? Or a utopia –- or a novel?