Vernon God Little
It is remarkable just how much journalists can get away with writing about the author during book reviews, to the detriment of any analysis of the novel itself. Last year's Booker prize-winner DBC 'Dirty But Clean' Pierre is a paradigm example. His drug-fuelled, boozy past as a gambler and lousy friend attracted far more column inches than the book itself, as if this somehow told us more about the novel than an assessment of the actual book.
Arguably there are good reasons for this. It is not at all certain that DBC Pierre does stand apart from the character of Vernon. It is indeed possible that the voice of the protagonist is little more than a marginally altered version of the voice of the author. Maybe it's because DBC Pierre still inhabits the mind of a young child. This suspicion will be strengthened if a follow up novel also fails to demonstrate that Pierre can project himself convincingly into the mind of a different character. Regardless of this (and of speculation about the author's limitations), as a novel Vernon God Little does stand on its own, albeit wobbly, two feet.
Throughout the novel, there are many plays on Vernon Little's middle name 'Gregory': 'Vernon Gone-To-Hell Little'; 'Vernon Gonzalez Little'; 'Vernon Gucci Little'; 'Vernon Godzilla Little'. The 'God' however, comes from the final words spoken to him by Vasalle, the axe murderer Vernon had mistakenly thought was a preacher. 'You're the God. Take responsibility. Exercise your power.' (p260) Vernon's thoughts repeatedly go back to these final words of Lasalle's, and Pierre cements their significance in the book's title.
Vernon God Little is equally lauded and criticised by critics as a satire of contemporary middle-America. This has led critics such as Erica Wagner in The Times (15 October 2003) to dismiss it as a 'stale novel' with 'little new to say'. Certainly it does ridicule many traits and obsessions predominant in America, but it is better to see this simply as the backdrop for the presentation of the character of Vernon Little. To prioritise the political and cultural satire is to misunderstand the intention of the novel.
Let us instead go back to another popular 'satirist' Michael Moore, who in Bowling for Columbine interviews Marilyn Manson and asks him what he would say to the boys responsible for the Columbine massacre were they alive and in the room with them. Manson responds 'I wouldn't say anything. I would listen to them, because that's exactly what no-one else did.' It is better to see Vernon God Little as attempting to provide a voice for these boys, who, like Vernon, are trying to grow up in a world where the caricatures of satire are actually quite realistic portraits.
Many have pointed to Catcher In The Rye as a precursor to Vernon God Little. Doubtless Pierre used this as a template, but what is important is what is different about the respective situations of Holden Caulfield and Vernon Little. The common characteristic of both, however, is that they have a general dissatisfaction with the society that they have been born into and the way it attempts to school them. 'My face caves in. This is how I'm being grown up, this is my fucken struggle for learnings and glory. A gumbo of lies, cellulite and fucken "Wuv".' (p80)
Vernon fits snugly into the canon of 'outsiders' identified by Colin, a young outsider himself in the 1950s. Something during Vernon's upbringing has caused a rupture that forces him perpetually to reflect upon his actions and define himself not so much against, but outside, the society he is in. He feels a void of distance between himself and others who inhabit American society without that self-awareness. This is articulated on page 71 when he says: 'What I'm starting to think is maybe only the dumb are safe in this world, the ones who roam with the herd, without thinking about every little thing. But see me? I have to think about every little fucken thing.'
Earlier in the book he celebrates the fact that he ceases to think when he becomes overwhelmed by anger - although he is only overwhelmed for very short periods (p41). Vernon sees himself as condemned to reflect. He despises, rather than envying, those who don't, but he sees his critical distance from the world as a hindrance to his success in it. To paraphrase Nietzsche, however, Vernon doesn't think too much, he simply thinks badly. Indeed he isn't as philosophically aware as he thinks he is, which is perhaps is what saves him. Jesus, for example, would muse endlessly on the tit-bits of Kant thrown to him during lessons, whereas Vernon would be amused by the German pronunciation of his name 'a-manual-cunt'.
Pierre is suggesting that if one reflects too well, then one bottles things up too much because of a lack of recognition from others. As a result, one reaches a breaking point and snaps. Vernon is at an earlier stage of intellectual development. He often describes his thoughts coming to him as 'waves', which betrays a lack of control. Intellectual maturity surely implies a controlled self-awareness. Vernon's lack of control and structure for his thoughts, his lack of a totalising self-awareness (that can only really come through lived experience) is manifested in his attempts to curb his thoughts by indulging his baser, physical passions: anger, alcohol, drug-fuelled pleasure and sexual lust.
He has no-one who can help him refine his thoughts - indeed, since, as he complains, Eminem's CDs are banned in his local supermarkets, he doesn't even have the consolation of hearing his own situation reflected in a raw form. And there is nobody to correct his language. Many of the bigger words he uses are malapropisms. He understands the meanings behind words like 'skate goat', but has had no-one to tutor him in their proper pronunciation.
Vernon has not yet reached adult intellectual maturity, but he also hasn't reached the stage where he has the positive material freedoms of being an adult. He is locked into place as a teenager by invisible psychic 'knives' jabbed in him by his mother, friends and teachers. He also has no money. He can only save up the 'coupons' of plans until he has the positive freedom of an adult, when he is in a position actually to redeem them. (p71)
Martirio, the town where he lives, is as much as a jail for Vernon as the literal jail he ends up in. The trap of a job that will, as his mum says, 'make you happy', or the obsessive indulgence in fetishes like continually buying commodities (such as fridges) or in sexual fantasies about young girls, are as real a death for Vernon as the lethal injection he almost gets later in the novel. Vernon's great downfall is his innocence, his lack of totalising self-awareness.
Throughout the novel he trusts people far too much: he takes Lally on his word that he will film a story that will help him. He trusts his mum not to make the comment about 'loving a murderer', and (more significantly) he trusts her when she tells him not to mention the second gun. He trusts Taylor with his whereabouts in Mexico. He even has trust in the fact that the 'truth' will out in the courtroom and in the jail cell and this only happens, absurdly, through an analysis of shit.
But this trust is always founded on a naive assumption that the people who have known him through his life understand him. All the people in Martirio, however, just know him through their observations of his actions:he is a quiet, passive young boy. This is his great flaw because unless he articulates what he thinks (and this is largely due to the fact that people wouldn't listen and thus he doesn't see the importance of it) no one could understand him. His mother betrays this when she says she would love her son even if he was a murderer. She does love Vernon, but Vernon-as-her-son rather than a love of Vernon generated through an understanding of him as an individual.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when Lasalle fluently articulates Vernon's situation without even knowing him, Vernon thinks he has the 'wisdom' of a preacher. Vernon is remarkably stoic about this, retreating into himself and adopting the stance that one should accept the fate of circumstances outside of one's control. The difference between the two outsiders Jesus and Vernon is that Jesus reacts against society by lashing out, whereas Vernon retreats inwards and plans for his escape.
Through planning this escape he actually develops a 'dream' - his dream of Mexico. This 'dream' is the only time Vernon aspires to be anything in the novel. DBC Pierre idealises Mexico and draws a sharp contrast between it and the rigid, fearful individualism predominant in American society. Vernon can resign himself to 'Mexican Fate' because Mexico is the one thing he can trust. In Mexico, he has a fair exchange with men in a bar who want his sneakers. Kids are happy enjoying the 'Simple things in Life' at the age of ten (p180). He develops a close friendship with Pelayo even through their great cultural differences. Indeed Pelayo is perhaps the only true friend of Vernon's in the entire book (expect perhaps Ella, who's loving innocence he warms to at the end).
In Mexico Vernon claims he could change his name, 'but it's still me, without any trace of the slime around.' (p188) Mexico allows Vernon to be himself, without being corrupted - this can be seen in his observation about what the Mexican-born Lally has been transformed into upon crossing the border to the US. At one point he asks ironically, 'What difference is there in his genes that he ended up so twisted?' (p175)
It is ironic, thus, that the person he could trust to give testimony of his whereabouts was dismissed from an American court because Vernon told an unimportant white lie and gave Pelayo a false name. Vernon continually exists as an actor in America, detached from his true self. Nowhere does this come out more than in his attempts to seduce Taylor through pretending to be 'dangerous'. He continually gives people what he thinks they want from him, rather than himself.
Christina Patterson in the Independent (2 July 2004) quotes someone saying that the difference between Vernon Little and Holden Caulfield is that Caulfield is 'more articulate and goes through struggles that mean something in the end'. This is to present a deeply flawed understanding of Pierre's characterisation of Vernon and to abstract the characters out of their historical context. Holden Caulfield was at least going to a school that had the ideal of making students more articulate, rather than one full of nutty teachers who mock their charges. Holden, in his society (and we must remember New York is very different to Texas culturally, even forty years ago) has far greater opportunities for his 'learning' than Vernon.
Vernon does gain something from his struggle: firstly a dream, the dream of Mexico. The dream of a trusting, welcoming, understanding community. The dream element must here be emphasised. It is not that important whether or not Mexico embodies this in reality and the saccharine sweet descriptions of idyllic communities by the beach reek of a very acute case of delusion either on behalf of Pierre or Little (or both). Secondly an awareness, articulated by Lasalle, of his own agency and, with that, a sense of responsibility.
Vernon becomes 'God Little' because he realises he can exact influence upon people and that, rather than shirking away and bottling his dissatisfaction up in a passive internal world, he can use what he describes as the 'very American' trait of assertiveness, and attempt to change things. Not that there is any suggestion about how things could be changed, but this is beyond the mandate of the book. In order to find ways of changing the world, one must first have a reason for doing so. Without a belief in the transformative power of human agency, friendship and community what would be the point?
will be reviewing all 22 books on the 2004 Man Booker Prize longlist
over the next few weeks.