DBC Pierre: ‘You can be shut down from life because of one mistake’

DBC Pierre is the author of seven books, including Release the Bats, a guide to writing fiction, and Vernon God Little, which won the Booker prize in 2003. At the ceremony, Pierre (born Peter Finlay in Australia in 1961) pledged his prize money to friends he had duped during an itinerant past life as a self-confessed conman and addict; his initials stand for Dirty But Clean. He spoke to me from his current home in Cambridgeshire, where he wrote his latest novel, Meanwhile in Dopamine City, a satirical dystopia about a widowed sewage worker struggling to raise two children in an age of digital innovation run riot.

What led you to send up big tech and the internet, or “the grid”, as it’s called in the book?
I’d love to write a book about butterflies or something, but I [got] so incensed about what’s happening. About five years ago it became clear that for many reasons the notion of us all having a voice [online] was going to take a different route than we had expected, because of brain chemistry and mob culture and what suited the profit motive… I’m not in any way a technophobe: this is about the extremely alarming agenda behind [online] technologies. We’re running around saying we suddenly have a voice [but] the internet infantilises you – you’re automatically a teenager when you use any of these [social media] tools. They are geared that way: we’re creatures who love an idea much more than a fact, and so we can ignore a whole lot of facts. As a novelist I’m daunted because it’s impossible… well, it was impossible to write satire 20 years ago, to be fair.

You’re finding your creative resources more stretched than when you wrote Vernon God Little?
Oh yeah, for sure. I made the mistake, for about a year of writing this, of thinking, I’m just gonna look five, 10 years ahead. So I invented some cool stuff; by the end of that year, all of those [made-up] technologies were old news.

Early on in the book, the protagonist finds himself branded an abuser after he smacks his daughter.
Lonnie was brought up in a liberal world of second chances. My life is built from second chances; I wouldn’t be speaking to you but for having been forgiven and helped off the floor and back on my feet. I believe that’s the correct way, [but] that’s being thrown out very quickly. You can be shut down from life on the basis of one mistake.

Lonnie is worried that his daughter is growing up too fast…
He’s like a Commodore 64, and his code suddenly doesn’t run on the modern system, whereas the kids are born with Windows 10, and he’s got to work out that code. He’s been symbolically down in a tunnel during the years of change, working in the sewers – I had to put him in a physical tunnel to make that [symbolism] stick – and now he’s above ground forcibly [he loses his job] and discovering that the world has shifted. He’s justifiably concerned. It’s bound to be the feeling of a person from my generation, but my feeling is that [Lonnie’s] coding was more benign and noble than we give it credit for, and endowed with more freedom.

When Lonnie gets a smartphone for the first time, the text in the book splits into two columns. You put a staggering amount of work into this: not just the main action on the left but the increasingly crazy stream of rolling news on the right…
Eighteen months to do that right-hand column! It was the only way I could think to capture the experience of diffuse attention and distraction. It’s not going to work for everyone. My original draft actually meant to rewire your brain: those [right-hand] columns were completely relevant and you had to work out whether to read the whole left-hand side and go back, or whether to read left and right across every page, breaking the experience of the narrative. Now you can skim it or ignore it and stay on the left-hand column; that was an editorial suggestion which I think worked very well. It’s been a nightmare, the pagination: one comma in the first of those columns would throw off 200 pages. Everyone is quite happy to see the fucking thing published!

What are you reading at the moment?
I love early 19th-century or 20th-century writing. Nuances were much more important and you could spend a sentence or two to absolutely describe a feeling. Now we’ve got, you know, the smiley face… Recently my indulgence has been Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted, the first volume in his huge [historical] saga about the life of a Transylvanian count, his fortunes, his romances. Also Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which I didn’t read at any point writing this book, but now it’s kind of underpinning what’s gone into the narrative about the dangers of big tech.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I was lucky enough to have my parents read to me at bedtime every day, which primes the imagination early on. My father was a very positive man – those bedtime books were things like The Little Engine That Could, which was a tool for later survival. As soon as I could read by myself I devoured the standard kids’ adventures until the age of about 11 when, for unknown reasons, and probably to do with the size of the book (I hated when they ended) I bought a massive hardback of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. This was pivotal because it was suddenly about real grownup life, in real grownup language, and was unparalleled exotica compared to The Hardy Boys.