This novel starts off annoying in one way, becomes annoying in a whole other way, and ends up as probably the most annoying book of 2020. But what did you expect? Booker winner DBC Pierre has always been a literary brat – explosive, funny, exhausting, hurling the stuff of the universe together and daring the reader to make sense of it all. And if in the end the book is too obvious in its sloganeering and too opaque in its storytelling, well, you can’t say Pierre hasn’t gone all out in trying to give you a good time.
Meanwhile in Dopamine City is set in the imminent future, in an unnamed company town that functions as a kind of city state. The characters are tethered via their phones and devices to a virtual world of judgment, surveillance and misinformation – so far, so Facebook. This parallel plane of gamification and punishment is the Dopamine City that gives the book its title. “Every second an arm like a blade combs the surface of the earth for dopamine, yours and mine, our whims and arguments, our relationships with others, our attempts at love, our anger, our caring, to embezzle it as revenue for a dozen male college dropouts,” warns Dr Cornelia Roos, a sceptical technologist hired by the company to figleaf its activities.
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.”
This incident leads to the end of Lon’s digital resistance. 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.
The first annoying thing about Dopamine City is that it’s written in a mode of relentless excess. There are figures of lovely unexpectedness. “The door opened, warmth fell out” is how Pierre describes Lon entering a building on a cold day, an image both deliciously recognisable and vividly new. There are witty bits. When Lon meets his neighbour for the first time, he notes her appearance: “Folksy scarf and rustic bangles meant she gave a shit about libraries.”
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 interaction is not so rewarding as to make it feel worth the effort, however: scroll down one column, jerk back up to begin the next, lose the thread, reach out restlessly for my own phone, the enemy of engrossment. It is clever to make a novel about the distractions of technology mimic those distractions, but the trick only becomes exciting towards the end when the newsfeed twists itself into a sadistic commentary on Lon’s life (an antecedent here might be Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, where the inner monologue of the overdosing narrator typographically entwines with a voice claiming to be God).
Distractible is a good word for the whole novel. Bits of story are offered, snatched away, whirled into the storm. There are tweet-proportioned reflections on influencers, on shaming, on the sameness of human behaviour: Lon “saw how orbital people were, circling and talking but all doing the same thing as each other”. At one point it threatens to become a conspiracy thriller; at another, an SF nightmare. Neither comes off.
The trouble is, if Dopamine City is a plea to get out of virtual Dodge and return to the material – and it seems fair to say Pierre thinks the internet is bad and the people who run it are worse – the version of the “real world” it offers is bloodless and flat. Lon may crave an analogue existence for himself and his family, but scantly drawn as they are, they aren’t exactly convincing ambassadors for it.
• Meanwhile in Dopamine City is published by Faber (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.